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Posted on May 31, 2024

What is the Climax of a Story? Examples & Tips

The climax of a story is the dramatic turning point when tension is at an all-time high. In most modern stories, this crucial story beat takes place toward the end of the story and will see the protagonist on the cusp between failure and success — though this is not always the case.

In this guide, we’ll show you five types of story climaxes with examples of each, as well as tips on how to bring your own narratives to new dramatic heights.

The Hero’s Climax

In modern storytelling theory, we often talk about story beats: moments that have to occur in order to deliver a satisfying narrative. You may have heard of The Hero’s Journey (described here) and the Three Act Structure (here), two models that prescribe (or encourage) writers to plot their stories in a certain order. In both of these structures, the climactic moment is the final hurdle that the protagonist must overcome: the big fight at the end of the action movie or the dramatic closing statements in a courtroom drama.

We must understand the stakes of the story

The power of this kind of climax comes from the fact that the reader or audience has been brought on an empathetic journey with the main character: they understand what they’re fighting for and grasp what’s at stake if they fail to win. Over the course of the story, these stakes will usually escalate, so by the time we arrive at the climax, we know that our hero must overcome the final challenge. Their failure to do so would be catastrophic.

Example: The Terminator

Stop reading if you don’t want a spoiler for a 40-year-old movie. In James Cameron’s science fiction classic, Kyle Reese is a time-traveling soldier from an apocalyptic future who arrives in 1984. At the film's start, Reese’s motivations are uncertain, though we quickly learn that he has been tasked with protecting a waitress — Sarah Connor — who is being hunted by a relentless future cyborg known as the Terminator.

A still from The Terminator (1984)
"Come with me if you want to love" (image: Paramount Pictures)

As the story unfolds, the stakes ramp up in stages: At the start, we assume Reese must protect Sarah Conner or else a nice lady will get killed by a robot. Then we learn that Sarah is destined to give birth to the future’s most important resistance leader of the resistance (shades of Mother Mary) — so the stakes are now enormous. Then we learn that Reese has fallen in love with Sarah and that he is the father of her future child. By the time we reach the climactic final fight at the robot factory, Reese’s sacrifice has so much more impact because of the personal and global stakes at play.



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The Action Climax

The tension of wanting to know what happens next is something that keeps readers and audience members invested in a narrative. After the climax of a story hits, most of that narrative tension disperses: our hero has won, our romantic leads get back together, and there’s little to keep readers hanging on. Consequently, if you’re writing a book or movie that’s highly dependent on suspense, it might not be a great idea to linger too long after your big showdown.

Leave on a high note

One of the biggest complaints about the third Lord of the Rings film is the fact that after Frodo destroys the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, the movie goes on for another twenty minutes, delivering a denouement that reveals to us what happens to all the other characters. Even though viewers had grown to love these characters, without narrative drive, everything that happened after the climax couldn’t help but sag.

Example: North by Northwest

This 1959 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock lays the blueprint for many of the action films we see today. In a case of mistaken identity, government agents pursue Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) across America. Teaming up with the mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the two of them end up confronting the main villain atop Mount Rushmore.

At the climax of the plot and the action, both Thornhill and Kendall are hanging off a cliff, with the villain poised to deal the killing blow. At the last minute, a police officer shoots the villain dead and saves the day. Thornhill reaches down to Kendall, and just as it seems that he might fail to grab her, he… pulls her up to the top bunk of a train carriage (“Come along, Mrs. Thornhill!”) and plants a kiss on her. Cue credits.

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Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has been lauded for the efficiency of this ending. The amount of screentime between the heart-racing, cliff-hanging climax of the film to the actual end of the film takes something like 15 seconds — in which we learn that our heroes get married and live happily ever after. 

But what if there is no happily ever after?

The Tragic Climax

While most of the climaxes we’re familiar with take place near the close of a story, that wasn’t always the standard. In the classic tragedies of Sophocles, the climax will often occur at the story’s midpoint, leaving plenty of time for things to go really wrong. 

Freytag's pyramid — a chart to explain the structure
In many tragedies, the climax comes near the story's midpoint.

In his study of classic and Shakespearean tragedies, German writer Gustav Freytag noticed a recurring pattern in their plots. The first half of these plays builds up to a moment of no return for our heroes — a climax that sees them do something unforgivable, causing their lives to spiral out of control in the back half of the story.

A tale of two halves

Here’s a simple story: 

A young boy is at home. He wants the last cookie in the jar, but his mother tells him to save it for his sister, who is due back from school at any minute now.

The boy struggles with temptation, telling himself that his sister won’t mind; that she probably already had a cookie at school; that she would likely give the cookie to him anyway. Convincing himself that it would all be fine, the boy devours the cookie. 

When his sister arrives home, she sees that all that remains of her cookie is a smattering of crumbs. She had dreamed all day of this treat, and it has now been taken from her. In floods of tears, she runs out of the house and is instantly hit by a car. Her mother is behind the wheel. She had just returned from the grocery store, where she had gone to buy more cookies.

So, where would you say the climax of this story takes place?

If your answer is ‘the moment he ate his sister’s treat,’ you're right! Give yourself a cookie. Everything that occurs after that moment is out of the young boy’s hands. The choice has been made, and the die has been cast — the rest is a tragic consequence of his action in the climax.

