What makes a great climax?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Come on, admit it, one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.

Brett talked about beginnings this week – so I thought I’d bookend it.

I was watching “The Making of Jaws” the other night. I swear, DVD bonus features are the best thing that EVER happened for writers and film students. No one needs film school anymore – just watch the commentaries on DVDs. (That’s something you’re not going to be able to experience the same way when everything goes to streaming video – could be a big problem, there…)

Peter Benchley, the author and co-screenwriter, was talking about the ending of the film. He said that from the beginning of production Spielberg had been ragging on him about the ending – he said it was too much of a downer. For one thing, the visual wasn’t right – if you’ll recall the book, once Sheriff Brody has killed the shark (NOT by blowing it up), the creature spirals slowly down to the bottom of the sea.

Spielberg found that emotionally unsatisfying. He wanted something bigger, something exciting, something that would have audiences on their feet and cheering. He proposed the oxygen tank – that Brody would first shove a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth, and then fire at it until he hit the tank and the shark went up in a gigantic explosion. Benchley argued that it was completely absurd – no one would ever believe that could happen. Spielberg countered that he had taken the audience on the journey all this time – we were with the characters every step of the way. The audience would trust him if he did it right.

And it is a wildly implausible scene, but you go with it. That shark has just eaten Quint, whom we have implausibly come to love (through the male bonding and then that incredible revelation of his experience being one of the crew of the wrecked submarine that were eaten one by one by sharks). And when Brody, clinging to the mast of the almost entirely submerged boat – aims one last time and hits that shark, and it explodes in water, flesh and blood – it is an AMAZING catharsis.

Topped only by the sudden surfacing of the beloved Richard Dreyfuss character, who has, after all, survived. (in the book he died – but was far less of a good guy.) The effect is pure elation.

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

This is a good lesson, I think: above all, in an ending, the reader/audience has to CARE. A good ending has an emotional payoff, and it has to be proportionate to what the character AND the reader/audience has experienced.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is another terrific example of emotional exhilaration in the end. Once George Bailey has seen what would have happened to his little town if he had never been born, and he decides he wants to live and realizes he IS alive again, the pleasures just keep coming and coming and coming. It is as much a relief for us as for George, to see him running through town, seeing all his old friends and familiar places restored. And then to see the whole town gathering at his house to help him, one character after another appearing to lend money, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. They feel, as George does, that the little things you do every day DO count.

So underneath everything you’re struggling to pull together in an ending, remember to step back and identify what you want your reader or audience to FEEL.

Another important component in an ending is a sense of inevitability – that it was always going to come down to this. Sheriff Brody does everything he can possibly do to avoid being on the water with that shark. He’s afraid of the water, he’s a city-bred cop, he’s an outsider in the town – he’s the least likely person to be able to deal with this gigantic creature of the sea. He enlists not one but two vastly different “experts from afar”, the oceanographer Hooper and the crusty sea captain Quint, to handle it for him. But deep down we know from the start, almost BECAUSE of his fear and his unsuitability for the task, that in the final battle it will be Sheriff Brody, alone, mano a mano with that shark. And he kills it with his own particular skill set – he’s a cop, and one thing he knows is guns. It’s unlikely as hell, but we buy it, because in crisis we all resort to what we know.

And it’s always a huge emotional payoff when a reluctant hero steps up to the plate.

It may seem completely obvious to say so, but no matter how many allies accompany the hero/ine into the final battle, the ultimate confrontation is almost always between the hero/ine and the main antagonist, alone. By all means let the allies have their own personal battles and resolutions within battle – that can really build the suspense and excitement of a climactic sequence. But don’t take that final victory out of the hands of your hero/ine or the story will fall flat.

Also, there is very often a moment when the hero/ine will realize that s/he and the antagonist are mirror images of each other. And/or the antagonist may provide a revelation at the moment of confrontation that nearly destroys the hero/ine… yet ultimately makes him or her stronger. (Think “I am your father” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)

The battle is also a chance to pay off all your setups and plants. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the battle he hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested.

