The climax tests the protagonist’s resolve coming out of her internal transformation and forces her to prove her conversion.
The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.
Your protagonist just went through the most brutal, painful battle of self-realization. She faced her inner demon, saw the demon’s lies about what she should believe about herself and the world for what they were, and finally chose to follow the path of truth.
It was so painful because she not only made a tough transition but also understood how wrong she’d been the whole time. Her only option to avoid succumbing to her doom was to change. And change is really, really hard most of the time.
But she let go of her monster to cling to the truth and face reality anew. This was her internal transformation. Now she must prove her conversion as the plot tests her resolve. Conversely, the transformation has also given her the final piece she needs to succeed in the external plot conflict.
Probably one of the most well-known plot beats of any story structure, the climax is known as the “high point” in a novel. When we graph out the movement of the plot over time, the climax always gets the pinnacle. But what does that really mean?
The climax is an external plot beat in a story. As the outward manifestation of the internal conflict and transformation, the climax is the culmination of the main plot conflict. It’s the point at which the protagonist clashes with the antagonist and rising tensions finally burst.
The climax follows the internal conflict of the third-act transformation beat in a basic three-act story structure. It tests the protagonist’s resolve coming out of her internal transformation. And the transformation provides the missing piece the protagonist needs to potentially succeed in the climactic conflict.
The internal doom moment and following transformation are arguably the beats of true importance in a novel’s final act. But we can make the external climax just as important if the conflict (usually) outside of the protagonist’s head further tests the protagonist’s resolve to stay on her new path of truth.
“Oh,” you might ask your poor protagonist. “You really think you won back there? You think beating your inner demon was enough, do you?” And then, like the benevolent author you are, you torture your protagonist some more.
“Well, then how about this! How firm is your footing on your new path of truth, really?” you ask as you throw the worst possible external antagonist in her face — the one specifically tailored to bring up all her trauma, fear, and distrust (especially in the truth).
But because your protagonist beat her inner demon in her internal battle, she can shove that fear down. And therefore she can find her true strength to win the external battle too. (Not that you’ll make it easy…)
Now everything your protagonist has overcome means something. It all led her to finally have a chance at what she’s really wanted all along (the true need) — the thing she couldn’t have while held back by her fear and standing in her own way by believing in lies about herself and/or the world.
This success is the happy ending and the one that will make sure your readers gain a sense of fulfillment from it. But it’s only through an internal transformation that the external, climactic conflict victory means anything.
By contrast, an external failure may follow an internal failure in a tragic arc. Remember, the story structure will look fairly identical whether you’re writing a comedy or a tragedy. But the outcomes will begin to diverge after the doom moment.
While in that internal space of conflict, your protagonist will experience a change for the worse. It’s possible the protagonist won’t change at all in a tragedy and simply continue in believing her inner demon’s lies, but I usually see something of a doubling down on them at this point.
So, when the doom moment destroys her on an internal level, instead of hitting rock bottom and turning around to climb back up on the rope of truth, your protagonist will start clawing through those rocks at the bottom and dig herself an even deeper hole to stay firmly in her fear and embrace her inner demon’s lies even harder.
All that has occurred up to this point only seems to prove more to the protagonist that these lies are correct. They are her truth. She never sees that she was wrong and maybe thinks her failures have been because she didn’t believe in them firmly enough! She should have only avoided her fear and never attempted to face it. She was wrong to entertain any whisper of an idea that she could have a chance at her greatest desire if she would only let go of her inner demon.
So in the external space, your protagonist will fail in gaining what she’s really needed all along. However, she might very well succeed in getting exactly the misguided thing she’s always wanted. Is it good for her? Absolutely not! Will it satisfy her? Oh, not at all. But she’ll try to convince herself that it does anyway. Remember, she’s founded on lies through and through at this point.
Failure usually looks like running away, defeat, capture, death, or damnation in the external plot. But sometimes external tragedies still follow internal victories. Sometimes the world is cruel despite the transformation. Or sometimes it took too long for the protagonist to experience that internal transformation and her head was already on the chopping block with the axe falling. These are still tragedies, but they offer a unique catharsis laced with hope. The effect is often one in which the thematic lesson is driven home even more sharply than if the protagonist succeeded externally.
Let’s see how the internal transformation and external climax compare in examples. Also recall that I’m using the first books in three series in these explorations of story structure. So the full character transformations do not occur in any books that aren’t the series finales. These novels still show full structures contained within themselves, and I still believe examining such novels is a good practice for speculative authors since so many science fiction and fantasy novels are part of a series.
Each beat of the full structure is still fulfilled in each book of the series, but in cases of non-finale books, the internal change that occurs and the climactic event are a step toward the overall series transformation and climax. We’ll look at these relationships in the following examples of the external climax acting as a metaphor for the internal conflict:
The Lord of the Rings:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
The Hunger Games:
One of the best ways to craft or test your own novel’s climax for effectiveness is to make it a metaphor for your protagonist’s internal conflict. What your protagonist faces in reality should mirror the struggle she faces (and perhaps just overcame) internally.
For each story element in the previous articles on story structure, we have been crafting components with the internal conflict as the central ley line that infuses every other element with its story power. So the antagonist should already be the manifestation of whatever your protagonist fears most — or whatever prods hardest at the inner demon’s lies. Therefore, the climax will almost automatically test your protagonist’s fledgling resolve to follow truth instead of lies.
The nature of the conflict itself should also live up to that promise. What kind of conflict will be hardest for your protagonist to face? In what situation will she be most vulnerable? Let the protagonist’s inner struggle be your guide and inspiration for crafting the ultimate climactic beat.
And if you’d like a consultation session to help you figure out this central, powerful line through your novel, request a call with me! I’ll help you uncover the meaningful core of your story for the most reader impact.
Categories: story structure
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