The climax in a short story, poem, play, or novel is the high point of tension in the plot. It’s usually when the main conflict of the narrative is confronted and solved or not solved by the hero. If a story does not have a climax, then a reader will likely walk away from it unmoved. It is a necessary element of plot lines without which there would be no reason to continue reading.
The word “climax” comes from the Greek word “klimax” meaning “ladder.” This suggests that the plot should act as a ladder, leading the reader to the peak of the action before descending once more. This is also how most plot maps are also designed, with the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Definition and Explanation of Climax
The climax of a story is the point at which all the elements of the exposition and rising action come together, and the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story. This doesn’t have to be a battle, disaster, or traditional “climactic” centrepiece to the story. It could be the hero finally confronting their weaknesses, repairing a relationship, hitting a long-term goal, or anything else that’s critical to the plot. Readers should look forward to a novel or short story’s main climax and will likely be disappointed if it never arrives or is less than what they expected.
Examples of Climaxes in Literature
Of course, in addition to novels and short stories, plays also have climaxes. Shakespeare is well-known for his complex plots and striking climax scenes. These moments are often surprising and sometimes shift a reader’s idea of how the resolution is going to play itself out. In Romeo and Juliet’s case, the climax occurs in Act 3, when Romeo kills Tybalt after the death of Mercutio. He soon realizes that this is his wife’s cousin. It leads to his banishment and, eventually, the unfortunate choices that lead to the two main characters’ deaths. Romeo is well aware of the impact of what he’s done after Tybalt dies. He says, “O! I am Fortune’s Fool!” A statement that sums up the fate that awaits Romeo and Juliet.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
There are numerous examples of climaxes throughout the Harry Potter series, at least one in every novel. But, with the final novel, and the climax scene with Voldemort and Harry, Rowling provides a climax to the entire series. It’s the moment that Harry has been waiting for but has only just come to understand in full. He knows he has to face Voldemort and allow him to kill him. Here are a few lines from that passage:
Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—
He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.
This decision proves, once again, Harry’s goodness and leads to a peaceful resolution at the end of the novel.
In Salinger’s best-known work, the climax is more complicated than the two prior examples. Some believe it occurs when Holden leaves his ex-teachers apartment, while others believe it’s slightly later on in the novel when Holden decides not to “go west.” The latter feels more important to the overall arc of the story. Especially considering it ends with Holden in a mental health facility getting treatment.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Crucible has a great example of a climax when Proctor admits to the court that he committed adultery with Abigail Williams, who has been the main accuser of women in Salem. It comes right after she accuses John Proctor’s wife. It’s this last desperate confession Proctor hopes will save his wife. The court is left with a difficult decision, believe John and discredit Abigail, or accuse him of lying to the court (perjury). John’s confession marks a turning point in the story. After he reveals this fact, nothing is the same again. He says to the court, “I have known her, sir. I have known her.” Then, he follows it up b adding that Abigail:
thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat.
He admits his adultery and sin, something far more life-changing in his time and society than contemporary life, in order to try to save his wife.
Why Do Writers Use Climaxes?
It’s incredibly important that writers use a climax in their stories. Without climaxes, the rising action has no meaning, nor does the time that the reader spent involved with the book. It’s where their conflict reaches its peak and is often the most interesting element of a story. Its importance to the plot structure can’t be overstated. It is also used as a stylistic device to make sure that the work is balanced. It’s a powerful part of a story that enhances a reader’s experience with the work.
- High point
Related Literary Terms
- Exposition: the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Anti-hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.