Intensive Materials: Climax
In this post, we tackle the Climax, the Fourth Commandment of Storytelling, and in the Housekeeping section, you'll find the dates for our group calls and a reminder about when to submit your first scene.
If the Crisis is a question, the Climax is the answer in the form of a decision and action. These decisions and actions are character revealing because they are decisions made under pressure. As Shawn Coyne says, “the climax is the truth of the character.”
The decision and action should be apparent in the scene, but it’s often hard to separate them. The reader might need to infer the character’s decision based on the action taken. Still, it’s vital that the writer show this moment because Scene Climaxes demonstrate the change in a character over the course of the story.
Causal Connections and Setups
When you evaluate a scene, look closely at the Climax:
- Is there a clear cause and effect relationship between the Inciting Incident and Progressive Complications on the one hand and the Climax on the other?
- What facts, circumstances, and actions need to be established for the Climax to make sense and feel inevitable?
- Once you have your list of required setups, look to see that you’ve incorporated them within the scene or in an earlier one.
- Can you deliver the Climax in a way that is unexpected?
Some decisions in life can be reversed, but others can’t. If a decision within a scene can be easily rescinded, then there isn’t much at stake, and the reader could lose interest. It feels like cheating to put the character in a bind, force them to make a tough decision, and let them undo it right away. But there is a range of reversibility: meaning some decisions can be undone, others can be with some cost or consequences, and some cannot be undone. Consider these examples:
If you buy a pair of shoes and realize they don’t fit when you try them on at home, chances are you could return them and get the correct size. If you reveal spoilers before a friend has seen a movie and then apologize, you’ll probably be forgiven.
If the shoes are not returned in time, there may be a restocking fee or some other penalty. If you reveal a friend’s secret, the friend may need time or an act of amends before they can offer forgiveness, even if you’ve caused no actual harm.
If you’ve worn the purchased shoes outside, the store might refuse to take them back. If you reveal damaging information that causes your friend to lose their job or their romantic partner, they might not be able to forgive, even with time.
Over the course of a story, the decisions the character makes should become increasingly irreversible so that when the reader reaches the Story’s Climax, there is no question of the character’s being able to call for a do-over. Within smaller units of story (Acts and Sequences), the Climaxes should also become more irreversible from Inciting Incident to Climax as well.
Just as with the character’s initial action after the Inciting Incident, the action here creates a gap between expectation and actual result.
To find out more about the Climax, check out this post from Shawn Coyne.
Our Climax scenes include pivotal moments from Master and Commander, but they depict the harsh realities of life on a Royal Navy ship in the nineteenth century. If you find the subject matter triggering, let us know, and we'll send another scene for you to consider.
- “Men Must Be Governed.” (Trigger warning: a sailor is whipped at the end of the scene.) Here is some context for this scene: You may recall in “Man Overboard” that the HMS Surprise is caught in a violent storm as it rounds Cape Horn in pursuit of the Acheron. (See Crisis email or post.) William Warley is up in the rigging trying to secure the sails, which would catch the wind and pull the ship over if not secured. Midshipman Hollom is sent to assist Warley, but the officer is frozen with fear and fails to reach Warley in time. The mast breaks, sending Warley and the attached rigging and sails into the water. He manages to get ahold of the rigging so the men aboard can pull him in, but the rigging acts as an anchor and threatens to capsize the ship. Captain Aubrey, Sailing Master Allen, and Carpenter’s Mate Nagle must cut the rigging loose in order to save everyone aboard. As "Men Must be Governed" opens, Aubrey and Maturin are discussing an incident in which Nagle pushed past Hollom without saluting and the punishment meted out as a result.
“Hollom’s Death” is a scene that follows soon after. (Trigger warning: This scene includes a suicide.)
- Identify the Climax Decisions and Actions in these scenes. Are they reversible at all? Is it likely?
- What facts, circumstances, and actions need to be established for the Climax of the scene to make sense and feel inevitable? Can you identify these items from the other scenes we’ve included in the Pre-Course Materials?
- Whether you’ve seen the entire movie or not, do you notice how the scenes we’ve shared are connected and reveal a great deal about who the characters are?
Let us know if you have any questions about this exercise. You can reach us at email@example.com.
As you practice identifying the commandments in the live scenes, consider your own scenes. Can you spot the commandments easily? Are there any missing or that could be made stronger? Is there a pattern? In other words, are there commandments that are easier or better executed than others?
The time for our Intensive is growing near!
As a reminder, you can send your first scene anytime before 11:59 p.m. PST on Saturday, February 3, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks so much for filling out the surveys. Here is the schedule for our calls:
- Sunday, February 4, at 1:00 p.m. PST / 3:00 p.m. CST
- Tuesday, February 6, at 4:00 p.m. PST / 6:00 p.m. CST
- Thursday, February 8, at 5:00 p.m. PST / 7:00 p.m. CST
You should have received a separate email with the time for your individual call on Saturday, February 10. If you have any questions about that, hit reply and let us know.