Writing for Film: CLIMAX
by Waitsel Smith
Plot, along with character development, are the two elements that make a story. Climax - the turning point in a narrative, when the outcome of the story is revealed - is the most important part of plot.
Typically, the climax occurs in the third act of a three-act drama, or about three quarters of the way through a non-dramatic work, and marks the highest level of tension, where the rising action that has been building throughout the story ends, and the falling action that brings resolution and ties up all loose ends begins. In non-technical terms, climax is the big event the whole story centers around. In a murder mystery, the climax occurs when the detective reveals the murderer. In a sports movie, it's the big game, tournament or race at the end. In an action film, it's the final showdown. In a comedy, it's when everyone's true identity is revealed. In a love story, it's when the lovers' true feelings are revealed and we find out if they are going to end up in each others' arms.
Specific examples include the chariot race in Ben-Hur, the shootout in High Noon, the final bout in Rocky, the final battles in Lord Of The Rings and Chronicles Of Narnia, the death of Melanie in Gone With The Wind, the final airfield scene in Casa Blanca, the final swordfight in Hamlet, the death scene in Romeo And Juliet, the crucifixion in Jesus Of Nazareth, the final scene on the bridge in It's A Wonderful Life, the scene where Scrooge repents in A Christmas Carol, the opening of the ark in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Everything leads up to and hinges on that one big event. That's why, in writing a story or script, it makes sense to deal with the climax first. Where do you want your main characters to end up in your story? How do you want them to have changed? What one event (climax) could help determine that? How do you want the climax to look and play out? What, specifically, do you want to happen? What part will the various characters, and especially the protagonist, play in that event?
I love trains, and especially train wrecks, in films - there is almost nothing more spectacular - and I think the phrase "train wreck" effectively illustrates what happens in a good climax. All the cars (dramatic elements) converge in one exciting moment, revealing all the characters for who they are. There is a really spectacular train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth. That one event, which of course is the climax of the film, reveals everyone's identity, everyone's character, who loves whom, etc. If you haven't seen it, it's worth it just for that one scene. Another good one is in The Train.
They say that crisis reveals character, and that's what happens in a train wreck. If you want to find out what someone is made of, put them in a situation that pushes them to their limits. Put them on a ship that's sinking, a plane that's getting ready to crash, a shootout they can't get out of. Take away their job, their house, their friends, their health. Threaten them with a fiery furnace, a lion's den, a Roman Coliseum. Hang a sword over their head and see what happens.
Well, that is really all a climax is: it's the biggest and final crisis in a story that is full of crises. But this crisis is the straw that either makes or breaks the back of the hero. And, depending upon what happens to him, the love interest will reveal her true feelings, the antagonist will reveal his true character, etc. In fact, if the climax is done well, everyone will be unmasked and uncloaked in that one event, which will create in the audience a deep sense of euphoria or sadness (if it is a tragedy), which, in either case, should be a very satisfying conclusion to the story.
That is the simplest explanation of climax that I know. Now, in most narratives, there is more than one plot: there is the main plot; but there are also subplots. What that means is, there will also be sub- or anticlimaxes, which can occur either before or after the main climax. For example, the hero beats the villain, but then he also gets the girl. That is the plot and subplot of almost any action film. Or, another example: the hero solves his problem of a broken relationship, but then he also saves the farm. That is the plot and subplot of Field Of Dreams.
Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) jeopardizes his farm by following a voice that tells him to build a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield - that is the plot, seemingly. At the moment of climax, his brother-in-law, who holds the mortgage to the farm and thinks that Ray has lost his mind, threatens to take possession. But when his eyes are suddenly opened and he, too, sees the baseball players playing on the field, he changes his mind and agrees the baseball field should stay. The farm is saved!
Now, is that really what Field Of Dreams is about? No - so the storyline dealing with the farm is just a subplot and a subclimax. What the film is really about can be summed up in the now famous phrase, "If you build it, they will come." Who will come - visitors, so Ray and his family can charge admission and thereby save the farm? No - the baseball players who are hurting and, specifically, Ray's dad. The whole purpose for the baseball field is to reconcile Ray and his dad, who have been alienated from each other from the time he was a boy. The follow-up phrase to "If you build it, they will come," is, "Ease his pain," talking about Ray's pain. That is the main plot - to ease Ray's pain by building a baseball field where he and his dad can play ball together, which they never got to do in Ray's dad's lifetime. So, the climax is when Ray and his dad meet on that field. It's all a metaphor, but it is one that most men can relate to, and most women can empathize with.
One clue as to when the climax in a film occurs is when the most emotional moment occurs. In Sense And Sensibility, when Elinor Dashwood is proposed to by Edward Ferrars at the very end of the film and book, Elinor burst into tears - and most of us along with her. That is the climax, and the payoff is emotional euphoria. Almost the same thing happens in Pride And Prejudice. When Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, disposes of Lady Catherine, the one obstacle to her marriage to Mr. Darcy is removed. But we're really not sure if she even likes Mr. Darcy - although we suspect it - until he proposes to her at the very end of the story. So, while the former event is a subclimax, the proposal at the end is the climax because that is when we share in the joy of their love.
Building a climax that is as spectacular as your story can justify is good storytelling. Making it predictable or preposterous - two extremes - is bad storytelling. One way to surprise an audience so that your climax is not predictable, without venturing into the realm of the preposterous, is by giving it a twist. Now, every storyteller wants to make it look like the hero isn't going to make it - that he doesn't really have what it takes, either in resources or character - so that is not a twist. A twist is when it looks like he isn't going to make it, but he does; but then he makes it in a way that the audience didn't expect. Or, it looks like the pieces are falling into place for the story to end one way; but suddenly a piece appears that the audience didn't expect, so it ends a different way. Surprise is the essence of good storytelling. But the surprise has to fit and make sense - not just be unexpected.
Train wrecks, planes that lose their engines, boats that are sinking, car chases, shoot outs, relationships that hang in the balances, futures that hang by a thread, heroes that literally hang over a cliff - these are things that make a good climax. In building a story, it makes good sense to begin with the most important event and work backwards. That way, you can leave clues along the way that will prepare your audience for it. You'll have a purpose for everything your characters do and say, because they are all leading up to that one important moment. Working out your climax ahead of time gives you a clear goal to work toward in your writing: it is the effect that drives all the causes in your story.
Story = Character Development + Plot
Plot = Introduction + (Crisis + Resolution) + (Crisis + Resolution) + (Crisis + Resolution) + Crisis + Climax + Final Resolution (Denouement)
Waitsel Smith, May 24, 2007
COMMENTS FROM READERS LIKE YOU:
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"Just wanted to let you know I checked out two of your articles on screenwriting - Climax and Character [Pathos] - and thought they were excellent, informative and well done. Keep up the great work. I recommend you write more articles or blogs on film story. You have a great perspective from your experience watching Classic films, and I think that adds something very relevant to the discussion of modern film." - Tom, Florida
"I found your screenwriting posts very helpful with this rewrite I'm doing. Thank-you!" - Anita, California
Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Photos © 1989 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.