Your story’s grand finale should be the most exciting part, but how do you make that happen? Unfortunately, readers don’t generally accept “and then something exciting happened,” so it’s time to get creative. This week, we’re talking about how to raise the stakes, satisfy major plot points, and make sure the big conflict matters to your audience. In short, how to make the story’s climax exciting.
Generously transcribed by Rea. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening song]
Oren: …and welcome, everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is
Oren: All right. So I am trying to make the end of this podcast exciting, but I know it’s just the beginning of the podcast, but I want to plan because I’m worried that if I don’t plan, then we’ll get to the end and it’ll just be a mess. So what should I do? How do I make the end of the podcast exciting? Please help.
Wes: Really dramatic music. (laughs)
Oren: Oooh! That’s great because that doesn’t depend on my skills as a podcaster, I can just find some dramatic music and stick it on there. Good plan. I like it.
Wes: You can manipulate the feels of everybody listening. (collective laughter)
Oren: It’s like, here’s an average scene but we put some really good music under it.
Wes: Yeah (laughs)
Oren: I love watching certain scenes without music. All movie scenes sound awkward without music, but some of them are clearly just, like, what is happening here? Like the Star Wars medal scene without the music? It’s so awkward. It’s like this music has to be in the show, there’s no way they’re all being this quiet. (laughter)
Anyway, today we are talking about how to make a story’s climax exciting because I’ve read a lot of stories where it’s not, and I would like to shed some light on this. Because the climax is when everything comes together; It’s the big moment in your story. It’s when tension should be highest. So it should be exciting, whether it’s a big battle or a dramatic argument, whatever your climax is, it should be the most exciting part of your story. But that’s easier said than done.
Chris: One of the interesting things about this is that most writers know that the climax should be exciting. Which a lot of other storytelling concepts we talk about, that’s an issue, it’s that people don’t know that they need something in their story. They’re coming in with very little knowledge. They don’t know there’s anything they need to learn, but one of the few things that you’re actually taught about stories in, like, grade school even, is this little chart of rising action and a climax and then falling action. And it’s obvious from watching movies and what-have-you, so at the very least even if they don’t know the word tension and don’t exactly know what tension, everybody knows that tension should be at its highest at that point at some level.
Oren: That triangle lies to you though. It makes it look like the climax should happen in the middle of your story.
Chris: Some of them are different, but yeah, some of them are in the middle. It’s like, what are you doing?
Oren: That’s not where the climax goes, man!
Chris: That’s not where it goes, it’s not even close.
Wes: There’s still so much more story.
Oren: It’s like if Luke blew up the death star, the halfway mark of Star Wars, and then the rest of it was just them hanging out at the rebel base. Oh no.
Chris: Hey, some people would like that.
Oren: No. Some people would say they liked that and then they would watch it and they’d be bored.
Wes: I don’t know Oren, but what would the score be? (Agreeing noises)
Chris: Truthfully, people would be more likely to like that if the story was much longer, this is basically epilogue at that point. And that’s what we tell people is, the longer the story is the more epilogue people want to wind down because they’re really attached to the story. Hence Lord of the Rings has a pretty long epilogue, but all of those books were written as one book. So in comparison to the total size of the story, I don’t think that it’s necessarily even that long, even if it’s longer than what we would usually write today.
Oren: The Lord of the Rings epilogue is so weird, if we’re talking about the book one. I don’t know what to do with the Scouring of the Shire, because on the one hand it’s extremely anticlimactic. And it’s like if they do or don’t beat Saruman it doesn’t really matter ‘cause Aragorn will probably send someone to deal with this next season .But on the other hand, it is very gratifying for the hobbits to show that they’re bad-ass now; that is kind of cool.
Chris: I think that’s what it’s for. If it’s supposed to be a light epilogue moment where the hobbits show how much they’ve grown it’s a little weird, because having Saruman appear in the back in there, it makes it feel like it’s supposed to be something that’s more epic.
Oren: it’s also there so that Tolkein can tell you what he thinks of urban factory workers, and the answer is not much. (laughter)
Chris: I think that might’ve been the issue of setting expectations for that sequence. In any case climaxes, which that is not, that is an example of something that is not a climax.
