Aug 14, 2009

Article: The Climax

Aug 14, 2009
Hey, do you guys remember that awesome scene from Stargate where Daniel Jackson stands on the threshold of the portal and dances his fingers upon it's rippled surface it in glorious wonder? No? Well, nobody does because it wasn't in the best part... the climax!

What? You've never seen Stargate? Oh... well... it's a pretty good movie. I mean... I liked it...

What was I saying poorly? Ah yes, the climax! It's the pinnacle of a picture and, if done right, leaves you re-entering the real world on a real high. Are there any common threads between the best of them? Let's find out!

Or "Villain Exploding + More Explosions + Hero Striking A Pose = Awesome"

Every great story needs a climax. While it's form can alter dramatically from film to film, it will always serve the same purpose; to bring the heroes journey to it's penultimate peak. The following list is my attempt to boil the best climaxes I've observed down to their base elements.

It is no doubt incomplete, and I would love to hear any corrections or additions you might have to contribute. And remember that in writing there is no such thing as an unbreakable rule. Let's begin.

1) The Calm Before The Storm/Setting The Stakes
In A Nutshell:
If the audience doesn't know that they're watching the climax, it's game over. It's vital to milk the tension and the atmosphere, make the viewer feel the weight of what's coming before it hits. Most movies do this by having a 'here's the plan'/suiting up sequence followed by a quiet moment with the main characters dramatically emphasizing how they "don't have a choice", in the process establishing just how steep the odds are, the cost of failure and exactly what their objective is. It helps to at least hint where the finish line is as early in the movie as possible.
Flyboys is a perfect example of how not to do this. Never once in the movie is it clear what the story is building up to or what the protagonist's goals are. Worse still, there is a big zeppelin attack sequence that feels like a disappointing climax... but then the movie keeps going. Almost immediately the real climax begins and they don't tell the viewer. Afterwards, the movie just ends. It's messy stuff, folks.

2) Change Of Plans
In A Nutshell:
You know the plan? The one the heroes were banking on to win? Yeah, throw that out the window, it's no good here. Having the heroes plan fall apart is the best possible way to raise the stakes. Suddenly all bets are off and they have to wing it. Anyone could win! Well, the heroes are probably going to, but now it's off their sheer will and cunning!
In A Bug's Life, the plan is the bird. Once P.T. Flea is thrown in the mix, however, and he lights that sucker on fire the whole plan is shattered. What follows is a new plan that wasn't... well, planned, but it provides a surprisingly superior poetic solution to the problem.

3) The Villain Gets Serious/The Hero Gets Awesome
In A Nutshell:
These are two (or more) moments that, to me, always make the difference between a good climax and a great climax. First, the villain's calm and cool composure vanishes and they suddenly understand that the hero is a real threat. It adds serious cool points to the hero and raises the stakes because the hero no longer has the advantage of being underestimated. Second, the hero has to warrant that level of reaction. Launch their cool points into the stratosphere and make them kick ass and look cool doing it. If only for a moment, make it appear as though evil never stood a chance. This also applies (to a lesser degree) to secondary hero characters.
To use another Disney example, I refer you to The Lion King. That moment when Scar first saw Simba atop Pride Rock thinking he's Mufasa and that lighting struck, Scar was ready to head for the hills. Better yet is the moment when Simba corners Scar and starts closing in on him. Scar, the cunning and clever, is actually cowering and Simba never stops giving him that dangerous look. Awesome climax.

4) Exhaust Every Option
In A Nutshell:
Let's see, am I at the end of the climax? Check. Are my heroes clothes still neatly ironed and their face nice and clean? Yes. Wait... that's bad. The hero needs look look like they've been to hell and back in order to win. Beat them to within an inch of their life, make sure they've used every last option available to them (the more callbacks to previously set up gadgets or tricks the better) and hopefully, if done right, the hero will literally collapse after delivering the final blow. Same goes for the villain. If there's a line he would never cross, have him not only cross it, but go way, way beyond.
Speed Racer. He literally races that car to death in the climax. When it grinds over the finish line, it's dead. The tires have melted, the super high-tech engine is obliterated and the paint work on the car is scratched like no tomorrow. He gave 110% and earned every last bit of that sweet, sweet victory. Mutt said I should also mention The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, another excellent example.

5) The Hero's Poetic Victory
In A Nutshell:
In 99.9% of stories the hero wins, so the question is... how do they win? Usually simply knocking the bad guy out isn't enough. However the final blow is dealt it must reflect in some way on the hero character and the themes in the story. Perhaps it's something as simple as self-sacrifice, in which case the hero could lay down their life to win the day. It all depends on what the respective theme or themes are.
Another animated movie, Kung Fu Panda. The whole film was about Po thinking that in order to be worth something you had to have some secret ingredient, then learning the truth... there is no secret ingredient. As a result, Po defeated Tai Lung in the end using his master's ultimate technique. Not very thematic, right? Well, it would be except that he was never taught how to do it. He figured it out for himself, thus fulfilling the movie's theme.

