Formula of a Climax

You’ve written a great hook at the beginning. You’ve put twists and turns in your middle. Now comes the end. You’ve got to pull out all the stops for the climax as a reward to your readers for coming this far into your story. But how? Using Star Wars: A New Hope, I’ll explain the formula of a climax because (1) almost everybody knows the movie and (2) after spending the past six months enveloped in its universe since my oldest became a fan, I should put all that I’ve learned from him to good use. I would love to dissect the climax to one of my mysteries but (1) my publishers would not appreciate me revealing the ending and (2) nothing is worse for a mystery fan than a spoiled ending. But the anatomy of A New Hope will work in any genre.

Components of a Climax

The whole beginning and middle are establishing viewers expectations of the climax, if a writer has done her job. By the time the plans for Death Star get in the hands of the rebels, viewers are expecting three things in the climax:

  • Some kind of rebel assault on the Death Star. The Death Star is the symbol of the evil Empire, and the Empire is the antagonist so it must be involved.
  • Luke Skywalker plays a critical role in the assault. He’s the protagonist, so he must have the main role in confronting the antagonist in the climax.
  • The Force figures into the climax. After all the talk about it, if it wasn’t involved, viewers would wonder why it was included in the first place.

There’s the formula for your climax: Antagonist x Protagonist x Theme = Climax. Or A x P x Th = C. (My youngest has been drowning in Algebra lately, so I might as well put that to good use too.) I’m using multiplication because usually when you multiply, you usually get a greater answer.

Digging into the Formula

The antagonist. Not only must the Empire be involved in the climax, it must be an active participant. It has to make things happen in the climax, not just have action happen to it. In A New Hope, the Death Star is positioning itself to destroy the rebel base. Very good. But even better is when Darth Vader gets in his fighter to personally shoot down rebels ships. The antagonist is making things happen in the climax.

The protagonist. The same rule applies to the protagonist. The climax can’t happen to him. He has to make things happen in the climax. So Luke engages in the small-ship assault on the Death Star and ends up being the last ship capable of firing the potentially fatal shot.

The theme, The use of the Force, for good or evil, is the underlying theme and it must be a critical factor in the making the climax happen. So Luke uses it to aim the fatal shot. Not every story has a theme. Sometimes, the genre acts as the theme of story, tying other elements together. Which brings me to …

One More Variable

I need to add one more variable to our formula for a climax. And that’s G=genre. Your climax needs to follow the rules of the genre you’re writing in, or your readers will close the book disappointed. A New Hope is a sci-fi/fantasy epic. The climax must have epic stakes–death of a whole planet, death of most of the rebels opposing the evil empire. If I put on the back cover that my novel is a mystery, and then my detective never uncovers the culprit, readers will throw my book against the wall.

So now our formula reads: (A x P x Th) + G = C. Or (A x P) + G = C.

Next time, I’ll write about the very difficult task of freshening the formula of a climax while still fulfilling the rules of your genre. For another post on endings, click here.

What book or movie had the perfect climax?

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