Example: Antigone

In Sophocles’s sequel-of-sort to Oedipus Rex, our tragic hero is Creon, who becomes the king of Thebes in the wake of a civil war. When his niece, Antigone, defies his edict and gives a proper burial to her brother — who has been branded a villain — Creon finds himself torn. Should he follow through with his promise and execute Antigone despite the pleas for mercy from his wife, son, and beloved niece?

Antigone and the body of Polynices
Antigone and the body of her brother, Polynices

At the central climax, Creon is given every good excuse not to execute Antigone. But his stubbornness and devotion to his moral code proves to be his fatal flaw. He makes a climactic choice in the middle of the story, and everything that happens afterward is inevitably tragic.

Following Antigone’s execution, we gradually learn the consequences of Creon’s refusal to bend his own rules. His son kills himself out of grief at Antigone’s death, and his wife kills herself out of grief at her son’s death. Creon stays in power but loses everything else that matters to him. Things have, you might say, spiraled out of control.

Note that this narrative style isn’t necessarily suited to modern storytelling, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it work.



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The Surprise Climax

Readers and audiences today are pretty sophisticated when it comes to narrative structure. By the time they reach adulthood, they’ve seen thousands of stories play out before their eyes, most of which will share certain traits.

These readers know that the story's climax will result from all the plot points before it. If Rocky spends the bulk of his movie training to fight Apollo Creed, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realize the climax will take place in a boxing ring.

However, certain stories will play into these expectations… before pulling the rug out from under their readers. That’s a twist!

Example: The Sixth Sense

Again, spoiler alert for a decades-old movie. Bruce Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who helps children overcome their trauma. At the start of the story, he is shot by a troubled former patient. Sometime later, Crowe finds himself working with a nine-year-old boy whose condition bears similarities to the patient he failed: young Cole claims to “see dead people” in the form of ghosts. As they continue working together, Crowe guides Cole to help the ghosts resolve their unfinished business so they can pass on — and so that Cole can learn not to fear his visions. 

The narrative is structured so the audience believes it’s building up to a climax in which Crowe helps his young patient come to terms with his power. And indeed, Cole helps the ghost of a young girl reveal how she was killed by a greedy stepmother.

This climax is then unexpectedly topped by a second surprise climax, in which Crowe realizes that he died in the film’s first scene. He himself has been a ghost the entire time, and what we all believed to be a journey of professional redemption is now revealed to be a story about a ghost resolving unfinished business before moving on.

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense
Cole, left, sees dead people. Also pictured: dead person. (image: Disney)

This climax is one of the most satisfying examples of a twist ending precisely because the secret doesn’t undermine the main narrative. Instead, its impact is amplified by how closely it relates to the A-story.

Drop clues without tipping your hand

With any surprise ending, you risk alienating readers and audience — but that only happens if they feel cheated or saw your twist coming a mile away. The secret to avoiding this is by seeding clues throughout the story. These little breadcrumbs must be memorable enough so readers can look back to them once the twist is revealed and put all the pieces together. 

In The Sixth Sense, the audience is given several clues throughout the story, including:

  • Crowe doesn’t speak with anyone by Cole
  • Cole mentions early that the ghosts he sees “don’t know they’re dead”
  • Crowe’s (estranged?) wife seems to ignore him whenever they meet

Within the story's context, the viewer can accept these plot points at face value because they all feel like exposition, relationship building, and narrative efficiency. They are all disguised as narrative moments, which allows them to slip by unnoticed — which can be very hard, considering how well-attuned modern readers and audiences are to things like Chekhov’s Gun (which, if you're not already familiar with, you can read about here).



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The Anti-Climax

Anti-climaxes get a bad rap, and perhaps unfairly so. The term is almost always used to complain about a disappointing ending that isn’t as satisfying or exciting as the reader hoped. If your story is called ‘Showdown at the Fireworks Factory’ and doesn’t end with a fight amongst exploding bottle rockets, your readers have a good reason to feel cheated.

However, when it’s deployed in the right context, an anti-climactic ending can be exactly what the story needs.

Example: No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller (and the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film) can be seen as a modern, nihilistic take on the Western genre. It centers on Moss, a hunter in Texas who discovers a bag full of cash in the desert: the remains of a drug deal gone wrong. Choosing to take the money and run, he soon finds himself in the crosshairs of an unstoppable hitman hired to retrieve the cash. 

Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men
It starts as a classic man-on-the-run story (Image: Paramount)

After a couple of close encounters and near-death experiences, the reader is lulled into the belief that this story will end like many Westerns: with an exciting confrontation between Moss and the hitman. However, McCarthy pulls the rug from under his readers, and Moss is killed off-screen (as it were) — and soon after, the hitman is almost fatally injured in a totally unrelated traffic accident.

The final chapter centers on the local sheriff who has been watching the carnage unfold. He describes two dreams he had after his father’s death — dreams that reveal the sheriff’s uncertainty of the world he now lives in. By denying the reader the all-guns-blazing finale they were expecting (and maybe hoping for), McCarthy ends his novel with a slow exhalation of a scene that encourages the reader to lean in and figure out the meaning of it all.

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men
He will not tolerate you disparaging anti-climaxes. (Image: Paramount)

Most of the time, writers should avoid anticlimactic endings by ensuring they follow through on most of the story strands established early in the story. However, in just the right story and under the right circumstances, you can cap off your story with a low-key climax. It can be jarring and unsatisfying to some readers but also undeniably impactful.

And speaking of finishing on an anticlimax, that brings us to the end of this guide. If you have any further questions on plotting your next work, make sure you check out our definitive guide to story structure.

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