What Is the Climax of a Story? [Definition and Examples]

climax of a story

Key Takeaways:

  • In a story, the climax is the turning point where tensions peak and the main conflict happens, and begins its resolution.
  • The main character often needs to confront their greatest challenge in this part of the story.

Basically, the climax is the dramatic high that sets the stage for the story’s conclusion.

Click to go directly to my favorite examples in movies and books!

When you are writing a novel, screenplay, or short story, the climax is one of the most important aspects.

When I think about some of my favorite films or novels – Predator, Rocky, The Shining, and Odd Thomas, among others – the climax stands out as a pivotal moment in each story. It’s the moment when all the events of the story come to a head, and the outcome of the story is decided for better or worse.

Even as a newbie writer, I would try to envision what the climax would look like for each of my stories before I wrote a single page. And it’s something I still do to this day.

For some of my stories, like One Time Hero, I knew from the get-go how I wanted it to end and what the most exciting scene should look and feel like going into that ending. But for other stories, like my psychological thriller movie Spin the Wheel, for example, I agonized over the climax and how to best capture the tension and excitement needed to bring the conflict to a satisfactory end.

After all, the climax can make or break a story, so it’s essential to get it right.

In this article, we will discuss what the climax is and how to write it effectively. We’ll also look at some examples from popular stories and films to help you understand how it works!

What Is The Climax of a Story?

infographic describing the meaning of a story climax

The climax of a story is the point of greatest tension or drama, where the main conflict is resolved. It is the moment when the protagonist must confront his or her greatest challenge, and it is often a major turning point in the story.

The climax is usually followed by a resolution period in which the tension is released, plot points are shored up, and the story’s events are concluded.

Whether it is a huge battle or a deeply personal and internal struggle at the crux of the central conflict and the final showdown, that depends on the story, and the stakes can be as large or small as the plot and character arc demand. Good dramatic structure tells us that, regardless of scale or whether the main character wins or loses, it should be the most riveting point preceding the ending.

For example, in a fantasy epic, the climax might be the final swordfight between the young hero and the evil king, while in mystery novels, it is the part where the real killer is unveiled while in an introspective drama, it could be the moment when the frail heroine decides to stand up to her emotionally abusive mother at last.

In many stories, the climax is also when the reader learns the fate of the protagonist or hero. For this reason, the climax is often seen as the most essential part of the entire story.

How to Write The Climax of A Story

The climax is the point of greatest tension in a story, often the dramatic turning point that leads to the resolution. While it’s often thought of as the big “action scene,” the climax can be more subtle, such as a character coming to an important realization or attempting to overcome some inner demon.

Regardless, the climax is a very important part of the overall story structure. It’s the moment when everything comes together – or falls apart – and heightens the emotions of both the characters and the reader.

So, how do you make sure your story’s climax makes sense and is everything it should be? Here are a few tips:

infographic on how to write a story's climax scene
  • Build up to it gradually. The climax should be the culmination of all that has come before, so make sure to lay the groundwork in earlier scenes and chapters.
  • Make it believable. It can be tempting to go for an over-the-top, Hollywood-style ending, but if it doesn’t fit your story’s tone and style, it will stick out like a sore thumb.
  • The climax should be a turning point for the characters, not just a series of events. There should be an emotional resolution, or at least an understanding, between them.
  • The climax should be ignited by the protagonist’s actions, not just external forces beyond their control. They should actively strive towards their goal, even if it seems hopeless.
  • The stakes should be high in the climax – both for the characters and the reader. What is at stake if they fail? How will their lives change?
  • Don’t rush it! The climax is a critical moment, so take your time and let it unfold naturally. Don’t try to force it – instead, let the characters and the story dictate the pace.

The Role of the Climax in Story Structure

The climax is often thought of as the most exciting part of a story, the pivotal moment at which all the tension and main conflict come to a head.

However, the climax is also an important structural element, resolving the various plot threads and bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

In many ways, the climax can be seen as the opposite of the story’s beginning, which typically introduces the various characters and sets up the central conflict via the inciting incident, where the hero truly begins their journey. While the beginning may be full of possibility, the climax is often a moment of certainty in which the outcome is decided.

