This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101
Creating an Emotionally Resonant Climax
How to Bring a Story to an End
There are four steps that can heighten tension and reader interest in the climax of a story.
The Beginning of the End is often used to refer to the climax of the story, or roughly the last 25% of the novel (in terms of word count or page count). After building the tension and conflict of the middle of your novel, now you want a strong ending that will grip the reader, then provide resolution and release of tension.
Give the Character a Certain Personal Principle
It heightens the emotional effect of the climax to bring the character’s principle into the mix. Tying principle with external situations gives life meaning for the character, which can help heighten emotional and psychological resonance between the reader and the character. This is one way a writer can manipulate the reader’s feelings through fiction.
Have the Character Keep His Principles Or Break Them
Give the character a choice between two courses of action. In building toward the climax, box the character in and take away his choices until he’s left with these two. This decision can become the focal point of all the conflict in the story, triggering release of emotional tension.
One good type of decision for the climax is to give the character an easy way to attain his External Goal if he sacrifices his personal principles, or to have the character stick to his personal principles and sacrifice his External Goal.
This decision at the climax clearly shows the reader the core values of this character—what he decides at this moment shows who he really, truly is. It is a test of character. The decisions and actions of the character at this moment of high stress shows what his true feelings are.
It can be a way to prove to the reader that he’s worthy of a happy ending, even if that happy ending doesn’t seem likely at this point.
Give the Character the Consequences of the Decision
Follow the principles of Cause and Effect—and if it fits with the story, make things as bad as possible for the character. Conflict can add personal interest for the reader because she has just read about the character’s crucial choice.
Sometimes this is called the Black Moment, where All Is Lost. Many times, this is where the protagonist has utterly failed in his External Goal.
Give the Character a Resolution
Reward him for self-sacrifice or punish him for selfishness (or the opposite, depending on the character and story). Give fulfillment and satisfaction or punishment for the character, whatever is appropriate for the story and the character arc.
This can be a place for the protagonist to be “rescued” from an outside force of help. The character would have already proven to the reader that he “deserves” a happy ending by his heroic choice (see above), so this type of rescue provides satisfaction to the reader.
Also, it can be a good idea to make sure that at the end you leave the character changed somehow from the beginning of the story. Otherwise, you might leave your reader with a sense of frustration that they read an entire novel and nothing changed for this character.
If you follow—somewhat—these four key points for your climax, this ensures a strong structure for the ending of the book that will not only keep your reader interested, but also provide a sense of satisfaction when the book ends.