PLACE is a hugely important element of an ending. Great stories usually, if not almost always, end in a location that has thematic and symbolic meaning. Here, once again, creating a visual and thematic image system for your story will serve you well, as will thinking in terms of SETPIECES (as we’ve talked about before) Obviously the climax should be the biggest setpiece sequence of all. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice must go down into the labyrinth to battle the monster and save the captured princess. In JAWS, the Sheriff must confront the shark on his own and at sea (and on a sinking boat!). In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy confronts the witch in her own castle. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indy must infiltrate the Nazi bunker. In PSYCHO, the hero confronts Tony Perkins in his basement – with the corpse of “Mother” looking on. (Basements are a very popular setting for thriller climaxes… that labyrinth effect, and the fact that “basement issues” are our worst fears and weaknesses).

And yes, there’s a pattern, here – the hero/ine very often has to battle the villain/opponent on his/her own turf.

A great, emotionally effective technique within battle is to have the hero/ine lose the battle to win the war. AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN did this beautifully in the final obstacle course scene, where the arrogant trainee Zack Mayo, who has always been out only for himself, sacrifices his own chance to graduate first in his class to help a classmate over the wall and complete the course, thus overcoming his own flaw of selfishness and demonstrating himself to be true officer material.

Another technique to build a bigger, more satisfying climax is is to have the allies get THEIR desires, too – as in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

And a particularly effective emotional technique is to have the antagonist ma have a character change in the end of the story. KRAMER VS. KRAMER did this exceptionally well, with the mother seeing that her husband has become a great father and deciding to allow him custody of their son, even though the courts have granted custody to her. It’s a far greater win than if the father had simply beaten her. Everyone has changed for the better.

Because CHANGE may just be the most effective and emotionally satisfying ending of all. Nothing beats having both Rick and Captain Renault rise above their cynical and selfish instincts and go off together to fight for a greater good. So bringing it back to the beginning – one of the most important things you can design in setting up your protagonist is where s/he starts in the beginning, and how much s/he has changed in the end.

I bet you all can guess the question for today! What are your favorite endings of screen and page, and what makes them great?

Previous articles on Story Structure:

What’s Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Creating Suspense:

Elements of Act Two, Part Two:

34 thoughts on “What makes a great climax?

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Wow, Alex. Great info here.

    I’ve read and seen lot of stuff, it’s really hard to choose. But this ending is one that has stuck with me since I read it.

    WHEN THE ELEPHANTS DANCE — I know I’ve mentioned this book before, but, there is a great example of a climax here that involves character change, and it even doesn’t involve one of the main three characters. Throughout the book, there is one character, Selso, who is always afraid to stand up to the Japanese soldiers. Throughout the book, he is seen as a coward.

    Near the end Selso, his elderly father, and some other friends and neighbors are being held in a warehouse by Japanese soldiers. One of the Japanese soldiers strikes Selso’s father and this lights a fire under him. He attacks the the soldier which also gets the other captives to fight against the soldiers with whatever they had: shoes, boxes and a fighting spirit. I have to say that I was very moved by that scene.

    Once again, thanks for all this valuable info. It’s really helping me out.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, that’s the kind of scene that will get me sobbing every time. It’s so true of so many people that we’re able to find courage to defend others more easily than to defend ourselves.

    Gregory, I didn’t know I was allowed to write a sequel to King! 😉

    Reply
  3. Rae

    Excellent topic, Alex!

    Favorite ending of a book, ever, is City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin. I read it two years ago and it still sticks with me. It was shocking, in a good way, and satisfying, and wrapped the story up perfectly.

    Lee Child writes great endings – my current favorite is The Enemy. With the Reacher stories, you can always count on the bad guys getting pounded into pudding, and that satisfies my blood lust quite nicely.

    I loved the endings, both book and film, of Lord of the Rings. After the epic scale of the story, to bring it all back to the simplicity of a father coming home is just perfect.

    The Devil Wears Prada is also a favorite. The last moment, where Meryl Streep (who can do no wrong) smiles as she thinks about Anne Hathaway tells us that she’s supportive of Anne, and that she gets the cosmic joke of it all.

