Test Your Novel’s Climax (According to Brain Science)

The climax tests the protagonist’s resolve coming out of her internal transformation and forces her to prove her conversion.

Test your Novel's Climax

Test Your Novel's Climax

What Brain Science Says about Writing with Story Structures #15

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.

What Is the Climax in a Novel?

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 External Victory

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.

The External Failure

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.

Examples of the External Metaphor for Internal Transformation

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:

  • Transformation: In the middle of the battle of wills between Sauron’s eye and the voice telling him to take off the Ring (on top of just having been attacked by a corrupted Boromir), Frodo realizes it’s up to him to choose what to do. He knows he must be solely responsible for the Ring to avoid its corruption of anyone else.

  • Climax: In the external space, Frodo removes the Ring from his finger, so Sauron’s Eye doesn’t get the chance to lock onto him. Then he tries to leave the Fellowship to go on to Mordor alone. But he experiences another small but crucial victory when he has a slight setback in his plans. Samwise, discerning Frodo’s likely intent, finds Frodo at the boats, trying to leave on his own. Frodo is grudgingly grateful for the company and support, and the Fellowship breaks.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:

  • Transformation: Harry is able to come to terms with his identity and fate to the point that he no longer sees his parents in the mirror; he sees himself finding the Stone—he desires to save his present life even as it is and face the demon of his past. The unwritten transformation has to be inferred. It’s not as spelled out in the lowest point during which Harry is being used to bring about the very thing he’s been trying to stop all along—getting the Sorcerer’s Stone for Voldemort. However, it’s set up expertly enough through his clear internal conflict about his identity and the introduction of the Mirror of Erised earlier in the plot. He hasn’t been able to let go of the desire for the life he could have had were it not taken from him by Voldemort. And it’s later confirmed by Harry realizing himself that he needed the chance to go after Voldemort in the denouement. He doesn’t think it was an accident that Dumbledore let him find out how the mirror worked. The legendary wizard always seems to know what people need most, and so we can infer that the seed planted when Dumbledore first encountered Harry with the mirror was the deeper truth that Harry needed to learn in order to move on from his haunted, mysterious past.

  • Climax: Harry meets Voldemort face-to-face when Quirrel unwraps the turban. Harry is haunted by his past, which tests his resolve not to succumb to the tragedy of what he doesn’t have but to live the life he has. Externally and internally, despite the pain it causes Harry, he sacrifices himself in order to hold off Quirrell in an attempt to keep him from getting the Stone. (Just as Ron had said, “You’ve got to make some sacrifices!” in the earlier chess match.)

The Hunger Games:

  • Transformation: Katniss realizes she doesn’t want to be left alone—winning is no longer enough. She’ll never forgive herself if Peeta dies.

    Moreover, Peeta’s reminder that the Capitol needs a victor finally changes Katniss’s intent to win the games to defying the Gamemakers by intentionally not giving them a victor—they can pretend to threaten double suicide with the poisonous berries Katniss still has with her.

  • Climax: Katniss and Peeta make a show of taking the berries on the count of three, actually going through with their risky plan to defy the Gamemakers. The Gamemakers stop them at the last moment and declare them both the winners. (But we know this will cost them…)

Testing Your Novel’s Climax: The Metaphor Played Out in Plot

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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