The climax of a young adult adventure story might be the most formulaic yet. The pattern is familiar, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a little surprising.
Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games share similar traits at the high point of the story: the hero enters the villain’s lair alone and we anticipate the final, physical brawl. But first, some foreshadowed events finally occur, and a twist is revealed. Don’t worry, the villain explains it all as the hero stalls for time!
Try using these 5 elements in your story to reach the zen of a highly satisfying and exciting ending that just might write itself.*
*just kidding. it’s hard work.
1. Set the climax in the Villain’s Lair.
The hero enters the villain’s lair alone, and there is really no way out without a direct conflict with villain. The hero must fight.
- Harry, Ron, and Hermione go through the trapdoor, but Harry enters the final chamber alone. “He put the bottle down and walked forward; he braced himself, saw the black flames licking his body, but couldn’t feel them — for a moment he could see nothing but dark fire — then he was on the other side, in the last chamber.” (HG Ch.16).
- Bella meets the evil vampire James in a closed dance studio. When the mirrored wall smashes, he says “I thought this room would be visually dramatic for my little film. That’s why I picked this place to meet you. It’s perfect, isn’t it?” (TW Ch.22).
- Katniss has always been stuck in the games, but after killing Cato, she realizes she still can’t leave. Though she is with Peeta, he is so injured that she must do all the fighting. “Now they will take us. Now we can go home. But again there’s no response. ‘What are they waiting for?’ says Peeta weakly.” (HG Ch.25).
2. Reveal the Twist!
The villain tricked the hero– and the reader. The twist has to make total sense now that it is revealed, meaning that you should have been dropping small hints about it throughout the novel.
- Harry thinks Professor Snape will be in the last chamber. “There was already someone there– but it wasn’t Snape. It wasn’t even Voldemort. It was Quirrel. “You!” gasped Harry.” (HP Ch.17).
- James tricks Bella into thinking that he had her mother hostage, but it was just a recording of her voice. “Bella? Bella?” she’d called to me in fear. And then the TV screen was blue. . . .And suddenly it hit me. My mother was safe.” (TW Ch.22).
- The Gamemakers reveal that only one tribute can live instead of two. “I stare at Peeta in disbelief as the truth sinks in. They never intended to let us both live. . . And like a fool, I bought it.” (HG Ch.25).
3. Let the villain explain himself.
The villain explains how he tricked the hero, and explains any other loose ends of mysteries that are spread throughout the story. The hero is eager to let him talk (for paragraphs at a time) while he tries to come up with a plan.
- Quirrell explains that Snape was never trying to kill Harry. “No, no no. I tried to kill you.” (HP Ch.17). Quirrell explains other mysteries, like why he was drinking unicorn blood and how he let the troll in. Meanwhile, “All Harry could think of doing was to keep Quirrell talking and stop him from concentrating on the mirror.” (HP Ch.17).
- James explains how he found Bella, and some extra backstory about Alice. “And so they told me what I’d hoped, that you were here after all. I was prepared; I’d already been through your charming home movies. And then it was simply a matter of the bluff.” (TW Ch.22).
- The Gamemakers explain, “The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed.” (HG Ch.25).
4. Make that foreshadowed thing happen.
We gave the hero a hint in the pre-middle that foreshadowed the climax, before he set out on this journey. Then we gave him a foreshadowing nightmare. Now is the time to cash in those foreshadowing checks.
- Quirrell made Harry’s scar burn on his first night at Hogwarts, and Dumbledore already taught Harry how to use the Mirror of Erised: “If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared.” (HP Ch.12). In the climax, Harry’s scar burns again and he uses the mirror to his advantage.
- Alice foreshadowed the twist in her vision. “I see a room. It’s long, and there are mirrors everywhere. . . .He’s watching TV . . . no, he’s running a VCR, in the dark, in another place.” (TW Ch.20).
- Katniss already ate berries while defying the Capitol before the reaping. “And may the odds–” [Gale] tosses a berry in a high arc toward me. I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. “–be ever in your favor!” (HG Ch.1). Compare this with climax: “The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare.” (HG Ch.25).
5. Get physical with a Battle Royale.
Finally, the much anticipated fight occurs. The hero gives it everything he’s got, though it’s not going so well. (The fight ends with the hero getting knocked out.)
- Harry and Quirrell fight: “and Quirrell lunged, knocking Harry clean off his feet, landing on top of him, both hands around Harry’ neck — Harry’s scar was almost blinding him with pain, yet he could see Quirrell howling in agony.” (HP Ch.17).
- James attacks Bella: “I couldn’t help myself — I tried to run. . . . He was in front of me in a flash. . . .A crushing blow struck my chest — I felt myself flying backward, and then heard the crunch as my head bashed into the mirrors.” (TW Ch.23).
- Katniss and Peeta fight Cato, all while trying not to fall off the giant cornucopia. “He cries out and reflexively releases Peeta who slams back against him. For a horrible moment, I think they’re both going over. I dive forward just catching hold of Peeta as Cato loses his footing on the blood-slick horn and plummets to the ground.”
Why it Works
The final battle scene can be a little cliché. . . And maybe it should be.
By the time readers gets to the climax, the action is happening so quickly that you almost have to give them what they expect (including the heavily foreshadowed twist). Otherwise, you risk the jarring effect that happens when the reader says “huh?” and must reread the last paragraph.
For a great post on making the climax more meaningful, check out K.M. Weiland’s article on writing an emotionally resonant climax.
Do you agree that the ending should be a little cliché?