1. Outcomes That Matter
When your audience arrives at your climax, they should already be on the edge of their seats. That’s because you’ve informed them of the possible consequences of success and failure, and they’ll know that a life, a kingdom, a world, or something else that’s critical is at stake.
What makes a thing critical? A central character that cares deeply about it, and an audience that understands why they care. Maybe it’s just the potential loss of a button, but by golly, that button is the last heirloom of a great lineage and the only thing the hero has to remind them of their deceased family.
2. A Turning Point
A climax means something important changes, and that change determines the outcome of the story. Maybe your story is about the residents of a sinking coastal village who have spent 30 days piling sandbags to stop the incoming waters. A story where the water gradually overtakes them, or they eventually persevere through hard work, is a story without a climax.
Climaxes depend on a pivotal moment that dramatically changes the outcome. In the sinking village, a character might build a machine that piles bags fast enough to save the day. Or they could foolishly ram a boat into the barrier, breaking it and destroying the village. Your turning point should transform despair into victory or hope into defeat.
3. Character Influence
Not only do climaxes require a turning point, but a character must be responsible for it. There’s nothing less satisfying than an ending determined by random chance. Your characters should earn their ending through their personal strengths or vices.
If the village being threatened by the rising sea is washed away when a huge wave hits, your audience will be disappointed. That is, unless the great wave was caused by a character’s underwater physics experiments. Now there’s someone to credit or blame.
4. The Right Role for Each Character
Characters must have appropriate roles in the ending. Your main character should shape the outcome the most. Other important protagonists can render vital assistance or strike significant blows to the enemy. Minor characters might be part of the strike force, or they might just end up in the enemy dungeons, waiting to be rescued.
This doesn’t work in reverse. If your audience follows your main character all the way to the climax, only to watch them hand their weapon over to a flunky* for the finish, your story will go on their “flop” list.
5. Something Unexpected
Your audience might know that your main character will defeat the villain; in most works that’s okay. But if you want them to remember your climax, there should be something that isn’t on their list of predictions. It doesn’t have to be the most important part of your climax, but it should be significant.
Maybe your protagonist is the long lost queen, and the antagonist has her throne. Your audience will probably expect her to use her inspiring leadership to seize the throne from him. Instead, she could establish a parliamentary system that removes the throne altogether. Or maybe as her troops close in for a long, bloody siege, she convinces him to concede by proposing marriage to him.
6. Setup That Clicks Together
If you ask your friends about endings that knocked it out of the park, they’ll probably describe ones where everything “clicked together.” That means that events, characters, and clues that seemed unrelated at the beginning of the story were revealed as related to one another. Something that was mysterious now makes perfect sense.
The only way to accomplish this is with careful foreshadowing. You have to provide enough information so your audience almost understands what’s happening behind the scenes, but not quite. Then at your climax, provide the missing piece of the puzzle – the princess is the villain’s daughter, the evil artifact and the good one are the same, the AI never had control of the ship – and you’ll get your “click.” But remember: a convoluted explanation is not a click; it’s a groan.
7. One Moment to Rule Them All
Climaxes are brief when compared to the rest of the story, but they are the most memorable. That’s because crucial events have been condensed down to one scene and, when done well, one moment in one scene. An entire story is hard to remember, but a single iconic moment can stick in someone’s mind indefinitely.
You should have one climax of utmost importance, and the more plot threads that can be resolved there, the better. Ending your story with several big events of equal importance does nothing but dilute the impact of your climax. Not everything must tie up at once, but one point should shine brighter than the rest.
Don’t bury that point by letting it happen off-screen. Emphasize it by showing it to your audience in crystal clear detail. Then don’t tell your audience how your climax is profound, glorious, or tragic; let your vivid details speak for themselves.
Once you’ve crafted a climax that’s sublime, your readers will help you market your work. After one person finishes it, soon all their friends, siblings, parents, cousins, and coworkers will start in.