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Aristotle's Incline Plotting in 3 Acts

Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: The Climactic Scene

The stakes are at their highest in the final face-off between the antagonist and protagonist of your novel.  With the reader’s expectations keyed to the maximum, this do-or-die moment can make or break your book. No pressure there, right?

Breathe deep and hang on tight, because we’re going to dive into the climactic scene. Although that final, nail-biting event occurs near the end of your book, the build-up to it encompasses most of Act 3. You will recall that Act 2 ends with  the second plot point that propels the plot toward its final major conflict. If you’ve built your story well, your readers will be turning pages to find out what happens next.

How do you bring the story to this enviable point?

Plotting a Novel in 3 Acts by Janalyn Voigt for Live Write Breathe
Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: The Climactic Scene

Make Readers Worry

Throughout your story the protagonist should pursue a deep desire that events conspire to circumvent.  Each obstacle leads the protagonist farther away from the desired outcome and closer to the thing feared most (often the direct opposite of the deep desire). This is the essence of any story arc, in a nutshell. By the time the story reaches the climactic scene, attainment of the protagonist’s deep desire seems all but impossible. Indeed it would be if the protagonist had not experienced a life-changing epiphany.

It is out of this changed mindset that the protagonist is now able to face his or her greatest fear and overcome a previously impossible challenge. Frodo finds the strength from within to cast the one ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Scarlet gains the wisdom to overcome her infatuation for the wrong man and confess her love for Rhett. (Regardless of Rhett’s subsequent rejection, this is her moment of victory.)  Victory should never be a sure thing, though, and in fact defeat should seem more likely.

One way to make your readers worry is to have the protagonist’s epiphany take place off stage, so to speak. Readers experience the black moment but don’t learn how it changed the protagonist until the final confrontation.  This leaves them guessing, which is always a good thing. Involving readers in the epiphany can be powerful, so consider this well. What to do depends on the dictates of the story. Revealing Scarlett’s changed mindset in Gone With The Wind, doesn’t give the ending away as her unpredictable nature makes it uncertain what she will do next. She has demonstrated over the course of the novel that she is capable of truly messing up her life, making the reader’s concern for her well-founded.

To avoid giving away your story’s ending too soon, give away only as much information as will keep readers from becoming frustrated.

Raise the Stakes

Make sure the final conflict is something worth fighting over. Not every story has to have a world at stake, but the outcome should matter to your reader. Only when you touch readers’ emotions on a gut level will they truly engage with your story. To do this, evoke universal experiences. We can all understand on a gut level a parent’s fear for a child’s safety, the drive to redeem a failure, or the need to appease guilt through forgiveness. The depth of your readers’  identification with your protagonist’s struggle correlates directly with their perception of risk.

The antagonist, whether an actual person or not, should be a worthy opponent offering formidable opposition. The stronger the antagonist, the greater the risk will seem. This doesn’t mean your antagonist should have no weaknesses, however. Unless you’re writing melodrama, avoid making a hero too heroic and a villain too dastardly.

Shorten the Time Frame

You can wrest control out of your main character’s hands and propel the plot into a satisfying resolution by abbreviating the time needed to attain the main character’s desired outcome. With less time than ever and the clock ticking relentlessly, suspense can’t fail to heighten.

Stage the Final Conflict

Tolkien could have placed the climactic scene of his The Lord of the Rings Trilogy anywhere, but he chose Mount Doom. The name of this location is already so sinister it creates a sense of dread in advance of the final conflict. This is foreshadowing at its best. Even in genres that don’t call for obvious naming, it can be possible to carry off subtle nuances.

Climactic events often take place in a new location to increase the sense of isolation and drama. The setting for the final showdown should match the mood of the story and complicate the protagonist’s journey by giving the advantage to the antagonist.

Resist the Urge to Explain

We’ve all seen movies or read books where the villain and hero engage in a lengthy conversation about what brought them to the present situation. Unless handled well, this tactic usually doesn’t work well because it slows events to a snail’s pace and stalls momentum. It’s hard to pull out of the tailspin that results, which brings us to the next point.

Keep the Pacing Fast

Now is not the time for leisurely descriptive passages and lengthy introspection. Action is the thing that’s needed most here. Simple sentence structures help keep momentum high. They hit the reader with a constant barrage of new thoughts. It’s usually best to save lyrical sentences for slower passages. Let your sentences serve the story and not vice versa.

Let the Main Character Win

Your main character should directly affect the outcome of the final conflict.  Never cheat the reader of the vicariously defeating a worthy antagonist to win a prize of value. There should be a moment of truth when your protagonist acts upon the change brought about in the epiphany following the black moment. From this point on, the wheels are in motion to bring about the antagonist’s defeat.

Don’t Cut Away Too Soon

Let your reader revel in the main character’s hard-won reward. That’s not to say you should drag things out, but pause a moment to let your reader taste the sweetness of victory.

Writing the climactic scene can intimidate the best of us, but with these points in mind, it can be done well.

Do you have more tips to add? Have you ever been intimidated at the thought of writing a climactic scene?

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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

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