Oren: (laughing) It’s very clever. So one thing that I have seen authors do a few times that- I can see why they do it. I can see why it seems like it would help is what I’ve been calling piling on, is where they just add more things to the climax and hope that that will make it more exciting. Where it’s like, we know that the villain is going to try to kidnap the president. It’s like, okay, that’s pretty cool right? And then, also the villain is gonna kidnap the president’s wife and it’s like, okay, does that really change anything? And it’s like, also the villain is going to vandalize the oval office and it’s like, hang on a minute. (collective laughter)
Chris: Similarly to some degree, having a climax that is more epic in scale and includes more characters, for instance, can make it feel exciting but it’s also definitely very risky and can be a trap, where suddenly we bloat the story and we have all these different characters and we’re just switching off between them. And it’s actually less exciting than it would be if we had kept down the number of things that were involved.
Oren: Raising the stakes is generally exciting, assuming you have somewhere left to raise them. Some stories have already raised the stakes as high as they can feasibly go. The second and third Abhorsen books by Garth Nix, I think is the author, come to mind where it’s like in the first book, the bad guys were going to turn the whole world into zombies. And then in the latter two books, now they want to blow up the world. And that’s really effectively the same. Everyone’s going to die. (Collective laughter)
Either way, there’s nowhere left to raise the stakes there, but you can raise the stakes. You can go from, you thought you were fighting this villain for control of a town. And then it can turn out that the villain actually has plans to conquer a country like sure, that’s a good way to raise the stakes. Or you can also change the intensity of the stakes rather than the scope. Like if until now, the conflict has been with an evil developer who wants to push people out of a neighborhood.
It’s like, all right, that’s pretty bad. That’s good stakes. And then at the end, he has a plan where he’s going to kill everybody. And it’s like, wow, okay. Now the stakes are higher because now people are going to die. There you go. You haven’t changed the area of effect, as it were, but you have intensified things because dying is worse than getting pushed out of a neighborhood.
Chris: Yeah. There’s other ways to raise tension besides raising the stakes. Usually for most climaxes you want to raise the stakes to some degree, even if it’s just the main character is now in more danger than before. But there’s other ways too, a lot of stories have a kind of ‘all is lost’ sequence, it’s what I call dramatic reversal right before the victory. And that’s also another way of raising tension by basically taking things away from the heroes. So they are less empowered and have less tools that they can use against the villain.
Or urgency, having a situation where “well, it’s now or never”. Either we take care of this villain now because they’re about to win and we’re not actually ready yet but now we can’t wait any longer, for instance. And we’ve only got one shot at this. That can be another way of raising the tension for your climax.
Oren: It’s also important to establish the things that you’re going to be using in the climax ahead of time, because if you’re throwing in a whole bunch of random stuff towards the end, any effect it might have to make the climax more exciting is going to be counteracted by the audience trying to figure out what it is and trying to wrap their head around it and be like, okay, so this thing is here now. And if you do that too often, readers can get tired.
It can be exhausting to be like, okay, now there’s a giant robot. There wasn’t a giant robot until just now, but we’ve established giant robots. Okay. And now there’s an alien. It’s like, all right I guess there could also be an alien. Like things should come together in the climax, not just appear to be there for an exciting set piece.
Wes: Yeah. ‘Cause some of the biggest frustrations are the lack of clarity around that because an exciting climax is a satisfying one. And if the deus ex machina pops in, it’s like, okay, great. But if we know what we’re going for, we know what the goal is, and so we can anticipate it. And even if there’s the dramatic reversal or something, we still know that maybe this is what needs doing and the comeuppance will be sweet or the character arc will be completed. Clarity is huge and that’s such a big problem with piling things on is you lose focus.
Oren: And, you can still have a twist in the climax, right. And arguably you should, because you want to keep things fresh, but probably not introducing entire new elements. That’s why at the end of Star Wars, Darth Vader getting into a TIE fighter and going out to fight Luke, that’s a twist. We didn’t know that was going to happen, but we didn’t just introduce some random ace TIE fighter pilot who happened to be on the death star, even though that would have been perfectly plausible from the in universe explanation that the death star would also have some ace fighter pilots hanging around.
That would have been dramatically unsatisfying because we wouldn’t have known anything about them, so they just would have felt like they popped out of thin air. Whereas Darth Vader we already knew, and he’d been built up to be a threat and sure. We can have them fight Luke. Seems good. Why not?
Chris: Conversely I’d want to say that just because some characters appear through the story does not mean that they have to show up for the climax.
Wes: (sarcastic) Whaaat?
Chris: Yeah. Now, which characters should show up is probably a matter of expectations. Mostly how central is those characters, but just because we met them at some point doesn’t mean that they have to come back for the end. If there is in fact, even something left hanging with them, a lot of times that can be closed up in an epilogue or during the resolution stage after the main climax. They don’t have to come and fight the Big Bad with the hero.
