How To Write A Story Climax That Packs A Punch

astronaut in front of an explosion depicting the story climax of a book

Want to write a story that sticks with your readers long after they have finished reading? You should probably start writing at the end, with your story climax.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Your goal as an author is to leave your reader feeling satisfied and like you’ve told a complete story with a well-structured story arc. To do that, you need to make sure your climax wraps up the central conflict and packs a serious sucker punch.

Before we get into tips for writing climactic chills that will give your readers all the thrills, let’s examine what a climax actually is.

What is a story climax?

The story climax is one of the final scenes in your book. Its primary function is to resolve the central conflict in your story’s plot.

In other words, the climax should answer the question, Does your protagonist (main character) succeed or fail at achieving the external goal they’ve been chasing throughout the story?

Essentially, the reader will finish your climactic scenes and ask themselves whether you delivered the story you promised when they first read the flap copy on the back of your book.

Types of story climax

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of climax you can expect to find in a story:

  1. Crisis
  2. Catharsis
  3. Revelation

Let’s look at each of these to gain a clearer understanding of what they are and how they differ.

1. Crisis

These are the “big” climactic moments where the protagonist has to make a life-or-death decision, and they are common in genres like fantasy and thriller, where the story stakes usually center around life and death.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Fantasy)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneThe stakes in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are definitely life-and-death. If Harry doesn’t defeat Voldemort:

  • He will die
  • Voldemort will return to the wizarding world and kill a lot of innocent people

2. Catharsis

Catharsis is a release of suppressed emotion or some kind of emotional change for the better. You’ll often find cathartic story climaxes in novels that deal extensively with character growth: genres like romance and literary fiction are usually about catharsis.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (Contemporary Romance)

Hating Game book coverIn The Hating Game, which skyrocketed to success after it became a “Tik Tok Made Me Buy It!” read, the lesson Lucy needs to learn is to always stand up for what matters. She exhibits character growth when she stands up to Josh’s dad (who is not very pleasant) and tells him what an amazing man his son is.

3. Revelation

If you’re writing in a genre where a major secret needs to be revealed at the end of the story, then a revelatory climax will work best. This type of story climax features heavily in mystery novels, because they’re almost always about solving a crime, with the sleuth or detective revealing the culprit in the climax.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (Mystery)

Murder on the Orient Express book coverThere’s a famous scene in Agatha Christie’s famous Murder on the Orient Express (and indeed, pretty much every Poirot or Miss Marple novel) where the suspects are gathered together and Poirot reveals who the killer, or killers, are.

What role does the climax play in your story arc?

Before we take a peek at how important your climax is to the story arc, here’s a rundown of the key plot points in the story arc, and where the climax sits within that framework.Graph of a story arc

The inciting incident and plot point one

This is the life-changing event that disrupts your protagonist’s everyday world in such a way they can’t return to the way things were pre-inciting incident. It also introduces the main story conflict.

Otherwise known as the “point of no return,” plot point one is where your protagonist decides to leave their everyday world behind and engage in the central conflict of the story.

The middle and plot point two

The middle of your story is where you increase the stakes by making things harder for your protagonist. You also need to shift your protagonist from a reactive to an active state. Up until this point, your protagonist has been reacting to events as they occur.

From the midpoint on, they need to take an active role in influencing plot events.

Plot point two is where something terrible happens to your protagonist and they reach rock bottom. It seems like all hope is lost and they’ll never achieve their story goal.

The story climax

After bouncing back from the tragedy at plot point two, your protagonist faces their biggest obstacle yet and either succeeds or fails at achieving their story goal.

Following the climax, there is a short period of tying up loose plot threads and showing how much the protagonist (or the world around them) has changed as a result of going through the central story conflict. This is known as The Resolution.

The role of the story climax

The climax is arguably the most important moment in your novel because, if handled poorly, your story will fail to reach a satisfying conclusion. It’s also a huge turning point for your protagonist because we finally get to see them face their biggest obstacle.

Without a climax, there is no story because your protagonist would just carry on doing what they are doing. There’s no drama in that.

All roads lead to the climax, and the climax gives your protagonist something to strive for. It’s also the most suspense-filled sequence in your story, and where readers really sit up and take notice.

Whether your protagonist’s life/career/relationship/entire world is on the line, this is where your largest story stakes come into play.

Remember, everything you’ve written up to this point (all that juicy tension and conflict you’ve been ramping up since the inciting incident), has led your protagonist to this point. Disappoint readers here, and you’ll be lucky if they read your next book.

Three tips for a thrilling climax

The last thing you want is for your climax to flop. Incorporate these three things into your climax, and readers will be thinking about your story long after they put your book down.

1. Structure your story climax for maximum impact

How to Plot Your Novel book cover In my second craft guide for writers, How to Plot Your Novel: Outlining for Authors Made Easy, I share something I like to call “The Seven Secrets of a Show-Stopping Showdown,” which is my method for constructing a satisfying story climax.

Here are those 7 steps:

Step 1: The Preparation

There will be a period where the protagonist gathers everything/everyone they need to face the climax.

Step 2: The Pre-Showdown Jitters

No matter how much your protagonist has changed up to this point in the story, they haven’t completely conquered their internal flaw. This means they will experience some self-doubt about whether they have what it takes to “win.” Another character will usually give a pep talk to get the protagonist over their immediate fear.

