Most storytellers know that the climax should be more exciting than the rest of the story. However, many don’t know that climaxes need a critical turning point. Neglecting this turning point is one of the most common mistakes that writers make, and without it, endings don’t feel satisfying. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, worry not. I’ll show you how they work.
To be effective, a turning point must have two characteristics:
- It must sharply alter the course of events, strongly and directly influencing the ending.
- It must give the main character good or bad karma, making the ending feel earned.
These requirements may seem daunting at first. Luckily, there are some basic templates out there that make turning points a lot easier to incorporate. For any given story, at least one of these is sure to work.
1. The Clever Deduction
When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realization. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.
In Brandon Sanderson’s novel Elantris, Prince Raoden wakes up to discover he has transformed into an Elantrian. Once beautiful and blessed, the Elantrians fell from grace after the great cataclysm. The magic they once had no longer works, and they slowly accumulate so much chronic pain that they are unable to function. Raoden learns as much as he can about their lost magic. The magical symbols are clearly based on the landscape of the country, but they no longer work. When Roaden is ready to give up and perish, the answer finally comes to him: the cataclysm changed the landscape, so the magical symbols must change with it. With this knowledge, he repairs what was lost.
While the clever deduction may sound like a formula for mystery stories, this is a very versatile turning point. In a fight scene, the main character might discover a weakness in their opponent. In a social conflict, the protagonist might realize what someone’s real motivation is. With a clever deduction, your character could realize how magic works or figure out that their best friend and the raging beast are one and the same.
A clever deduction feels more satisfying when it involves piecing together more than one bit of information in a way that makes perfect sense but isn’t immediately obvious. It helps to plan ahead and carefully foreshadow. To trigger the realization, either give them some clues to observe during the climactic scene, or put them in a situation that naturally brings the solution to mind.
2. The Battle of Will
During the climax, your main character engages in a conflict that tests their strength of will. They might be faced with a great temptation they weren’t prepared for. They might have to give up something important to win the day, or they might have to muster their courage. No one can say whether they’ll make the right choice, but once they make it, they’ll get the ending they deserve.
During the climactic battle in Return of the Jedi, Luke’s tempted to use his anger and hatred to defeat his enemy. However, if he does so, he risks becoming the next Sith lord. His turning point comes when he turns off his light saber and refuses to fight at all. Because of his decision, Vader turns against the emperor and saves Luke.
The battle of will is an excellent choice for a more character-centered story. Early in the story, clearly establish your character’s strengths and flaws. Then at the climax, let those strengths and flaws fight it out. How the battle turns out will make it very clear whether the character has changed as a person.
This turning point is also sometimes used more simply: to win the day, the main character must maintain hope or keep going past incredible pain or hardship. However, this usage is often afflicted with a big problem: no clear connection between the character’s attitude and their success. This fails the first criteria of an effective turning point.
Generally in these climactic scenes, the character will struggle hard and fail. Then they will decide they must win at all costs. On their next attempt, they do exactly the same thing they did before and succeed, seemingly by coincidence. To avoid this trap, you must demonstrate how your character’s lack of hope or commitment is harming their efforts. That way the audience understands how their newfound spunk leads to their success.
3. The Hidden Plan
Before the climax, your main character signs up for a risky gambit. They sign up purposely and confidently, but it doesn’t seem possible for them to win. Then when it’s finally time to lay all the cards on the table, they reveal their clever plan for success – a plan that has already been carried out.
In Going Postal, Moist von Lipwig works to make the city’s post office a success despite competing against the clacks, a telegram-like service run by the ruthless Reacher Gilt. To win the day, von Lipwig challenges Gilt to a simple competition: who can deliver a message to the next town faster? It seems impossible for the post office to win. But when the results are in, everyone finds the original message sent via clacks has been replaced with a record of Gilt’s crimes – carefully arranged by von Lipwig.
This turning point is best known for its use in heist films, where the protagonists announce a plan, are seemingly outmaneuvered, and then reveal that everything’s gone according to their real plan. Its use extends beyond heist films, but the key elements are a protagonist with a plan for success that is only revealed once it has succeeded.
Unfortunately, that also makes this turning point particularly difficult to implement in a narrated work. In visual mediums such as movies, viewers never know what the characters are thinking anyway. So it’s not too weird when the protagonist reveals their hidden plan. However, when writing in a limited point of view, the default expectation is that the readers will know what the character is planning. It’s possible to get around this, but it’s tricky. If it doesn’t work out, your ending will feel contrived or disingenuous. For this reason, the hidden plan works best with omniscient or other distant viewpoints.
4. The Sacrifice
At the climax of your story, your protagonist gains a fleeting opportunity to save the day – but only at the cost of something dear. The hero makes the hard choice to give it up, and they are rewarded with a victory.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer season five, Buffy’s sister, Dawn, is the key to opening a portal between countless realms. Once a villain kidnaps her and sheds her blood to open the portal, killing Dawn appears to be the only way to close it. When all seems lost, Buffy realizes that her own life should also work as a replacement for Dawn’s. She sacrifices herself, and the portal closes.
The sacrifice is probably the easiest turning point to use. In speculative fiction, it’s usually simple to set up a situation where the hero will lose their life. They might have to do something taxing when they’re already severely injured, or they might have to grab the villain with both arms and jump into a lava pit.
The hero doesn’t have to give up their life specifically, but the sacrifice must be theirs, and it should feel significant. If you carefully set up how important some item or place is to them during your story, those things could feel significant enough to sacrifice instead. A captain shouldn’t sacrifice their ship and crew, but everyone on board could make the choice together.
A sacrifice turning point feels more satisfying if the audience doesn’t feel like your hero was ready to make that sacrifice all along. In Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow, Lt. Col. Bill Cage makes a sacrifice to defeat the enemy, but he was ready to give his life for the entire second half of the movie. If the sacrifice is unthinkable right until the hero makes it, it will give the climax more meaning.
5. The Prior Achievement
During the story, your character works to do something valuable despite no obvious benefit to themself. They might bestow gifts on whoever they find in need, devoutly say their prayers at every meal, or just carefully tie their shoelaces before they leave their home. Everyone else thinks the hero is just wasting time. But when the climax comes, it’s the people they helped, the gods they pleased, or those well-tied laces that make the difference.
In The Return of the King movie, Eowyn struggles to become a soldier, receiving continual discouragement from the men around her. When the men of Rohan leave for war, the king orders Eowyn to stay behind. She goes anyway, concealed by armor, to fight for her country. When she encounters the most formidable foe on the battlefield, the Witch-King of Angmar, she’s told that “no man” can defeat him. She promptly cuts the Witch-King down.
The prior achievement is a fun turning point that has often been used to teach moral lessons in fairy tales or children’s stories. It can be used for a lot more than that, and it’s pretty easy to set up. You may need some foreshadowing to establish how your hero’s good behavior translates into a victory, but generally not very much.
The more trouble your character goes through to keep up their valuable pursuit for no apparent gain, the more satisfying it is to watch them win with it. Just take care that when your climax arrives, the importance of their efforts is revealed in one stunning moment. If you reveal it before the climax, you’ll need another turning point for your climactic scene.
6. The Gesture of Goodwill
During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now.
In The Lego Movie, all the lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans.
The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.
Once you get the hang of turning points, you’ll find it’s easy to blur the lines between them or combine them. If you have multiple characters that must be pivotal to the climax, they can each have their own. As long as you have at least one turning point that meets those two criteria, the sky’s the limit.
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