So… definitely, if you have them there, there should be a reason that they need to be there and something that they add to the story, just to, again, make sure you’re not putting in too many things that don’t need to be there ‘cause it’s just going to make it more complex, which will ultimately slow things down and make them less exciting- if you have too much to explain, or you have to alternate between too many characters or anything like that.
Oren: And even if you’re in a single point of view, which you probably should be, having too many characters in the climax, just by having the character there, you’re implying that they’re going to be important and they’re going to matter. And so if it turns out that they aren’t, it’s probably better for them to just not be there.
Chris: Yeah. I do think that you can do some things such as- you can have what we would call a prior achievement turning point where your hero does something good for somebody else doing the story, doesn’t get anything in return. And then they need help with something at the climax. Somebody shows up and does it for them, but that’s not a conflict that that side character is doing. They’re not struggling. They show up to resolve a conflict for the hero.
Oren: The prior achievement is probably my favorite turning point. I really liked prior achievement turning points. Speaking of which, the turning point for the climax is really important. It’s not your only turning point in all likelihood, unless you’re writing a one-scene story, but it’s your most important one and so it’s really important to get it right and to have it karmically matter. You have to show not only how your hero won but why they deserve to win, because it’s very possible to give your heroes a perfectly plausible victory within the scope of the story that feels incredibly unearned.
Like if you have a story where you establish that there’s a magic ring that allows the hero to blow up the villain’s brain. And at a random point, a guy shows up and gives the hero the ring. Its like, “Hey, I found this ring here. Oh, you should use it.” It’s like, yeah, if you establish that ahead of time, that’s technically plausible. But if the hero didn’t have to work for that in any way, then it’s just very boring. It’s like, well, I used the ring. I blew up the guy’s head, and we can argue whether or not that’s a deus ex machina but it’s very unsatisfying regardless.
Chris: Yeah. Again, the karmic turning point usually includes struggling. It has to seem difficult at some level. Struggling, in this case, it’s a little looser. If they’re doing something for instance, being incredibly generous to the villain, that would be one way of karmically earning their good ending. In that case it’s not necessarily that you’re watching them struggle, it’s just that this is a situation in which almost nobody would be kind and generous ‘cause the villain’s been doing bad things.
And obviously that technique can also go a little far in absolving villains too quickly, but they have to overcome some kind of obstacle and they have to do it through something that people consider admirable for the most part. Or you can make an argument, again, within the context of your story, you can make a lot of arguments about what kind of qualities are good qualities to have that doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all bravery and steadfastness, although lots of stories use that.
Oren: Cleverness is a perfectly good way to do that. That’s what we call the clever deduction. A lot of climaxes depend on clever deductions. If your hero is fighting the bad guy and figures out a weakness in the bad guy’s fighting style and exploits that to win, as long as you can do it in a way that feels real to the reader- at that point, you have to be willing to explore the mechanics of the fight a bit, but sure. That’s a perfectly good way to end the fight a perfectly good turning point.
Now what you can’t do is just say that the hero fought better than the villain. That’s boring. You need to be able to show how the hero was able to defeat the villain. How did they use their cleverness to win.
Chris: Or you can use a prior achievement for that one again. So we talked about training recently. This is what happens in a lot of stories where the mentor’s like, no, you just do your breathing exercises.(laughter) Got your Iroh training Zuko here. “No, you just got to focus on your breathing exercises.” And here it was like, “No, I’m bored. I want to do flashy things.” And it’s like, “No, okay. Work really hard on those breathing exercises.” And then it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Again, the important thing about these prior achievements where the hero does something admirable before the climax comes, then it pays off in the climax is that they have to not receive any benefit that the reader can tell until it pays off at the climax, because they still got to have that karmic debt owed them for this to work.
So they do all of their boring breathing exercises and become really good at the breathing technique. And it never seems to matter until suddenly at the climax, it turns out they’re fighting the villain. The villain does not have good breathing technique. And it’s just that foundational skill that they win the day and all the Inglorious breathing they did would be another way to do that.
Oren: What I’m hearing here is that breathing is the key to a good turning point. There you go, boom. (laughter)
Chris: With a clever deduction a lot of times, again, you’ve got to foreshadow to some level, and then you want to leave like one clue for the hero to uncover in the moment usually, through observation. So the hero is, for instance, in the fight with a monster and is struggling and losing and everything is going terribly, and then they observe something and then that clicks together with your previous foreshadowing.