Step 3: The First Attack

This is your protagonist’s first attempt at resolving the central story conflict, but there’s usually a threat of something bad happening, which leads us to…

Step 4: The Reversal of Fortune

Something bad happens to the protagonist and they experience a defeat where it seems as though they are going to fail (or a triumph, where it seems as though they’re going to win, if you’re writing a tragedy).

Step 5: The Transformative Lesson

Your protagonist finally realizes how they need to change if they’re going to succeed.

Step 6: The Victory (or defeat, if you’re writing a tragedy)

This is the climactic moment where (through their own actions) your protagonist either succeeds or fails to achieve their story goal.

Step 7: The Final Reaction

Whether the protagonist wins or loses, they’ve just experienced the most important moment of their life (as it relates to your story’s plot), so you need to humanize them by showing how they react to this.

tension and conflict graphic

2. Include the highest level of tension and conflict

Your climax should be the most exciting scene in your book. Readers should be on the edge of their seats and biting their fingernails. The best way to make that happen is to pack your climax with lots of tension and conflict.

  • Tension is the threat of something bad happening
  • Conflict is the bad thing actually happening

If your protagonist is walking alone in the woods at night and they hear a twig snap behind them, that’s tension, because the threat is that someone menacing might be following them.

If someone with ill intent is following your protagonist and they attack, that’s conflict, because the bad thing (the attack) is actually happening.

3. Make your climax have the highest stakes

The climax is your protagonist’s most important moment in the story because they finally find out (along with the reader) whether they have what it takes to achieve the story goal.

They need to face the highest stakes (or consequences) should they fail to achieve their story goal. Depending on your genre, the highest stakes might be:

  • Can your protagonist save the world from being consumed by the dark magician’s evil magic? [Fantasy]
  • Can your protagonist solve the crime before the killer murders again? [Mystery/Thriller]
  • Can your protagonist finally recognize they are worthy of love before their chance at love disappears altogether? [Romance]

If there are points in your novel that have greater tension and conflict than the climax, then that would suggest you have some editing to do.

Mistakes to avoid when writing a climax

Okay, so you know what you need to do to keep readers on edge throughout your climax, but what about the things you should avoid?

Avoid Deus Ex Machina (and don’t break your own rules)

A deus ex machina (God in the machine) is when a person or entity suddenly appears in a situation and provides an unnatural or manufactured resolution to a seemingly inescapable issue.

Make sure your protagonist solves the central story conflict themselves, whether through wit, cunning, or by some other means.

Similarly, if you’ve told readers that your protagonist can’t do something earlier in your story, they can’t “win” the climax by doing that thing.

  • If you’ve told readers your protagonist can’t use a gun, then they can’t be a perfect shot in the climax.
  • If you’ve told readers certain types of magic aren’t possible, then they can’t pull that rabbit out of the hat in the climax.
  • If you’ve told your readers your protagonist is afraid of flying and will never get on a plane (and you don’t have them conquer that fear through the course of the story) they can’t fly to another country to profess their undying love for another character.

Avoid rushing the climax

You need to give readers enough time to sink into the climax and enjoy it. This is the moment they’ve been reading up to for the entire story, after all. If your climax is too short, or the protagonist resolves the story conflict too easily, readers will feel cheated.

The climax is the most important moment in your story because (if you’re not writing a tragedy) it’s when the protagonist:

  • Finally changes for the better
  • Faces the toughest obstacles
  • Deals with the highest stakes
  • Makes the hardest decisions
  • Achieves their story goal

Whatever you do, don’t make your climax disappointing by making it too easy, too short, or too predictable.


Want to see if your climax is sitting in the correct place within your story arc? Sign up for a free trial of Fictionary today. Just upload your story and the software automatically generates your story arc for you. Use it to make sure your story pace and structure are right on target.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. The novel I published (400+ pages) was written in an unusual way. I wrote the last paragraph first, then a little at the beginning, then a little in the middle, etc. throughout the book. I created the story as my thoughts happened as I was writing to create the full story. I don’t write in order of first word, second word onto the last word. When you read my novel you can not read skipping around. It was designed as a puzzle. You skip, you miss a piece of information.

  2. Hi Shane,
    I have just purchased How to Plot your novel so am excited to read that.
    Does your book cover plotting across a series?
    Currently arguing with a 7 book fantasy series and it feels like an x7x80,000-piece jigsaw. Arrgghhhh.
    Or do you have coaching availability atm to help me with a few tips n pointers to get the story out of my head and separate Word docs for subplots/characters/world-building/madgick across a x7 book story arc? How to carve up the story etc??? Weave it together.
    Currently paralysed with overwhelm but the story is adamant that I should write it. It is being quite demanding.
    Kind regards,
    Katie

    • I’d love to hear Shane’s response to this question. Im also writing a series and would like more insight on how to tackle it across 7 books!

  3. Great article. I’ve read most of this before, but scattered across many articles. This is concise, helpful, and a reminder I have more work yet ahead than I’d hoped.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I’m a freelance writer and author. I’m currently working on a book about Love, Jealousy, Deception and Deceitfulness by measures of characters lifestyles.

  5. Shane, I have a Non-Fiction Story that sounds like Mythology (Joseph Campbell would be proud of me). I am a a weak Maji (and have the required Bright White Hair) who took the Hero’s Journey.

    However, it is non-fiction and is supported by five Ancient Prophets. The reverse is also true. My story supports Prophets going back Thirty-Five Hundred Years.

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