    The ending of GM Ford’s “Blown Away” blew me away. I absolutely didn’t see it coming. And it’s dark, dark, dark.

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  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ooh, tons of great examples from Rae! Yeah, I love those stories in which the opponent turns out to be not such an opponent after all.

    Haven’t read CITY OF SHADOWS, but now will have to. It’s true, we like to be satisfied by an ending, but we also like to be shocked. That’s really delicious when an author pulls it off.

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  5. pari

    Alex,This series of writing instruction really does deserve a broader venue; I know you’re using these in classes, but let’s get you a nonfiction contract too. ‘Kay?

    I’m having a difficult time coming up with endings because I can’t comment on anything I’m reading right now — it’s all stuff for the Edgars. I bet JD knows what I’m talking about.

    But I hark back to the The Secret Garden and Mary’s incredible transformation from a self-centered brat to a loving, selfless child.

    That, or even, in Pride and Prejudice and the same kind of transformation in both the lead characters.

    Reply
  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, “transformation” is a much better word than “change”. It conveys the scope of what a character goes through in a great story.

    (Thanks for the props. So much writing, so little time…)

    Reply
  7. Fiona

    After reading this post, I went back and reread the earlier ones.

    Thanks so much for sharing these insights into craft.

    PLEASE consider getting this out to a wider audience. I know you need 30 hours in the day and 10 days in a week to get through your current commitments, but this is begging to be a book.

    Reply
  8. B.G. Ritts

    There’s a small revelation at the end of SJ Rozan’s ABSENT FRIENDS that makes you wish you could call one of the characters to tell her about it. It’s something she needs to know. The book was an emotional ride, but that one disclosure wrapped up the story with a loving touch.

    Reply
  9. Tom

    Two words, Alex; editorial assistant. Get these essays (waaaay too good not to be better known) collected and published. They are practical, insightful and comprehensible. They will sell for years and years.

    Reply
  10. Tom

    Oh – favorite ending; all the impossibilities and conflicts pulled into alignment at the end of CJ Cherryh’s DOWNBELOW STATION. Signy Mallory, as it happens, is also Alex’s fictional look-alike.

    Reply
  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “There’s a small revelation at the end of SJ Rozan’s ABSENT FRIENDS that makes you wish you could call one of the characters to tell her about it.”

    BG, that is a wonderfully charming way to put it and makes me rabid to read the book. It’s stuff like that EXACTLY that make an ending resonate. I’d have to say that there’s one of those at the end of Mo Hayder’s THE TREATMENT – it is pure tragedy that the main character will never know what you know. It was a heartbreaking position for me as a reader.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You guys, I really appreciate your feedback about making a book out of all this stuff. I’m pretty much hyperventilating over deadlines as it is, but I wrote THE HARROWING 15 minutes at a time, so I guess I can do this, too.

    Reply
  13. R.J. Mangahas

    “RJ, that’s the kind of scene that will get me sobbing every time.”

    Alex, I can’t ever read that scene without some sort of tearing going on. It’s THAT powerful.

    Reply
  14. toni mcgee causey

    A great post, Alex–and a perfect one for me to read this weekend as I am polishing the climax.

    As I read this, I keep hearkening back to THE TERMINATOR, where Sarah had to overcome her reticence. It was one of the first films to employ the multiple ending (if I’m not mistaken) and threw the audience off guard, while emphasizing just how utterly determined the Terminators were (and were going to be). It taught the audience not to believe in final endings, that the bad guy just might get up and come back one more time, which built in a suspicion the filmmakers then used in subsequent films (as did many others). There’s an arc, too, to her determination to survive there at the end–an education of sorts of who she’ll have to become to keep surviving. Interesting post.

    Reply
  15. Stephen D. Rogers

    “Topped only by the sudden surfacing of the beloved Richard Dreyfuss character, who has, after all, survived.”

    I feel the love, but still feel as though I’m witnessing a happy ending tacked on to please the crowd.

