In a narrative (within an essay, short story, novel, film, or play), a climax is the turning point in the action (also known as the crisis) and/or the highest point of interest or excitement. Adjective: climactic.
In its simplest form, the classical structure of a narrative can be described as rising action, climax, falling action-known in journalism as BME (beginning, middle, end).
From the Greek, "ladder."
Examples and Observations
- The Climax of E.B. White's Essay "Once More to the Lake"
"One afternoon while we were there at that lake a thunderstorm came up. It was like the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect. This was the big scene, still the big scene. The whole thing was so familiar, the first feeling of oppression and heat and a general air around camp of not wanting to go very far away. In mid-afternoon (it was all the same) a curious darkening of the sky, and a lull in everything that had made life tick; and then the way the boats suddenly swung the other way at their moorings with the coming of a breeze out of the new quarter, and the premonitory rumble. Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills. Afterward the calm, the rain steadily rustling in the calm lake, the return of light and hope and spirits, and the campers running out in joy and relief to go swimming in the rain, their bright cries perpetuating the deathless joke about how they were getting simply drenched, and the children screaming with delight at the new sensation of bathing in the rain, and the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.
"When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower, and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death."
(E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake." Essays of E.B. White, 1941. Rpt. Harper & Row, 1977)
- Climaxes in Anecdotes
"Anecdotes are really miniature stories with all the appurtenances of same. They must lay the groundwork so the reader can follow the action. They must introduce characters with clear objectives, then show the characters striving toward those objectives. They usually have conflict. They move toward a climax, then usually have a denouement, just like a short story. And they have to be structured; the raw material from which they're built is seldom in final form when you get it. Warning: 'Structuring' does not mean changing facts, it means perhaps rearranging their order, cutting nonessentials, emphasizing the quotes or actions that drive home the point."
(André Fontaine and William A. Glavin, The Art of Writing Nonfiction, 2nd ed. Syracuse University Press, 1991)
- Climaxes in Nonfiction
- "My nature essays have… been fairly conventional to date. Every essay has some sort of 'hook' to catch the reader's attention in the opening… ; consists of a beginning, middle, and end; includes significant amounts of natural history information; moves toward some discernible climax, which can take the form of a revelation, an image, a rhetorical question, or some other closing device… ; and strives at all times to keep the personal presence of the narrator in the foreground."
(John A. Murray, Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide, revised ed. University of New Mexico Press, 1995)
- "The essay, unlike the article, is inconclusive. It plays with ideas, juxtaposing them, trying them out, discarding some ideas on the way, following others to their logical conclusion. In the celebrated climax of his essay on cannibalism, Montaigne forces himself to admit that had he himself grown up among cannibals, he would in all likelihood have become a cannibal himself."
(Thomas H. Eriksen, Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence. Berg Publishers, 2006)
- Ayn Rand on the Climax in a Nonfiction Article
"The 'climax' in a nonfiction article is the point at which you demonstrate what you set out to demonstrate. It might require a single paragraph or several pages. There are no rules here. But in preparing the outline, you must keep in mind where you start from (i.e., your subject) and where you want to go (i.e., your theme-the conclusion you want your reader to reach). These two terminal points determine how you will get from one to the other. In good fiction, the climax-which you must know in advance-determines what events you need in order to bring the story to that point. In nonfiction too, your conclusion gives you a lead to the steps needed to bring the reader to the climax.
"The guiding question in this process is: What does the reader need to know in order to agree with the conclusion? That determines what to include. Select the essentials of what you need in order to convince the reader-keeping in mind the context of your subject."
(Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, 1958. NAL, 2000)
- Charlie Chaplin on Comic Climaxes
"Besides Douglas Fairbanks' pool one day, the playwright Charles MacArthur, who had lately been lured from Broadway to write a screenplay, was bemoaning the fact that he was finding it difficult to write visual jokes.
"'What's the problem?' asked Charlie Chaplin.
"'How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It's been done a million times,' said MacArthur. 'What's the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching; then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?'
"'Neither,' said Chaplin without a moment's hesitation. 'You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.'”
(David Niven, Bring on the Empty Horses. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975)