The climax is the most important part of every plot. It should be the moment that everything builds up to. It should be the moment that keeps readers turning every page. And it should be the moment where they fall in love with your book irrevocably.
In order to give your book a satisfying ending and truly resolve the story, there are several important things that need to happen in your climax. Missing any one of these points can leave readers feeling unsatisfied and unresolved.
1. The climax needs to resolve the main conflict once and for all.
Has the couple finally gotten together? Have the detectives solved the murder? Have the heroes killed the Big Bad? Whatever kind of book this is, the climax needs to be the resolution to the question introduced at the beginning of the book. It doesn’t have to be the answer that readers expect, but it does have to be an answer.
In Lord of the Rings (Spoiler alert if there are actually people out there who haven't had this ruined for them already), Frodo achieves his goal of making it to the volcano only to decide that he doesn't want to destroy the ring after all. Then, surprise, the ring falls in anyway. The world is saved. That is certainly not the ending that readers would have been expecting (unless they've already seen the movies), but it resolves the conflict that has been the center of the book.
On the other hand, if Frodo had successfully walked away with the ring, the conflict wouldn't be resolved because the ring would still be in play. This is one reason why setting up an unhappy ending can be so hard. The resolution provided in the climax must be final. The conflict needs to be over. There can't be a chance to try something else. (I imagine this finality is why so many unhappy endings involve death. Can't get much more final than that.)
2. Readers need to know that they are going into the final fight.
Your climax won’t be truly satisfying if readers are not expecting this to be the end of the book. In order to prepare them, you need to make sure you’ve clearly set up the scene in such a way that they know this is the final confrontation.
I’ll use Spider-Man: Far From Home as an example. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember that the middle of the movie featured a battle with a fire monster that was supposed to be the biggest, baddest monster the world had ever seen. World-wide destruction. But the movie hadn’t really spent any time on the emotional impact of world destruction. We didn’t see the heroes really building much of a plan or saying their goodbyes just in case. In fact, Spider-Man was more concerned about things happening outside the fight than he was about the fight itself. This meant that the audience wasn't focused on the fight either. Most people in the theater knew the fight with the fire monster wasn't going to be the end of the movie, even if they couldn't have told you why.
There’s a different level of setup required for a climax than other scenes in the book. For the full emotional impact, the main character needs to enter the climax with the intention of achieving their final goal. They can’t be playing defense anymore or following someone else’s orders. They have to be actively working towards their desired result before the climax even begins. Readers won’t be fully invested if they don’t believe this scene is going to change everything.
3. There needs to be a clear turning point.
The more complicated your story is, the longer it’s going to take to wrap all the loose threads up. But for an impactful climax, you have to have a single moment where things change. This can be hard to do when you have several problems running at once.
One good example of this is Ender’s Game. (Fair warning, I’m going to reveal the ending.) The book has two major conflicts in the last scene: the struggle between Ender and his commanders and the battle between humans and aliens. But both problems are resolved at the same time. When Ender makes his final play to end what he thought was a fake fight, he thinks he is freeing himself from his commander’s control by showing them that he cannot be trusted with a real army. But he actually has just wiped out the entire alien race. This has the effect of freeing him anyway, because there is no more war for him to fight. His single decision has wrapped up both conflicts at the same time. There is some confusion and explanations that follow, but no more action needs to be taken. The tension begins to die down and things begin to resolve.
Not all climaxes need to have a single bomb that takes out the entire enemy army. But they do need to have a single peak moment that sets the final resolution in motion. You can’t have a scene where the main character kills the big bad guy and then another scene where they fight some of the minions and then another scene where they take out the top generals and then another…etc. That’s not a climax, that’s a whole plotline.
Whatever issues your characters have left to solve, the tides needs to have turned at a very specific moment. The minions can run around fighting after the Big Bad has been defeated, but the fight needs to be going your heroes’ way. The generals can continue to fight after the death of their revered leader, but they can’t introduce a new tactic. No new problems can arise once the turning point has passed. The scene needs to start decreasing in tension, resolving problems, becoming safer, and letting readers breath again. If you can’t point out the line on the page where the tension changes direction from up to down, you will need to take a look at what the moment of victory is and making sure nothing competes with that for the readers' attention.
This turning point applies whether the book has a happy ending or not. Without the main character having a chance to achieve their goal, readers won't just feel sad at the ending, they'll feel misled and abandoned. And when that chance comes, it needs to go wrong definitively. It must be clear to readers that the goal cannot be achieved anymore. So that's still a clear turning point. It's just turning in a different direction.
