On Writing Good TV & Movie Climaxes: 4 Tips

On writing Climaxes

The climax of your story is (usually) where all your character conflict and your unfolding plot is resolved or your protagonists goal is achieved. Usually this would be at the end of the story but in television or in films like Pulp Fiction, this structure may not be so clear cut.

When a decent screenplay does an effective job at building rising conflict then the anticipation builds toward what surprises and turns the coming resolution brings. Resolving the conflict of your story needs to be equal to the amount tension you’ve built up in the audience or they may feel a bit cheated. But trust me, fixing a bad or inadequate ending is a problem that is much easier to solve than having a boring or unfocused beginning.

As an aside- I always laugh when an inexperienced or bad writer gets upset when I give up reading their script after the first few pages. Time is the most valuable commodity in the world and if I’m helping you out by investing my time, you really shouldn’t dare to waste mine. A script that is bad by page 3 is usually bad by page 20, and typically even worse on page 50 or 80. But show me a script that is good at the beginning and in the middle and very likely that script will be good at the end. And on occasion when a good script ends poorly, it is disappointing but forgiveable because I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my valuable time.

So back to the subject at hand. Getting a really impactful climax tends to be the most exciting part of the story because the reader gets the expected emotional payoff and thank you for taking up their time to read it.

Now a lot of newbie writers struggle with building up all the right level of anticipation- making the plot seem choppy- rushed in some places, too long in others and then suddenly they’re at the climax.

This type of ending falls flat so here are four tips on how to write a strong

Tip One

give your protagonist a disadvantage the climax is supposed to be intense and nothing makes the climax more intense than when the protagonist is walking into the moment as the underdog.

You want the reader to question whether or not the protagonist is going to succeed. If the reader feel like conclusion is guaranteed, it’s not going to be exciting so have your protagonist enter the story as the expected loser and this can be great help to stories in all if not most genres.

If you’re writing a war story make sure the protagonists army is significantly outnumbered and if you’re writing a love story and your protagonist is fighting to win his girl back, make sure he’s up against another guy who’s got way more money or influence than he does.

Putting a protagonist at a disadvantage is the key to ramping up the anticipation right from the start and that’s how you get your reader interested in the climax from the start of the storyline.

Tip Two

Your bad guy needs to be a better competitor than your good guy. As the old writer’s formula states- your story is often only as interesting as your bad guy. And it really helps if your bad guy thinks he’s the star of the story.

Some stories don’t have a personified bad guy so if you don’t have a bad guy, you probably have an obstacle of some kind maybe it’s a disease or famine, or a tsunami that turns over the Poseidon and traps your protagonists in the overturned boat.

Whatever the obstacle or bad guy may be, your story outcome should seem very uncertain under their influence.

There few things more disappointing than when the reader gets to the climax expecting an epic showdown and the bad guy just curls up into the fetal position and says don’t hurt me theoretically your protagonist has been scared of this wimp or this minor obstacle for the whole story. Make it so when the two forces finally reach the end, the apprehension needs to be justified.

If your reader is not intimidated by the bad guy or the obstacle then you’re doing it wrong!

Tip Three

Your protagonists needs to mostly fail. There’s an old joke about the British army and how they lose every battle but the last- Waterloo, The 100 Days, Mandalay, D-Day. Your protagonist has to be resilient in the face of defeat or near-defeat, improvise, and come back and save the day or change for the better.

This also goes along with the villain being formidable and your stakes in the story being really high in some regard. Now keep in mind that there are tons of studies on storytelling that state that climaxes where the protagonist almost dies or they almost lose their lover are just more powerful and more enjoyable.

Film audiences really respond to these stories after they get invested in your character’s fate. Any storyline where the protagonist instantly succeeds gets boring really really fast.

For this reason audiences and story readers tend to prefer protagonists that work really really hard to earn the victory and people want to see this tough struggle pay off where the protagonist push themselves to the limits of perseverance. This type of story leaves the reader also feeling like they have grown emotionally along with your good guy. It’s always inspiring to have your protagonist almost lose it, all and then suddenly come back swinging and this makes your reader super excited about having spent the time to read your story.

And this obviously applies to your screen audience that gets to share in the satisfaction of your main character.

Now for those of you who are intending to start out writing a story with a sad ending, this same underdog struggle applies. You want your readers and audience to be pulling for your protagonist up until the bitter end when they will share in your main character’s devastation. Again, it’s about involving your reader emotionally with your character no matter what the ultimate outcome.

Tip Four

When at all possible, try to throw surprises at the reader. Not all screenplays feature surprises or plot twists , obviously, but if you’re a new writer trying to make an impression on an agent or producer, you’re going to need to come up with at least one memorable surprise- and usually this reveal comes at the climax .

This has the effect of making your climax even more memorable. I know this is a tall order but you’re the one who wants to get paid tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars writing scripts for a living so it’s up to you to bring your A-game when you’re trying to break in.

Use the climax to drop a bombshell on your reader that they weren’t expecting and you’re going to have readers chatting with their bosses about the amazing new writer (you!) that they just discovered.

The best movie and TV climaxes will have the reader gasping out loud or cussing or cheering out loud.

Putting a good reversal or surprise together and making it work in the context of your climax is never easy but here is where your creativity and imagination as a writer gets put to good use.

Just think of the best fake-outs or climaxes of your favorite films or tv shows- now ask yourself what would have happened if you put a comedy climax into an action story or borrow a climax from a romance story and use it to inspire your detective thriller climax.

I like using surprise climaxes in horror or scary stories and try them on comedy stories. It turns out these two story genre’s can be interchangeable when you make slight changes.

Now not all climaxes feature surprises but your climax does have to be the most intense. Your climax should exceed the other intense or funny parts of your storyline.

Remember, the key is to a good climax is make us care for your character, put the odds against your character and make them work really really hard to achieve whatever goal they’re trying to achieve this is going to keep your reader on their toes and rooting for the story.

On writing Climaxes

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