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Step Three: Climax

Okay, this is going to be a little weird. I had a brain bloop and forgot that this step came before Hero’s Journey. At the same time, Climax and Hero’s Journey are very much intertwined. So, we’re going to have an odd-duck week.

We’ll have Step Three: Climax today, Step Four: Hero’s Journey (Part One) this Friday, and Hero’s Journey (Part Two) next Monday, and we’ll all reconvene next Friday for a look at the results of our hard work.

With that out of the way, on to Step Three!

You’ve got an idea of your road, you know your travelers, now it’s time to look at the destination.

Remember, whatever you brainstorm to be the climax of your story isn’t something that’s set in stone. It’s more like looking at a map, giving you an idea of which direction you need to be heading. If along the way you find a better destination, change course and head that way instead.

For this part, we’re looking for the main climax of your story plus the smaller climaxes for your supporting changes. If you look carefully, you’ll find that often the outcome of each change hinges on one small, deciding moment. Even with the main climax, the moment where the public change is resolved (a time when there’s typically a lot going on), you can still zoom in and find that pinpoint moment where things flip from almost-defeat to victory.

In Lord of the Rings, the climax is the final showdown against the armies of Mordor, where all the free peoples of Middle Earth have banded together to fight for their world, a lot of characters in a lot of showdowns for high stakes… but the deciding moment is when the One Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom.

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the rebellion has fought desperately to allow the x-wing pilots to reach the vulnerable exhaust port of the Death Star. Pilots have died on both sides, time is running out. Just when things look hopeless, the Millenium Falcon returns, saving Luke from Vader and clearing the way for Luke to make that one-in-a-million shot. The deciding moment is the millisecond that Luke’s shot hits the exhaust port.

Each supporting change will have its own climax, too, though nothing as spectacular as that of the central change.

Let’s go back to Avatar, which we looked at last week to demonstrate different kinds of changes in one story. (I know some of you are probably sick of examples from Avatar, but it’s an easy movie to break down structurally, so I’ll probably come back to it. I apologize in advance, and I promise to be thinking about other examples to broaden my repertoire.*)

The three changes in Avatar are:

Pandora: subjugated by humans --> freed from humans
Jake: human --> Na’vi
Jake: loyal to humans --> loyal to Na’vi

If you look for the three moments that mark the end of each change, they’re fairly clear-cut.


In the final battle, the ship carrying the explosives to destroy the Na’vi’s refuge is destroyed, which could be the deciding moment, except that the human general is still alive, and he’s hunting Jake. Here is a character who will not bargain, will not bend. Even if he were captured and sent away with the rest of the humans, he would fight every step and leap at any opportunity to return to Pandora and destroy Jake and the Na’vi. The battle is not over until his death—the deciding moment.


Jake is fully Na’vi at the end of the movie, after his consciousness is permanently transferred into his Avatar body. The moment the transfer is successful and he opens his eyes is the deciding moment.

(You could argue that he is Na’vi the moment he returns from his exile riding Toruk, which marks his full acceptance back into the Na’vi and leads to their uprising against the humans, but one of the hallmarks of these split-second deciding moments is that there’s no going back after that point. The One Ring can’t be magically recovered from the magma; the Death Star’s exhaust port can’t unexplode. Even when he becomes Toruk Makto, there still remained the possibility that Jake could give up his avatar body and live on as a human. Only when he gives up that option is he fully Na’vi.)


After Jake and Neytiri bond, there’s a scene when the humans have sent massive machines, basically uber-bulldozers on super-steroids, through the forest on a path that will destroy a grove of trees sacred to the Na’vi. Jake tries signaling them to stop, but they ignore him and continue forward. Jake attacks the navigational camera on one of the lead machines to stop it—his first act for the Na’vi, against the humans. From that point on, he’s arguing, struggling, fighting for the Na’vi. Deciding moment.


For now, start thinking about the deciding moments for each of your three changes—most importantly, the central change, which will be the climax of your story. This will give you a target that you can write toward while working on the rest of your story. Keep this in mind while we go over Step Four: Hero’s Journey, and we’ll reconvene next Friday to see what comes out of our hard work.

I’ll see you this Friday for Step Four! Have fun!


*If you’d be interested in seeing plot breakdowns of popular books or movies, I’m happy to take suggestions (provided it’s something I’m familiar with). Feel free to chime in!


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