    Reply
  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    THE TERMINATOR really is one of the greats, Toni! I really think the emotional impact of that one has a lot to do with her going on even when she’s just lost the love of her life – she does it not for herself, but for her child, and for the whole fate of the world.

    I wonder about the “monster keeps gong” antecedents… I think it really came from earlier horror movies like CARRIE and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and HALLOWEEN. But probably back even further. It’s an interesting question!

    Reply
  17. Tammy Cravit

    Another writer who I think does incredibly powerful endings is Jodi Picoult.

    I just re-read “My Sister’s Keeper”, and even the third time through the ending hit me with an almost physical force. I cried at the ultimate resolution of Anna’s struggle, but the true impact of the climax didn’t just come from the emotion of what happened. No, the power came from the knowledge that, heart-wrenching though what had happened was, I had no doubt in my mind that it was absolutely the right thing, the only thing, that could have happened, that could have brought the story to a resolution.

    And, Alex, I’m going to join the chorus and urge you to gather this stuff up into a book. I’ve been working my way through your posts with my current novel-in-progress, and although I’ve made a vow not to revise until the first draft is down on paper, my “draft 2 revision notes” file has tripled in size since I started your series. (Not to mention that I realized I had my eye on the wrong villain BEFORE I got to the climax, for a change.)

    Reply
  18. Stephen D. Rogers

    A Bridge Too Far (the movie) – the character played by Sean Connery summing up his reaction to how the battle played out (using subtext) and then the other guy uttering the line that produced the title.

    Then, during the end titles, the long shot of the kid walking along holding a stick over his shoulder, palying soldier. It’s both a visual repeat of what the polish general said and a statement regarding probable futures.

    Reply
  19. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, damn, Alex, you’re right — I wasn’t thinking cross-genre. The multiple-ending action films owe that convention directly to the outstanding horror films that came before them. Good call.

    Reply
  20. Allison Brennan

    I feel like I’ve received the masters class after reading all these incredible lessons from Alex. 🙂

    There are so many great endings out there, and you named half of them. I’ll mention Disney . . . specifically Pixar. Those movies resonate with me (not just because I’ve seen them 100 times each) but because they are both simple in the storytelling and universal. They always reach me emotionally and take me on the ride, even though they are ostensibly for kids. I can’t honestly say which Pixar movie I love the best, but for the ending . . . probably FINDING NEMO. Visually it’s the most incredible of all the Pixar movies, but the parallel journeys of father and son coming together so powerfully at the end, a full-circle, always makes me cry. (Yes, I’m a softie.) THE INCREDIBLES had another emotionally satisfying ending of the family coming together to defeat the bad guy, learning that you can’t pretend to be something that you’re not. That they had to learn to trust each other to survive–great ending.

    Reply
  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Stephen, some absolutely fabulous examples and analysis, thank you!! ADAPTATION is hilarious for exactly that reason… come to think of it, THE PLAYER has an ending much like that, a horror ending if you think about it…

    There’s a reason the screenwriter always loses in films about Hollywood. 😉

    Reply
  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Tammy, I agree, Picoult is a staggeringly great storyteller. An ending that really bothers me of hers is the one in NINE MINUTES, because it ends with the mother, and I really couldn’t care less about her – it was the kids I wanted to know about.

    I’ve always wondered if that was intentional, to show that mother’s selfishness, or if I’m the only one who reads it that way. But it stays with me.

    Reply
  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Fascinating post, as always.

    For great endings, it probably has to be THE USUAL SUSPECTS for me. The way the film ties up the entire storyline into the final scenes, just brilliant.

    And yes, the director’s commentary is often what make me buy a film on DVD after I’ve seen it.

    SJ Rozan’s ABSENT FRIENDS is a modern classic, right the way through.

    Reply
  24. Allison Brennan

    Alex, buy the DVDs! It’s research. Write them off. I can’t believe you haven’t seen them. They’re some of the best movies made in our generation. I take the kids, of course, but . . . well, let’s just say I probably like them more than the kids. 🙂

    Reply

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