In each case, the protagonist makes an active decision – first, to go on the journey following the inciting incident, and then, before the climax, to face their biggest opposing force in the supreme climactic moment of the story.

As such, a great story must have a strong pivotal moment to achieve a sense of resolution and closure. Without it, both the story arc and the protagonist’s character arc may feel unfinished or unresolved.

Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s Pyramid is a visual representation of the basic elements of a good story arc. Outlined by German writer, Gustav Freytag, in his 1852 book Technique of the Drama, it has five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

freytag's pyramid

The exposition is the beginning of the story when the main characters and setting are introduced.

The rising action is the part of the story when the tension builds and the stakes become higher.

The climax is the dramatic turning point of the story when the conflict reaches its height and is resolved.

The falling action is the part of the story after the climax when the tension begins to dissipate, and everything is wrapped up.

The denouement (or resolution) is the very end of the story when all loose ends are tied up.

rising falling action in a story

Freytag’s Pyramid is a helpful tool for understanding how a story is structured and how to create suspense and tension.

While similar to the three-act structure outlined by Plato in Poetics, there are marked differences between the 3-act plot structure diagram and Freytag’s Pyramid, particularly in terms of the length of rising action, the point of occurrence of the climax, and the length of falling action (as illustrated in the diagrams above).

The Importance of a Climax in a Story

A story without a climax is like a journey without a destination. The reader is left feeling unsatisfied, wondering why they bothered to embark on the journey in the first place.

A climax is essential to a story because it is the moment of greatest tension and suspense when all of the conflicts come to a head, and the protagonist must face their greatest challenge. This is what makes a story truly exciting and worth reading.

Without a good climax, a story has poor plot structure and feels unfinished, as if the author has failed to reach the end of their own journey.

A climax is essential to a story because it is the moment when the reader finally gets to see whether the protagonist will triumph or fail and what the consequences of their actions will be.

It is the moment when all the tension and suspense is finally released, after which the reader can take a deep breath and relax.

What Happens After the Climax?

While the climax of a story is often the most exciting part, it’s not the final chapter. It is the pivotal moment where the protagonist faces off against the antagonist, addressing the central conflict head-on.

But what comes next? Enter the “falling action.” This phase follows the climax and starts to wind things down. It’s where the aftermath of the climax’s events unfolds, and the story begins its journey towards a conclusion. The falling action helps bridge the intense peak of the climax to the story’s resolution, smoothing out the narrative and guiding us toward the end of the story.

The resolution, then, is the final touch. It ties up any loose ends, gives us a glimpse into the characters’ futures, and offers closure. It’s the part of the story that leaves readers with a sense of completion. This is often done by revealing what happens to the characters after the climax or showdown.

  • Did they learn from their experience?
  • Did they grow as people?
  • How did the conflict change them and/or their world?

The author can provide a satisfying conclusion to the story by answering these questions. In many ways, the resolution is just as important as the climax and should not be rushed or glossed over.

Can I Skip a Climax in My Story?

In literature, a climax is typically the moment of most tremendous tension in a story, when the protagonist faces their deepest fear or most significant challenge. The climax is often followed by a resolution period in which the characters can process the story’s events and tie up loose ends.

However, there are some cases where it may be appropriate to skip the climax altogether. If there is no climax, this would likely be due to one of two reasons:

  1. The story has no inherent conflict and no need for a climax.
  2. The author purposely intends to leave the conflict unresolved.

For example, if the story is primarily character-driven, the writer may choose to focus on individual experiences lacking conflict rather than a traditional hero’s journey.

Alternately, skipping the climax can create a sense of mystery or suspense, leaving readers anticipating some future undefined resolution to come. This can be useful if you are aiming for an ambiguous ending.

Ultimately, whether or not to include a climax in a story is a decision for the author to make based on the needs of their particular tale.

books on a shelf

How to Write a Climax for a Subplot

Every story has a main plot, which is the central conflict and main problem that drives the story forward, and subplots, which are smaller conflicts that support the main plot.

