Shelley Widhalm

Rising to a Story’s Climax

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 15, 2012 at 11:00 am

If books were just about the climax of the story, they would be less than a page. Or if they included the mini-climaxes up to the big one, the telling could be stretched to a few pages.

Sounds pretty boring, huh?

A story is told to build toward that climax, or the peak or most intense part of the telling. The climax is the result of all the events preceding it.

The pace of the telling needs to steadily increase toward the climax.

In my novel “Dropping Colors,” my protagonist Kate Letts, a 35-year-old oil painter working in retail, loses everything she owns in an apartment fire. To try to replace her lost things, she ensues in a search of thrift shops, flea markets and the like. Her search is self-destructive and just when she thinks she’s lost more than physical things, such as her inspiration to do her art, she finds the skeleton key (something she is not supposed to have but that has intense meaning for her).

Since I’m halfway through the telling and very brief in my outlines, I have yet to find this compelling moment in my story.

But for my reader, it will be the peak of emotional response, as well as the turning point in the story’s action that always follows some crisis.

Stories follow a classic formula that includes the rising action, the climax and the falling action, or the beginning, middle and end.

At the climax, the main character will make a discovery that changes her life. She encounters the largest obstacle, and how she responds determines whether she will win or lose. If she loses, it’s at the ending where she will figure out how to turn things around. If she wins, she still will affect the outcome of the story.

The climax is when the character is transformed. It’s her moment of truth. And it is her new normal.

I don’t yet know exactly what Kate will discover, but it will be along the lines of understanding that the things we accrue through the process of living do not mean much when compared with something more important (which also will be my theme).

It’s at the climax that the story pivots from an intense building toward the peak moment to fall back down to the end. Without it, the story becomes a joke without a point or a life story that we hear from friends that goes on and on without meaning, a lesson learned or a truth revealed. It is flat with a beginning and a middle, a middle, a middle …

  1. and i wish you a wonderful journey on the way to discover Kate’s ‘new normal’. i wonder if the guitar player will play a part?

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