This month, in her year long column on story structure and character arc, Fiona Harper looks at the climax of a story. What should it include and why is it important for your characters?
What is the climax of a story?
If you could frame your protagonist’s goal (or goals) as a question, the climax would be the answer to that question. Let’s look at some movie examples:
You’ve got Mail: Do the secret emailing companions find out the each other’s identity? (Yes!)
Sweet Home Alabama: Does Melanie finally divorce Jake and marry Drew? (No! She stays married to Jake)
Titanic: Do Rose and Jack get off the ship alive and live a life of adventure? (Yes and no…)
As you can see, the answer to the main question your story has been posing all along does not have to be answered in the affirmative for it to be a happy ending. Sometimes characters realise they were chasing after the wrong thing and realise they'll be happy with something else. Sometimes characters will fail to achieve their goal, but the emotional journey they've been on while pursuing it will turn out to be the real prize.
Typically, a story's different plot stands will all be wound up by the climax of the story, and to keep the suspense and tension high, subplots and less important strands are often wound up before the main question, but it really will depend on your story on what order you do it. Aside from the external plot, in a romance, the big question everyone wants to know is: will the hero and heroine end up together? You’ll have to work out whether to tie up the external plot first or the relationship plot.
Let’s have a look at again at our examples:
You’ve Got Mail: Cathleen meets her anonymous email companion in the park and discovers it’s Sam – so that question is answered first. Will she be angry and walk away or will they end up together? There’s a teary moment and then they kiss. Awww. Relationship question answered: they end up together.
Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie tells Drew she can’t marry him – not just because her divorce isn’t final, but because she’s really in love with someone else. However, she’s led Jake a merry dance throughout the film and we’re not sure he’s going to take her back at first when she goes to find him on the beach. Again, external plot sorted first, romantic relationship second.
And it’s the same in a lot of other films: Pretty Woman, French Kiss, Serendipity… My guess is that it happens this way in many films and books because the resolution of the external plot is often dependent on the character overcoming their flaw. Showing that they’ve dealt with that flaw in a concrete way, by resolving that situation signals to the audience/reader that they are now ready for a believable happy ever after. By this I mean that they have changed enough that we now believe the relationship will work long after we see the words "The End" and we're not worried it'll all turn sour in a couple of months.
In Titanic, we want to know if Jack and Rose are going to get off the ship alive together and live the life of adventure she longed for. In this instance, we know the resolution of the relationship and who lives and dies before the story is truly ended. It’s only when Rose is sitting shivering on the deck of the rescue ship, when she turns her face away from Cal, that she demonstrates she’s fully completed her arc. She’s not going back. She may not have Jack, but she’s going to live that life of adventure for both of them, but she could have gone back to her old life. Showing how she's changed shows how Jack has given Rose the key to her internal goal, and the reason that the ending is bittersweet rather than truly tragic is that we know she takes that courage and exuberance Jack showed her and applies it to her own life. So external plot and relationship question are answered first, but there was still one piece of the puzzle that needed to be slotted in. As I said, the order that different plot threads are tied in neat little bows will depend on the story.
Not everything has to be resolved in a climax, sometimes there is a sense of mystery about how a character is going to progress from that point. However, I truly believe that a story won’t be satisfying for readers if a protagonist doesn’t complete their character arc. That doesn't mean they have to finish the book in a state of perfection, but remember those flaws they had, those lessons they needed to learn? Make sure you show they’ve conquered them, at least partially. Make sure you show they’ve changed enough to deserve being sent off into the happy ever after with the hero/heroine, because that’s what provides the ‘ah’ factor at the end of the story, causing our readers to wipe a tear from their eyes and allow themselves a watery smile.
More on how to make sure your happy ever after is full of feelgood emotion next month!
Fiona's first single-title length book Kiss Me Under The Mistletoe is out now!
This Christmas, ex-WAG Louise Thornton is starting her new life, away from the paparazzi - and her cheating husband. Un-manicured, back on carbs and holding herself together courtesy of some seriously good foundation, Louise will make things perfect for her son, right up until he leaves for his dad's on the big day. Then she'll be free to curl up and cancel Christmas.
But it turns out escaping the fame goldfish bowl comes with some perks: peace and quiet, no baying press, plus regular battles with her Mr Darcy-esque new neighbour to keep her edge. And the best thing about a real, country Christmas is that there's always lots of mistletoe to be found…"
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