6) One Last Strike
In A Nutshell:
There is no such thing as a climax where the villain doesn't try for one last "nuts to you" before kicking the bucket. It might literally be the villain getting back up after the hero thought he was down for the count and delivering one final cheap shot out of spite. In most movies, however, it's something the villain leaves behind. Usually, after killing the bad guy, his evil plan will still be in effect and thus the final hurdle is not the villain himself, but his plan. Another possibility is that both the plan and the villain are dead, but his evil fortress starts collapsing. I'm always fighting to be original with this one, because the less you see it coming the more awesome it is.
How about Scream? Sure, it technically wasn't a hurdle to overcome and one of the characters actually predicted it, but that's the point. Scream took a classic climax trick and turned into a really iconic moment. Also, it was a horror movie, so the 'one last strike' only had to be a scare.

7) Glory
In A Nutshell:
I hate it when any movie rolls the credits the instant the climax is over. I don't care what they say, the movie is not over yet and people are not getting ready to leave. You've gotta play the beat of basking in the glory for a bit otherwise it just feels... anti-climactic. We won! That's awesome! Whether there's a huge crowd celebrating, the hero collapses onto his back and laughs or the hero realizes that he gets all the bad guy's treasure, no matter what you've gotta have that beat!
Any good movie. Seriously, just scan your collection and skip to the end. How did they handle it?


Of course, this is all assuming you're not writing some deeply internalized personal drama set in suburbia. If that's you, good luck with that... cause I'm too stupid to be of any help in that department. Still, if you've got an addendum or a favourite climax to share, post away! We love our film discussion.

Oh, and we know it's a big call, but Mutt and I reckon Speed Racer has the greatest climax of all time. Feel free the flame the heck out of us for that one, but we're more than ready to defend our choice.


  1. assuming you're not writing some deeply internalized personal drama set in suburbia.
    haha, cheap shot. I went to a film fest last year and there were a few attempts at " Outcast kid living in surburbia,
    he's shit at playing guitar and it's his birthday but he has no friends, and there plastic flamingoes in the front yard
    a methaphor about......not being normal (or something like that)" A try hard Donnie darko attempt.
    It's hard to take low budget serious films seriously.

    The glory: I really liked the film 'the wrestler' (spoilers), At the end he's in mid air and in slowmotion doing his signature move while having a heart attack, the end, credits roll, and no glory.
    At first I was shocked but then i found it really moving that it ended that way. My husband found it anticlimatic and wrecked the whole film for him.

    I havent seen speed racer so i cant challenge you guys yet, and im trying to think of other climaxes i like but it's 2am.

    Oh my Gosh lion king climax is so awesome, great example.

  2. Actually I remember the scene where Daniel Jackson touches the edge of the stargate much clearer than I remember the climax of that movie. Probably because it was a much better scene than the whole "yay the good guys got the nuke on the evil alien's ship and it sploaded in space cuz we is awesome yaaay" scene at the end. That climax was a bit of a let down.

  3. Yeah, I totally agree with you Zack. That was an ironic and poorly executed commentary on how that film didn't have a terribly memorable climax and that the scene I actually described was by far the most iconic.

    The more I reflect upon it the less it seemed like a good joke. What is with me and unclear jokes?!

    And Jen, I really wanna see The Wrestler! Sounds like it's a classic case of breaking the rules but knowing exactly how to break them for dramatic effect. Cheers for reminding me to go rent it!

    And, just for anyone whose curious, I made one heck of a lot of short films growing up and several were my stab at those deep and meaningful films set in suburbia that take themselves way too seriously. The thing I learned from my experience making them?

    I hated making them, and no one liked watching them.

    Working at an amateur level, it's very hard to make anything deadly serious without it being awkward and unpleasant to watch. But what I did learn was that people loved watching amateur short films that didn't take themselves seriously and were slightly if not completely absurdist.

    Basically, the more serious a film is, the higher the production values need to be to pull it off. Even then, I keep seeing a lot of serious short films that... don't seem to be made for anyone except the guy who made it.

  4. 'I keep seeing a lot of serious short films that... don't seem to be made for anyone except the guy who made it.''
    That is so true! watching the short films on sbs;
    Teenage angst try hard-ness, no one smiles, really long scenes of people talking about their feelings, cue dark piano tones.
    it's safer to do comedy on low, low budgets.

    Did you guy's here about that film releasd a few years ago, 2:37, an aussie teen film about suicide, directed by a 17yr old. I havent seen it, but I think it's along those lines of seriousness.....
    A film that Deals with teen angst in an non awkward and unpleasant way is Elephant by gus van sant, based on the columbine shootings, thats worth checking out, it's very arty though, im warning you, but it works with such material thats been done so many times before.


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