And then they have their realization of like, “oh, the monster has this weakness.” And then that’s the turning point and they used it to win the day. That’s how a clever deduction usually works.
Oren: And if you want your hero to win via, say, a magic dance, perfectly legitimate way for them to win the conflict. But that means you have to be able to show how the magic dance works enough to show where that deduction comes from, where they made the realization of what they have to do.
Chris: Maybe the magic dance works because of their breathing exercises.
Oren: It might!
Wes: it’s all breathing. (laughter)
Chris: It’s all breathing all the way down.
Oren: It works great, but you can’t just basically describe that they danced real good and then won, which is a thing that I see a lot. That’s probably the most common turning point mistake I see, is that there is a moment where you can tell that this is supposed to be a turning point and then the author just describes how they did a really good job. And that’s just not satisfying, even if it’s technically plausible.
Another thing we should talk about with climaxes is satisfying your major plot threads. Because you don’t have to tie up a hundred percent of everything in the climax. First of all, you might be leaving a hook for the next story, but there are some things you can also tie up in the following action. Like if there was a minor villain lieutenant who got away and you don’t want that to be a thing for the sequel, they could be captured in the following action.
But if you’re doing a mystery and the bad guy has gotten a magic MacGuffin from a shadowy faction who let them have it for some reason and has some obscure agenda, unless that’s a hook for next time, that should probably be resolved when the hero defeats the bad guy. Otherwise we’re just gonna be left wondering what was up with that shadowy faction. Why did they give the bad guy this MacGuffin? And it’s like, man, whatever who knows?
Chris: Yeah. I have to say that hooks are usually things that appear once everything is basically resolved instead of something that was present earlier, unless this is only a part of the story. If you have an arc that encompasses a whole series of books, for instance, you might leave some of those threads open because you’re not done with the story yet, this is only book one.
But usually if you have a hook for the next book that starts another arc that the next book is going to deal with, it usually appears after the climax and after all of the main arcs have been tied up. And the other thing that I think you pointed out in the earlier podcast, Oren, is the fact that it’s also not usually something that feels like something you have to immediately deal with.
Oren: Right, yeah. If it’s something you have to immediately deal with, that’s a cliffhanger.
Chris: So it’s something that does not pose an immediate threat, but it also usually shows up after just about everything else has been resolved so that it doesn’t set the expectation that it’s supposed to be resolved in this story.
Wes: Beyond simply the theoretical height of the stakes, they also have to matter to your hero on some level, because if they don’t matter to your protagonist… they’re not going to matter to your reader. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that if your hero is saving a bunch of people that they have to love those people.
There are many ways to make the stakes matter, but if the whole story is the protagonist, getting a job that they were paid money to do. And then the whole thing is just them trying to get a paycheck at the end of the day, they had better need that paycheck for something really important (Collective laughter) because otherwise that’s just not going to be compelling. At some point they should develop some deeper feeling for whatever it is they’re doing.
Chris: Similarly, I would say that if you have a character that is just being carried along by other people who are engaged in a high stakes battle (cough)Loki(cough) then it could also lower attention because the idea is that your main character is solving problems and that a conflict happens when they are struggling to solve a problem and the stakes matter. But if they don’t care about solving that problem then it doesn’t actually feel like whether their problem is solved is hinged on anything they’re doing.
Because their goal isn’t to solve it. So if they succeed, is it really going to be solved or are they even trying to, is that the stakes of the conflict? Does it match the big things that are happening in the story? The point is that the main character should be the one who is trying to solve the big threatening problems of the story, or else attention is not going to be as effective.
Oren: Right. So we brought up Loki, enough with the elephant in the room. So spoilers for Loki. The issue with Loki is that marketing said that they needed one main character and the writers said that they wanted another main character and the two did not mix. And so the marketers wanted Loki as the protagonist and the writers wanted Sylvie as the protagonist.
So the show pitches Loki as the protagonist, but treats Sylvie like the protagonist. So the end conflict is all about what Sylvie wants and Sylvie’s quest. And if Sylvie had been the main character that would have worked great! Sylvie’s not a bad character. I think she could have carried that show perfectly fine on her own or had Loki as a supporting character.
But because the show wants you to watch it because Loki is in it, it has this weird thing where the big climax at the end is whether or not they destroy the TVA, which is what Sylvie has cared about this entire time. Loki has no opinion on the matter. Because he’s not the character the writers actually are interested in.
So that’s why your protagonist A) needs the motivation, which Loki doesn’t have. And B) the climax needs to focus on them and not another character that you like more than them. If you like that other character more than them make that character the protagonist, because you don’t have to deal with Marvel’s marketing office.
