Climaxing the Right Way (In Your Script)

This article by Candace Kearns Read lays out some important guidelines to follow while crafting the third act of your script, and particularly the climax:

The climax is the action the protagonist chooses to take after facing the moment of crisis, where he or she is pushed to the edge with no way out.

This section of the screenplay is what gives the rest of the story meaning. It often delivers the moral, or theme of the story and it is where the writer can make sense of everything. But endings are often the hardest part to write. That’s why too often, writers settle for the obvious or overly simplistic solution instead of digging deeper to find an ending that is both satisfying and surprising.

The Height of Intensity

The Chinese symbol for crisis actually delineates two words: Danger and Opportunity. This idea can help writers beef up the endings of their scripts. The moment of crisis, which leads to the climax, needs to be full of danger, either emotional, physical, or both. Something of great value is at stake – a human life, a relationship, or as Joseph Campbell calls it, “the treasure.” Whatever it is, it is in grave danger. But at the same time, there is an opportunity, for new life, for growth, and for a payoff nobody could have imagined 100 script pages ago.

If there is a twist at the end of the story, it should be revealed in conjunction with the climax. The twist is not in the climax, but around it, and gives new information, or a shift in the world view of the main character. It re-informs the action and enables the climax to unfold.

Answer All the Questions

A definition of “resolution” is “to explain or make clear.” One way to approach the climactic scene is to make a list of all the things that need clarifying, based on what has happened so far in the story. This keeps the writer honest about the questions they’ve raised in the script, and forces the writer to answer them.

By answering those questions, the writer has a better handle on what supreme, catastrophic, all encompassing and irreversible event they can design for the climactic scene. This will be something that answers the story’s question of “how is this going to turn out?” but in a way never imagined by the audience.

Show Character Growth

A good climax is also a revelation of the protagonists’ growth. The audience first meets the main character in Act I. They grow and change throughout Act II as they overcome all of the obstacles and conflict thrown their way by the antagonistic forces of the story. Ultimately, the protagonist’s reversal in the end leads to his or her ultimate growth. The reversal usually involves a change of heart or mind. Sometimes it is the way in which the protagonist lets go of one goal in order to pursue another.

Climaxes require the highest level of artistry and sometimes can’t really be written until after a full outline or rough draft has been written. It’s only then that the writer knows the trajectory of the story well enough to decide on a climax that is the most satisfying, surprising, and which for the audience, may prove unforgettable.

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