Welcome to Part Nine of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at the plot climax. For the earlier articles in the series, click on the links here, or check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss” in the sidebar to the right —>>>
All you have left to complete now, in the plot outline of your novel or short story, is the beginning of the end: Part 7 of the 8-part structure we outlined at the start. The Climax comes at the end of the series of Reversals that your characters have faced, which have created the central action of the story.
We are now at the crucial point to which the plot and any sub-plots have been leading and, if all the work you have done on The Beginning and The Middle have followed the plan, this section should more or less write itself – and fit neatly before Section 8, the final part of The End which you have already elucidated.
Whatever your genre or story, its climax must be gripping, tense, full of suspense and yet inevitable given the trajectory of the action and the development of the characters. The reader must expect some of what is coming, but be desperate to know how it will happen and which way the outcome will go. Whether it involves a declaration of love, a pitched battle, a race against time to stop the murderer or a personal revelation, a fictional climax is best played out as a dramatic set piece of choreographed action which involves all the facets of your novel.
The Characters are, of course, primary. Your hero/ine/s have been on a learning curve throughout the story: with each reversal they will either have been knocked back or (more usually) developed in strength and integrity. The climax is the final test in which they prove themselves (unless you are writing a tragedy), take control, use their new found knowledge and abilities for the best and finally turn around their circumstances. In order for it to matter to the reader, the confrontation of the climax must be a matter of literal or metaphorical life or death to the characters.
The action of this section will require a build-up, where the sequence of events develops, a crucial decision is made by the main character(s) to act, followed by the confrontation itself. This is where your characters’ internal transformation intersects with the outer plot that has made that transformation possible. Their moment of truth or revelation determines their course of action in the climax.
The Setting is also central to the climax. If the plot journey has been a physical or geographical one, your characters will have moved from the world in which they started their journey to the place of their new order. Part of their quest may have been to discover or travelled to a new environment, whether it’s a redecorated appartment, a new country or conquering another planet. The climax might also take the heroes into enemy or alien territory and their reaction to the setting will affect the action and outcome.
Whether the climactic setting is menacing or inspiring, reflects or counterpoints the characters’ emotions, or provides a dramatic backdrop through weather or scenery, make sure you use it to the full in developing the action and drawing the reader through the intensity of your story’s climax. Remember the notes you made on period, society, ethos and geography; reflect on how they have changed throughout your story, or remained static but changed the people within them. Make reference to them in your climax scenes, to draw all the threads of your story into a high point of descriptive writing.
Refer back, too, to The Themes you developed early on in your fiction ‘bible’. These should have been informing your plot development and will come to the fore in the climax scenes. To draw out your themes initially, you asked some questions, including: what does the reader know at the end of this story that they didn’t know at the beginning; and what do the characters learn as a result of their journey in this story? This is the time when these questions must be answered: the climax is the fulfilment of the promise you made to your readers when you invited them into your book.
Checking in with the themes you set out to address at the start will also help you bring the story to a close which is satisfactory to you, the characters and the reader. If, like me, you were always told at school to ‘answer the question’ posed in the essay title and not digress, you can use your themes in a similar way. If you find your climactic action getting untidy or losing focus, ask yourself how it relates to your key themes, and if it doesn’t, edit it out.
Your climax may build and peak over several linked events. To maximise the drama, visualise them as scenes in a movie and use all your senses – sight, sound, smell, and touch, as well as emotion – to describe them. Many novelists take this opportunity to create a dramatic set piece to bring all the characters together: a party, a public event, a battle, a crime scene. These need to be carefully plotted to weave different strands together, building tension, danger and expectation.
Remember, though, that not everything has to be explained in the climax. Crime fiction, for example, often uses the climax scenes to mislead the reader one last time. The police work out where the crime is to be committed, surround the murderer and her victim; the detective goes in to prevent the killing, but shot is fired and a scream heard. A tense climax – but the author may wait till the Resolution to tell the reader who was actually killed and by whom, and clarify the remaining unexplained pieces of information that brought the plot to its climactic point.
As you expand the notes you made on Section 7 from your 1-page plot outline into a one-to-two page chapter breakdown, take the time to plot your climax with great care and attention to detail. Think through the timing of each piece of action, the specific locations, the emotions and motivation of each character, the thematic significance of all aspects.
Now your story ‘bible’ is complete, we’ll get started on the real writing process next week.
Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…
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“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
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