The climax of any story is one of the most difficult elements to conceive, let alone execute successfully. It takes up the bulk of the third act, contains emotional highs and lows akin to a Cedar Point trip, and through it all needs to hold the audience’s interest. If you fail in this goal as a writer, you lose your audience at the point where it’s all supposed to come together.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on more action oriented finales. The conclusions of stories like tragedies, romances or any number of comedies typically have free reign to do whatever, but action requires a little something else. As the conclusion of a comedy should be funny, action or adventure stories should be, well, exciting.
There are many examples of climaxes that fail. I for one am not a terribly big fan of the Bay TransFormers films in part due to their climaxes.
The endings of any TransFormers movie suffer from common issues. There’s a lack of variety in their set pieces, and the stakes aren’t high enough. Yes, the heroes, metal and cardboard as they are, are trying to prevent the destruction of the world. This is the plot device sometimes referred to as the Countdown.
We’ve all seen or read those parts of two characters fighting while a clock ticks lower in the background. The characters need to prevent something from happening, but are inhibited from doing so in order to create suspense. We watch the fight go on while being constantly reminded that this bad thing that shouldn’t happen is edging ever closer. This works when we believe when that clock runs out, our worst fears may be realized. That’s why it doesn’t work in TransFormers.
In a series like TransFormers, does anyone really think the creators are going to let Megatron push the button and kill everyone? Of course not. That would pretty much drive away its audience of young boys looking for jaws getting smashed. In stories, the world is not enough. So what you have to do is hold another threat over them, the threat of losing something or someone that may actually be sacrificed.
To continue my endless love for the Alien series, Aliens has one of the most successful final acts of any story ever. It knows how to threaten its audience. The character of Newt is taken by the creatures to be implanted with one of their ilk. In an R rated horror film dealing with interspecies rape, we have no guarantee that won’t happen. It’s already been established that the monsters kill indiscriminately, so the audience is unsure if Newt will be saved, or if this will very quickly become about avenging her death.
Long story short, when you make a threat, make sure your audience believes you may go through with it. Since they don’t know what will happen, that will keep them coming back.
While we’re on that topic, lets discuss variety.
If you don’t love Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong. Hate to break it to ya, but this movie rules. It knows how to keep the audience invested in what amounts to 20 minutes of none stop action in its hair raising third act. It does this by giving its climactic escape so much variety, it almost has three acts in and of itself.
It begins with the rescue of Willie from the lava pit, then goes into a conveyer belt fist fight, then moves on to the movie’s trademark mine cart chase, and finishes up in a great action scene on a rope bridge. It goes on and on, but no sequence outstays its welcome. Your battles can be as spectacular as anything that has ever been put on screen, but without variety, it won’t take very long to get dry.
Another key to delivering a successful conclusion to stories like this is the structure that goes into it. This is what the entire thing has been built up to, so it better deliver. What I’ve seen in some of my favorite climaxes is, as mentioned above, they’re divided into an entire three act stories themselves. It contains all the emotional highs and lows of any given narrative, though a little more condensed.
As this structure works for an entire story, it can also be applied to your final act, with all the built in peaks and valleys to keep your audience strangling the armrests on their chairs. You have your set up, build the action, things go well at first, then go wrong, a low point comes up, and when it looks like your audience won’t take a breath until you finish things, you grant them relief or despair. Think of it as a short story or film that goes into the whole. It should have a solid enough framework to stand on its own.
In my opinion, those are the big three elements that go into a successful action climax. Your threat should seem credible, the action should have variety, and the entire movement should be well structured. Because without a credible threat, there is no suspense, without variety, it gets dull, and with no structure, all you’re left with is a loud noisy mess. It may seem simple just to keep someone excited, but action and adventure are as difficult as any genre. It’s one thing to get an audience excited. It’s a whole other story to keep them there.