Chris: And to get specific about the roles in the story, because a lot of times when we’re talking about these kinds of issues in a narrated work, we’re talking about the point of view character versus the character that seems to be the main character. And everybody brings up Sherlock Holmes, but generally having one point of view character and a different main character is a bad idea and splits reader expectations and gets readers invested in the wrong person.
I have not seen a modern story where this has worked and if we’re talking about a visual medium, generally the character that feels like the point of view character is the character that the camera is following around.(laughs) For want of a better description. So in the show we follow Loki and we’re with him doing what he’s doing. We’re not really with Sylvie when she’s off by herself very much, maybe somewhat later, but Sylvie doesn’t even appear in the first episode. We don’t meet her.
Oren: I don’t think we meet her in person until the end of episode two? And like, this is a short season. This season is only, I think, six episodes.
Chris: Right. So we’re following Loki and that sets the expectation that he’s going to be the main character. And there’s a reason for that is because people really like Loki (laughter). And then, so having another character show up and having the plot like revolve around her, just inherently splits things and it doesn’t work as well and it doesn’t build tension as well.
Oren: For- On the topic of Marvel shows which we might as well be, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier also has a really great example of a problem that is very common to climaxes where they try to resolve all the plot lines but they just can’t, perhaps because the plot line is too big or not well-developed enough.
In the case of the Falcon, it’s this political conflict, which to be fair is exceptionally vague but there’s some kind of problem where refugees are going to be forcibly relocated for some reason, and it would be bad. And the villains are trying to stop that from happening. But they’re evil and burn people alive so we got to stop them first. And so at the end, after defeating the villains, Sam, now in his Captain America outfit gives a lecture to the politicians who were going to relocate the refugees about how they shouldn’t do that and then tells them to do better.
Chris: Gosh, I wish that worked on our politicians(laughter)
Oren: Right, it’s like, does anybody think that’s going to help?
Chris: I wish I could just go into a room and be like “do better”. And it’s like, okay, I solved it. (laughter)
Wes: You just need the right outfit.
Oren: Cause if you believe that these politicians were already trying their best and were in a difficult logistical situation, then telling them to do better doesn’t help.
And if you think that they were not doing their best and were intentionally making these refugees suffer for some other reason, personal gain, or nationalism, or what-have-you then just telling them to do better they’re still going to do it. That’s not going to change their mind. And so that’s an example of… Falcon had this very interesting or potentially interesting I should say political conflict.
Chris: It didn’t really have a political conflict. I think that’s the issue is the writers want a political conflict, but they definitely didn’t want a political conflict.
Oren: Right. The characters talk about there being a political conflict, let’s put it that way. Even though we don’t ever really see it or understand it. And I don’t know, maybe that’s the case of the show being overly ambitious and not having time. Maybe that’s just that they had this premise and then decided they weren’t interested in it. I don’t know what it is.
Chris: It could have been that they didn’t want to be divisive. And they thought if they did real politics, then it would be too political. (laughter)
Oren: So maybe that’s what it was. But regardless, whatever it was, they had this conflict that they created that they knew they needed to wrap up somehow. But they didn’t actually have a way to wrap it up. So they were just like, I guess that plots done. It’s over. We’re going home.
Chris: Another thing I want to mention that is often important for climaxes and when you have really big conflicts, like if you’re having a whole battle or something else that’s just really involved is- it’s important that you still have structure, especially once it gets big enough. You don’t want a big, endless monotonous battle. It will get old. It will get exhausting. It will get tiring.
It’s not going to stay exciting. So if you want a really big epic ending, you need to break down a big conflict into a series of smaller challenges. And that way people can feel like there’s movement in the story and things are making progress. Whereas if it’s just like your hero is in a battle and mowing down one person after another, we need a sense that the battle is shifting.
And so you have to establish what are the different stages. And maybe the first obstacle for them to overcome is they need to like sneak some infantry around the enemies’ flank or something like that. And then break it up into those smaller challenges and those challenges can have their own turning point and everything. And that structure is what will keep a huge, epic conflict interesting. And instead of it, just after a while, “Okay. This is old, I’m tired. It’s become a slog.”
Oren: My character is going to kill 537 orcs and I will describe each and every one. All right. So with that, I think that was a suitably exciting end to the podcast since we are about out of time, hopefully you all learned something from Chris because she’s the one who knows about this sort of thing.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Cathy Ferguson who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Aman Jabber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She [email protected] We’ll talk to you next week.
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