Each subplot should have its own beginning, middle, and end. The climax is the high point of the subplot when the conflict comes to a head and is resolved. It’s important to make sure that each subplot makes sense and feels complete.

Here are a few tips to help you write a powerful climax for your story’s subplots:

  1. Raise the stakes. In the climax of a story, everything is on the line. Ensure that the stakes are high enough for readers to be invested in the outcome.
  1. Build tension. Throughout the story, foreshadow the climax and build anticipation for it. Then, in the climax itself, pay off that tension with a shocking reveal and an exciting resolution.
  1. Show character growth. The best climaxes are ones in which the characters learn and grow from their experiences. In the climax of a subplot, show how your characters have changed and what they’ve learned from their journey.
  1. Be creative. There’s no one right way to write a climax. Get creative and experiment with different ways to resolve the conflict.
Neil’s Take

The best stories will resolve the subplot climax at or about the same time as the main climax.

Think of Star Wars, where Han Solo’s arc comes to a head at the same time as the grand finale of the whole movie. Han Solo returns at a pivotal moment (the climax of his character’s subplot), where Luke is at his most vulnerable. Han’s actions directly impact the main climax of the movie, and add to Luke’s arc.

Examples of a Climax in A Story

Warning: Spoiler Alert!

Let’s look at story climax examples from films with great good guys and detestable bad guys!

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

In a bid to save his friends from certain death at the hands of the Empire, Luke cuts his Jedi training short and comes face to face with Darth Vader.

Though woefully unprepared, he puts up a valiant fight in a heart-pounding lightsaber battle, leading to the penultimate moment where he loses his hand, and Vader reveals a shocking truth. It is easily the most exciting moment in the film, if not the entire trilogy of the original Star Wars films.

A Few Good Men

In a courtroom drama full of mysteries and surprises, the entire case – and two men’s lives – hinges on one explosive moment between Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessup. It’s tense, exciting, and everything you would ask for in a dramatic climactic scene.

Based on Aaron Sorkin’s hit play, this film proves that an exciting climax doesn’t need big set pieces, gunfights, or explosions. Sometimes, just having two characters talking is enough.

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Final Thoughts

The climax of a story is the most exciting and memorable part. It’s the turning point that makes readers want to keep reading until the end.

To create an unforgettable climax, make sure that you plan out your story carefully and really think about what’s going to happen to your characters after the climax.

Happy writing!

Common Questions (FAQs)

What is an example of the climax of a story?

In Goldilocks and The Three Bears, the climax occurs when Baby Bear returns home and finds his porridge eaten and his chair broken. This leads to the big moment of confrontation between the bears and Goldilocks, which leads to her being chased out of the house. In The Hunger Games, the climax occurs when Katniss faces off against Peeta in the final battle. This leads to her realizing that she doesn’t want to win if it means Peeta’s death, and she and Peeta make a final stand against the gamemasters.

How do you find the climax of a story?

Looking for the climax in a story? Well, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But here’s a tip: watch for the story heating up with rising tension and big plot twists. The climax is often that “wow” moment near the end of this build-up. And trust your gut! If a part feels super intense or emotional, you’re probably right there at the climax.

Does climax mean end?

The climax doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a story. It’s the peak where the main character confronts their greatest challenge and makes a pivotal decision. While it’s a significant turning point, it marks the beginning of the character’s evolved journey, showcasing their growth and lessons learned. So, while it concludes one aspect, it sets the stage for new beginnings.

What is another word for the climax of a story?

Another word for the climax of a story is “apex” or “culmination.” Additionally, it can also be referred to as the “crisis” or “turning point” of the narrative.

What’s the rising action of a story?

The rising action of a story is the part that comes after the introduction and sets up the conflict. This is where the reader gets to know the characters and their motivations and starts to see how they will react to the obstacles in the story. The rising action usually builds to a climax, which is the moment when everything comes to a head and the conflict is resolved.

Interested in learning more about great storytelling? Check out these other helpful articles!

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