There are six steps in creating a classic climax structure, and they’re designed to deliver optimal reader entertainment.
STEP 1: The Choice. The protagonist should be boxed in or cornered or confronted by the antagonist. The antagonist has the upper hand and will offer the protagonist a choice of two courses of action. Neither alternative should be good. Even if one of the choices looks attractive, it should come at an extremely high cost.
Example: in the Dick Francis mystery novel, Odds Against, the protagonist is tied up by the villain and threatened with physical torture if he doesn’t tell where the incriminating evidence has been hidden. This is a simple either/or kind of choice. If Sid caves in and tells, he may save himself from agony, but the villain will get away with his crime. However, if Sid remains brave and courageously silent, he’s going to be beaten with a crowbar.
Never let the choice be an easy one.
STEP 2: The Decision. Often I refer to this as the sacrificial decision because that’s what the protagonist should do … surrender something dear. The very definition of hero carries the Greek meaning “sacrifice.” So the protagonist may have to sacrifice the story goal, or perhaps his life or reputation.
Example: in the climax to Suzanne Collins’s YA novel, The Hunger Games, the protagonist is willing to sacrifice her life.
In Odds Against, the protagonist chooses not to let the villain get away.
STEP 3: Action. Because people are filled with good intentions that they don’t always act upon, it isn’t enough for the protagonist to intend to do the right thing. Sacrifice is difficult, and at the last moment courage could fail. So it’s necessary for the protagonist to take irrevocable action, to burn her bridges, if you will. Then there’s no going back.
This is where the protagonist may suddenly spring at the antagonist, initiating a dangerous fight. This is where the protagonist may make a phone call, or verbally refuse the deal offered by the antagonist.
Example: in the film Pretty Woman, Vivian gathers up her clothing and leaves Edward’s penthouse suite in the luxurious hotel.
In the Dick Francis novel, Whip Hand, the protagonist activates a tape recorder and asks a witness to share information despite having been threatened with extreme violence if he doesn’t drop the investigation.
Whatever the protagonist does, it’s going to force the antagonist to carry out what was threatened in The Choice.
STEP 4: The Dark Moment. If a writer is doing her job well, this part of the story should look bleak, perhaps even dire. The story goal should appear lost. The story question should appear to be a no. It should look as though the protagonist has failed. An inexperienced writer will rush the Dark Moment, but a clever writer will not. This agonizing section of suspense is critical to the success of the climax. You must keep your readers enthralled here and not let them pull away.
Example: in the film Pretty Woman, the Dark Moment comes when Vivian and Edward spend their first night apart. They’ve been unable to agree. Edward wants her to become his mistress. She wants marriage and a committed relationship. She leaves (acting on her sacrificial decision). Her tearful ride back to her apartment shows her Dark Moment. She thinks she’s lost the man she’s fallen in love with, and she’s miserable.
In Odds Against, the Dark Moment occurs while Sid is enduring the beating.
[Steps 5 & 6 will be covered in my next blog.]