A Lesson by Alex

Follow the rules, stay in bounds, and haaave fun!


“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”


“Voldemort is my past, present, and future, Harry Potter.”


“No, Luke…I AM your father.”


“The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout…Down came The Goblin, and took The Spider out!”


Ah, the Climax; the culmination of everything you’ve worked toward., and quite often the most memorable part of any story. Many times, I’ve found that this is the part of the story many writers begin with in their initial brainstorming, and work their way backwards through Rising Action and Introduction to get there. This is the payoff, the reason the reader – and writer – have invested their sympathies, enthusiasm, and hopes into the hero. All the hero’s trials, lessons, and relations are threatened in one grand burst of climactic storytelling.


If you have a big twist in mind for the story, this is the spot to put it in. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this is where Harry discovers that the one working for Voldemort and trying to steal the stone is Professor Quirrell, not Professor Snape. Up until this point, it’s fairly obvious that Snape was the bag guy, with Quirrell being the ironic speed bump in his evil plans. Discovering that the exact opposite was the case is a pretty big twist, and one that most readers wouldn’t see coming. In fact, after re-reading this book several times, I’m fairly confident that the only way to predict this twist was to expect a twist, and by doing so, predict this specific turn of events merely because it’s an unlikely one. I call this the Shyamalan fallacy, and it’s not anything to worry about unless you’ve written a number of books which all commonly have an unexpected twist, or if the plot in question has had a number of unexpected twists throughout. Twists are fun, but they can get bland and/or distracting if overused. In this case, the reader has no reason to expect a big twist, which is why it’s so effective.


Twists are fun, but let’s get into the real meat. There are two outcomes of a Climax: The Protagonist is successful, or he isn’t. There are obviously varying degrees of this, but let’s just focus on the hard outcomes. The victorious hero is definitely a fun way to go, kicking off a feel-good ending with lots of fan-fare and rejoicing. The failing hero is in many cases just as fun, if not more – mostly because they’re not all that common. Remember that “failure” can mean any number of things, not just dying.


If we were to look at all the Harry Potter books, I’d say that book five is definitely “Failing Hero” ending; the tail-end of the rising action has Harry and co speeding off to the Ministry of Magic to save Sirius. If we remember what we learned in the previous lesson, the goal established in the Rising Action of this book is to figure out what weapon Voldemort is after, and stop him from getting it. While this is ultimately achieved, the weapon is no more than a prophecy that wouldn’t have helped Voldemort anyway, and Sirius ended up dying after all, and he wasn’t even in trouble in the first place! There are NO positive outcomes from this Climax, besides Sirius being the only death in this conflict, and the Ministry finally recognizing that Voldemort is indeed back to full power, but those are scenery at best. Harry lost the closest thing he ever knew to a father figure, and it was completely his fault, and he gets nothing in exchange.


That’s the payoff for the character, though; let’s take a look at the payoff for the reader: Arguably the tightest, most action-packed Climax in the series, for starters. Who else – no matter how many times you’ve read this one – gets goosebumps when Dumbledore and Voldemort are squaring off in the main lobby of the Ministry? And the fight itself? And the fight beforehand between the DA and Deatheaters?? AND THEN THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX SHOWS UP IN THE NICK OF TIME AND THE FIGHT GETS EVEN RADDER??? AHHHGGHHH!!!!


That’s the Climax itself; I know I’m getting into Falling Action territory with this next one, but it’s important: we finally learn why Voldemort tried to kill Harry as a baby – a question asked and left unanswered since Book 1! We learn of the prophecy, and that Harry and Voldemort are destined to kill each other. If we looked at the book series as a single plot, THIS is the goal. The first five books have been nothing but introduction, giving us everything we needed to fully appreciate the real weight of this delivery. We now have an end game in sight. Book 6 is the Rising Action, and Book 7 is the Climax, Falling Action, and Conclusion.


So here’s where I’m going with this: Failing Hero endings are great. Watching the Protagonist lose everything he’s worked toward and having to live with it is an unexpected and exciting ending. However…you need to be careful. The only reason this ending worked was everything the reader got out of it. Has anyone here seen The Mist by director Frank Darabont? If you want an example of hard, steep, unapologetic Failing Hero ending, watch this movie. Personally, I loved it. But from a technical point of view (which is what these lessons are focused on), it was a terrible Climax, with literally no Falling Action or Conclusion following. It goes [terrible stuff happens to the Protagonist, caused directly by him] to literally one minute later [you made the wrong choice, f**k you, f**k your life, you lost everything for nothing] to [credits]. I’m a cynical SOB, so I loved this ending in how unforgiving it was. This is not a formula to follow, though. If your hero loses, you better make sure the reader gets something out of it. Remember, if your Introduction and Rising Action were constructed properly, the reader will feel like they themselves lost too. If you can’t make it up to them, they won’t forgive you.


Enough on feel-bad endings, let’s discuss the more common one: the feel-good ending. Even if things about the Protagonist aren’t radically changed like in a Failing Hero ending, you still need to be wary of some factors. Think of the Climax as a literary machine that changes the Protagonist. The Protagonist is A before he goes in, and he’s B when he comes out. The difference between A and B doesn’t need to be huge, but the reader should definitely notice a different person on either side of the Climax.


Harry Potter doesn’t make a wild change after facing off against Professor Quirrell, and yet before he did, he was [Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived], and after he woke up in the Hospital Wing, he was now [Harry Potter the Hero]. Don’t see the difference? Let me show you: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived was loved for something that happened to him. Harry Potter the Hero was loved for something he DID. While he may not have changed much as a character, our perception of him has, and that’s really what you need to think about during the Climax. If the reader doesn’t see the hero change after the Climax, it wasn’t a Climax.


This is where a Victorious Hero ending can be deceptively tricky. It’s great if everything works out for the Protagonist, but he still needs enough traction to turn that into something. Harry defeating Professor Quirrell wasn’t enough to make him Harry Potter the Hero, he needed to be humble enough to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone from the Mirror of Erised, steady enough to resist Voldemort’s offer to revive his parents, and brave enough to grapple with Quirrell despite the terrible pain it caused him. If Harry had beaten him simply by “out-spelling” him, this wouldn’t have cemented anything about Harry that the Rising Action and Intro played on. Being a spell-slinging badass is never the reason we got attached to Harry (at least in book 1), it was his personality, and that personality is what’s put to the test, even if it was his physical being that was being threatened.


And that’s it, really. Whether your story is one of action, suspense, romance, or horror, keep these in mind when writing your climax. Keep the audience fearing for their hero’s sake, and give them something to remember when it’s all over!

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Added on July 16, 2015
Last Updated on July 16, 2015

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Cohoes, NY

Though I will occasionally write a poem here or there, poetry is not something that I consider myself well versed in - no pun untended. Because of that, I will usually not review other poems, as the b..