4. Your climax must fit the genre.
If you are telling a story about a brutal warrior who learns to use her words instead of her fists, you might be tempted to have a calm, rational discussion with the antagonist to show off her personal growth. But if the rest of the book has been action scene after action scene, readers are looking for an action scene in their climax.
Whatever you have been promising your readers your books is about (fight scenes, magical powers, cool tech, heartbreak, the power of friendship), that’s got to be in your climax. For more on why genres matter, see this post.
5. The climax needs to be the most dramatic part of the book.
No matter the genre, the climax is always the final fight or confrontation or challenge before the book resolves. If this is not the coolest, hardest thing that the characters have done, we have a problem.
This sounds simple, but it’s actually harder than you think. Like any good author, you want your whole book to be exciting. You are going to have more than one dramatic scene in your book.
Sometimes the dramatic scenes of your book are easy to compare to each other. Fighting a T-Rex is scarier than fighting a snake. But what if your scenes are not physical fights against clearly-leveled bad guys? Perhaps in chapter one your main character gets dumped by their brand-new boyfriend. Then in chapter twelve they get abandoned by a friend that they have known their whole life. Those are both dramatic, but is a boyfriend dumping you worse than a friend abandoning you? These kind of conflicts and trials can be harder to compare.
So how do you definitively check that your climax is the biggest and baddest chapter of the book?
It’s all about what is at stake for your main character.
Whatever type of book you are writing, during any conflict something will be at stake for your main character. Did the main character have an apartment picked out to move into with the boyfriend and now they are going to be homeless? Was the friend someone they normally would turn to with their current problems but instead they are stuck with the advise of a nosy coworker? Readers need to know what your main character has lost by losing these people. That is going to determine which scene the readers view as more dramatic.
The most common mistake I see with climaxes is that the final battle has the biggest goal, but not the biggest stakes. If your book has previously had a scene where someone scaled a twenty-story building without a rope, there is a lot of potential for death there. So if your final battle is a hacking heist done from miles and miles away, it’s not going to compare in the danger that your main character faces. You can still stop the end of the world by hacking from a distance, but the immediate effects of failure are not the same.
During the climax, the readers need to be able to feel the impending threat of failure. It has to be now or never. One slip up and it’s all over. Otherwise, even if the goal they accomplish is more important than the goals from the previous scenes, readers won’t get a sense of satisfaction from your climax. It will feel, no pun intended, anticlimactic.
Of course, not all books need to have a face-to-face fight to the death. That is an extreme example that only suits certain types of stories. The stakes should fit the story you are telling. Whatever your character has risked so far (embarrassment, losing their chance to go to prom, graduating from Hogwarts) is the base line for your climax. If the love interest has broken up with the main character before, then having a break-up be the climax of your book is going to be tricky. You’ve got to make it a bigger, scarier break-up. Like maybe the love interest is leaving the country. (Hence the whole declaration of love in an airport cliché.)
The stakes don’t always have to be something that only effects the main character, or even effects the main character the most. If your main character is a selfless person, then threats to other people may be more dramatic than a threat to the main character themselves. Many heroes are willing to risk their own lives but not the lives of their loved ones. This applies even in lower stakes. The climax could be over the loss of a job for a parent or the wheelchair that their grandmother desperately needs.
One thing to keep in mind is that stakes and consequences are not necessarily the same thing. The character will be risking something during each moment of conflict in the book, but that negative risk doesn't always have to play out. The conflict can go their way and the stakes are avoided. So if you have killed a character off in a previous scene, that doesn’t mean someone actually must die in the climax (contrary to what J. K. Rowling seems to believe). It just means that the stakes need to be life or death. If everything goes well, your heroes can all survive the final fight.
6. The main character needs to play a crucial role in the climax.
This means that they not only need to be present at the final battle, but they need to be actively making decisions, and those decisions need to have consequences. To summarize my post on picking the right main character, it was great when Neville got his courage and killed Nagini, but if he’d killed Voldemort that would have been a huge problem.
If you have your main character watching the showdown from the sidelines or summoning a demon to fight the battle for them, you risk destroying the satisfaction that the readers will feel when their goal is finally completed. They want to feel like the main character tried and won, that the main character is responsible for the new state of things at the end of the book, that the main character changed everything.
When you put all of these things together, you've built yourself the climax of your book. This climax will serve for most of the emotional payoff of your story, as well as guide you in any other editing you need to do before your book is done.