Climax is that point near the end of your story whereupon everything you’ve been building toward comes together at last in an explosion of activity.
(The recapitulation of theme-and-plot combined is what I call The Situation.)
Of those four components, the first three are primarily concerned with subject-matter, and the last — style, which is the most complex component of all — is concerned with presentation.
Presentation is The How of art.
At root, all artworks consist of two basic elements: subject and style — i.e. the what and the how.
There’s what you present (a love affair, a battle, a contest, a sunset) and there’s how you present it (clearly, dryly, concisely, sprawlingly, strangely, beautifully).
The Who — and I’m not speaking here of the band — are the characters. They’re part of The What.
These elements are brought together by the climax.
Climax is a sub-division of plot, and it marks the beginning of the end of your story. Climax is culmination. It is resolution.
A good resolution will invariably leave the reader feeling satisfied.
Climax is the point at which your characters and their conflicts are resolved.
Remember this: the greater the struggle, the better the plot, the more satisfying the resolution.
The climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark is when the Ark of the Covenant is finally opened. That is an example of a climax that delivers very well.
The climax of Star Wars, which is also a satisfying climax, is when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star.
A good climax resolves all conflicts that the writer has developed throughout the course of the story. When Chekov gave his famous advice — “Never hang a shotgun on the wall in the first act if you don’t intend for it to go off in the third” — he was speaking partly of climax, and here he spoke well.
A poorly constructed climax is one that does not resolve the conflicts. David Lynch’s movie Fire Walk With Me is an example of this.
Anticlimax is a minor or inconsequential event after the climax that doesn’t flow naturally from the climax and thus has no logical necessity to the plot. Anticlimax is a flaw: it is bad writing. For example, if in the first Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed had begun haggling over their purse after the fight (which is the climax, and a very good one at that) this would be an example of anticlimax.
(Sidenote: the term anticlimax has developed a secondary meaning: when the climax or punchline doesn’t deliver or isn’t satisfying — usually because the means by which it’s done are painfully trivial.)
Often I’m asked how best to go about the business of novel writing. It’s a difficult question to answer, in part because there’s so much that goes into the process, but one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve discovered is this:
When you’re building a plot, come up with your climax first. If you can construct a climax that brings all your characters and their conflicts together, you can in essence write backwards from that point. (By that I don’t necessarily mean you write chronologically backwards, although I have known writers who do exactly that.)
The reason I think this is so useful is that if you have a solid climax, you’ll always be dramatically safe. You’ll still make errors along the way — if, that is, you’re anything like me (heaven help you) — but if your climax is sound, those errors can easily be fixed in the revision process, and your story will live.