What is the function of a Climax?
To bring the rising action to an end with a satisfying bang that answers “the question” of the story.
Questions such as:
Will the hero get the girl?
Will good triumph over evil?
To reward the audience for paying attention through the buildup.
To mark the turning point from problem to solution/resolution, which helps the reader keep track of the plot progression.
To be the moment of release for the audience for the suspense and tension the author built up in previous scenes.
The climax should be the most exciting moment of your story. If your climax falls short of the buildup, failing to fulfill promises made to the reader, then it will be anticlimactic. But does an anticlimax mean a failed story resolution?
Only if you did it by accident.
An Anticlimax is merely a TYPE of climax, which can be rewarding in and of itself.
Accidental anticlimax: This is a result of bad writing, or rather poor plotting. The plot and subplots could have been overly complicated so no one plotline managed to break out and make an impact on your reader, or the plot was poorly conceived and simply had no real destination. Or… the story set up promises it didn’t keep by way of fizzling out or simply not addressing a resolution to a plot with a lot of buildup (think Jon Snow’s resolution vs what he was built up to be).
The solution to the story problem could turn out to be a big “So What?” such as in “it was all a dream” type stories. The resolution to the story may come with no real influence from your protagonist such as a deus ex machina, or your protagonist could die or simply quit the story before reaching his or her goals.
Superman. He flew around the earth counterclockwise to literally turn back time.
Lord of the Rings. The eagles.
War of the Worlds. The aliens just suddenly get a cold and fall over dead.
Examples of a Deus ex Machina done well
The Stand. Why? The hand of God does come down and solve all their problems, but this was always the only way the handful of good guys could defeat the big evil. They had to earn the intervention of God by progressing through the story in a righteous manner, suffering, and sacrificing knowingly in the service of good in the face of insurmountable evil. How to Use Deus Ex Machina like Stephen King
The Matrix Reloaded. Why? It is a literal god in the machine. You can’t get more meta than that.
Purposeful anticlimax: This is when the author intends an anticlimax as a matter of subversion or to send a message to the reader. These are planned and purposeful but can fail and seem accidental or even insulting to the audience if not done with care.
Below you will find a video for the Climax of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. It’s only a few minutes long but I think you can get the idea of how a purposeful anticlimax could work.
Not all climaxes and endings have to be cinema ready, grand scale battles, or confrontations with the bad guy. Some stories don’t even necessarily have bad guys in the villain sense. Some stories, like a sweet romance, might have the climax be the moment the romantic pairing reaches the turning point in the relationship that confirms, against all odds, they will be together.
Some Climax Type Examples
The Twist: As evidenced in The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and other stories that take a dramatic and unexpected turn at the end.
The Final Showdown: This is the big fight between good vs evil, the protagonist and the antagonist. You have built up to it and now it is time to deliver!
The Escape: Characters finally break free of their prisons, whether in a Shawshank Redemption sort of way or even a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome way.
The Emotional Release: All the buildup and tension put on your character is finally expelled, often in tears. Think It's a Wonderful Life, Good Will Hunting, Lord of the Flies, or Schindler’s List...
The Speech: Your protagonist finally has it all figured out and presents their thesis to the audience and the other characters in the story. Think Jerry Maguire with the “You complete me” speech.
The Answer: Often seen in mysteries and courtroom dramas. It’s not the same as a twist because the answer is expected, but the result can still be surprising.
The Shootout: This is just what it sounds like. Think the ending of Young Guns, or pretty much any buddy cop movie.
The Death: This is the death of the main character, usually expected or promised very early in the story. American Beauty is a great example of this.
The Race Against the Clock: This one can be the most heart pounding, and if you are looking to ratchet up your novel's tension, adding a race against the clock element is a powerful way to do it. Think Back to the Future, or Armageddon.
The Climax Problem with MacGuffins
If you have based the answer to your story question—and thus your climax—on an object or even a being other than the protagonist, you may be building up to an anticlimax. We can all think of great films and books where a MacGuffin was used and the climax was amazing and satisfying (Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the lost Ark, Star Wars…) but it is important to remember that to counteract the negative effects of a MacGuffin, you may have to pull overtime duty with arcs outside your main plot, usually in the form of character arcs. Essentially, if the audience loves your characters enough, and is impressed by their personal growth and successes, you may get away with hinging the plot on an object (MacGuffin) that the audience in no way cares about.
For example, The Lord of the Rings MacGuffin—the ring—held no real value to the reader. They didn’t covet the ring. They didn’t/couldn’t mourn for its loss in the fires of Mount Doom; the only connection the audience has to the ring is through what it does to the people around it, holding it. Frodo and Gollum literally carried the One Ring, and without their own devastating character arcs, the ring would have been considered little more than a boring trinket by the readers.
Be a Critic and a Surgeon—Vivisect Your Favorite Stories
One of the best ways to get real practice at coming up with satisfying endings is to “rewrite” the endings of existing movies or book series. Make it a game/exercise to choose stories that either disappointed you with their ending or impressed you greatly, then pick a point in the plot (the midpoint is always a great option) and imagine how you would have written it differently. This is a great conversation to have with other authors as well, especially if you can work together in a group and brainstorm your ending as if it is something that will actually be written.
If you have ever visited Reddit or even YouTube, you will find thousands of conversations and deeply serious discussions on movie and book endings that disappointed the audience, and how the audience thought things should have gone instead. It may be tempting to dismiss these opinions and heavy critiques for the vitriol many contain, but you would be missing out on a massive learning experience if you did.
For example, if you watched Game of Thrones, or are even just casually aware of its existence, then you know how angry people were with the writing of the final season, which was not set up by GRR Martin. The Showrunners no longer had his books to work from and proved to know very little about storytelling in those last two seasons that they were in charge of creating without GRRM’s outlines. You can find many fellow authors, mega fans, and even literary editors and agents explaining in detail where the story crumbled in terms of execution, and how these issues could have been addressed.
Below is a video of one such analysis. If you are familiar with GOTs, maybe give it a listen. If you aren’t, pick another highly popular property and see what you can find on that. Trust me, it is much easier to see, dissect, and treat story problems when you are working on someone else’s story. But once you get into the strong habit of doing it, you will begin instinctively applying what you learn to your own work.
You can also look into fan revisions of Star Wars (the newest trilogy), the last season of How I Met Your Mother, or the DC movies (Batman and Superman and Aquaman). Feel free to share your own analyses in the forums with your thoughts on how some popular properties could have ended.