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Naomi | Write+Co. for screenwriters

The Climax - stakes connection

Published 5 months ago • 6 min read

Hey, it's Naomi with your weekly screenwriting memo! Today's topic...

The Climax - stakes connection

Today let’s talk about an often-overlooked aspect of the Climax: its effect on the story's stakes.

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “What the heck is she talking about?” I don’t blame you. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this topic written about before, which is precisely why I bring it up today. It’s important, yet no one’s talking about it? Let’s dig in.

The Climax is the culmination of the “resolution” phase (Act 3), and of the story as a whole. In order to do its job, it should bring a sense of closure and satisfaction. (Need a recap? Here's last week's quick guide to screenplay structure.)

That doesn’t mean the Climax has to tie a neat bow on everything, but you probably don’t want to leave your audience feeling cranky or disappointed.

So how do you achieve closure and satisfaction?

Pay attention to the open loops

By the end of the movie the main conflict has to be resolved, of course. So the Climax shows us whether the protagonist finally achieves their story goal or not. By doing so it answers the Central Dramatic Question, which is, essentially, “Will the protagonist achieve the story goal?” Or another way to look at the CDQ is, “How will the main conflict end?”

The CDQ is posed in Act 1. When the question is answered in the Climax, that open loop is closed, bringing a sense of – yes – closure, and satisfaction.

But closely related to that, there's a stakes question the audience also wants answered.

Story stakes across three acts

Like with the main conflict and character arc, the story stakes have a life cycle across the three acts too.

  • In Act 1, you establish what’s at stake to motivate the protagonist to take on their story goal and embark on the Act 2 Adventure, and to get the audience invested.
  • In Act 2, you escalate what’s at stake, aka “raising the stakes,” which creates more tension and makes us invest and emotionally engage even more, so we’re leaning in to find out how it all shakes out.
  • In Act 3, you resolve what’s at stake. What happens in the Climax not only answers the CDQ, it also impacts the story stakes in a definitive way. We may not fully understand the repercussions in the moment, so often we'll get a follow-up scene that gives us a sense of the new status quo.

So if you're wondering what else should happen after the climactic confrontation, look to your story stakes and give us some evidence of how they're resolved.

The overlooked stakes resolution

Don't panic if you're realizing you have overlooked this aspect of the story's resolution. Resolving the stakes is actually pretty instinctive -- you may already be doing it to some degree. But it's useful to be aware of it so you can be deliberate about it and get as much impact out of your efforts as you can.

What it comes down to is this: the audience has been carrying this stakes open loop since you established the stakes in Act 1. We’re hoping the protagonist won’t have those stakes come to bear (the negative outcome if he fails to achieve his goal). But – because nothing is coming too easily to him – we’re also worried that things ultimately might not go his way.

By Act 3 and the climactic confrontation, we want all the open loops closed. That means the CDQ, of course, but we want that other question answered too: “What happened with the stakes?” Or, in other words, "Is everything going to be okay?"

And if the stakes are resolved successfully (with no negative consequences), then the audience can breathe a sigh of relief – and feel even more satisfied.

Now, more than ever, we need examples

This is all much more straightforward than it may sound, so let's look at some examples that I hope will clarify:

Crazy Stupid Love

  • CDQ: Will Cal figure out who he is as a man (and what he really wants)?
  • What's at stake is Cal's identity and future happiness. If he fails to achieve his goal, he'll end up living an empty life he doesn't really want or he'll be the clueless, lonely divorced guy at the bar.
  • Climax: The big comedy set piece where all the storylines cross is actually not the story's climax! The true climax in terms of protagonist Cal's story is when he stands up in front of everyone at Robbie's middle school graduation and announces what he's learned about who he is and what he wants -- and that you never give up on the one you love.

    It's the "final confrontation" between protagonist and antagonist because Cal declares once and for all who he is (he no longer needs Jacob's guidance or input) and we also see that Jacob is no longer trying to turn Cal into a version of himself. In fact, Jacob now wants to be more like Cal. So in terms of the story's main conflict (Cal vs. Jacob - what kind of guy will Cal be?), Cal has "won" because he's figured out who he is and how to be true to himself, and Jacob's "lost" but come out the other side a healthier, happier person.
  • Are the stakes resolved? Yes, we know Cal's identity is no longer in question, and since he knows who he is, he also knows what will make him happy -- "never giving up on the one you love." When we see the final sweet moment between Cal and his wife, we know he (and they) will be okay. Happily ever after!

The Devil Wears Prada

  • CDQ: Can Andy survive one year as Miranda's assistant?
  • Stakes: Andy's career. This is her last and only option to get a foot in the door and it has big potential ROI. But if she fails, she has no other options in sight.
  • Climax: Andy realizes she's at a crossroads: continue down the path toward becoming like Miranda, or leave now and reclaim her own standards and ideals. Andy chooses to walk off the job to save her integrity, even though it may cost her a career in the magazine world.
  • Are the stakes resolved? Yes, partly in the climactic scene and partly in the scene that follows. When Andy leaves her job, we know that she may not get another chance in journalism, but she's okay with that. Though the story stakes motivated her to take on this journey in the first place, the experience has changed her and her priorities are changed as well.

    Then, in the follow-up scene, we see that Andy does indeed have other job prospects. This gal is going to be just fine and, in fact, sticking to her beliefs actually earned her the respect and job recommendation that will help her move forward.

The Sixth Sense

  • CDQ: Can Malcolm help Cole?
  • What's at stake is both the boy's well being and the doctor's redemption.
  • Climax: Malcolm goes with Cole to help one of the ghosts he’s been seeing. It’s a young girl who died after being poisoned by her own mother, and now wants to protect her sister from the same fate. This is the first time we've seen Cole unafraid of the ghosts, and able to use his gift to help them instead.
  • Are the stakes resolved? Yes. That Cole can overcome his fear means Malcolm helped him and was therefore redeemed. But if we need more evidence, just after the climactic confrontation there's a scene in which Malcolm watches Cole perform in his school play; Cole is now happy and surrounded by friends. Malcolm has finally succeeded at helping him -- his redemption -- and the boy's well being is no longer in question.

Top Gun: Maverick

  • Will Maverick train the young pilots to fly the mission successfully?
  • What's at stake? The lives of the young pilots Maverick is responsible for training, including Rooster. Also, Maverick's relationship with Rooster is in question and will be affected by how Maverick navigates the plot events.
  • Climax: The pilots successfully complete their mission, but now they must get home – a dangerous endeavor in itself, and the part that matters most to Maverick. As they make their way through enemy territory, Rooster finds himself in danger and Maverick intervenes, saving him but getting shot down in the process. On the ground, Maverick is about to be shot but now Rooster intervenes, saving him and getting shot down himself. Which leads us into the final part of this story’s climax, as we see Maverick and Rooster work together to get out of enemy territory and back to the aircraft carrier. Once Rooster is safely returned, Maverick's story goal is fully achieved.
  • Are the stakes resolved? Yes. Ultimately I felt like this movie had two endings (and one that wasn't totally necessary), but by the time they make it back to safety and everyone's alive, and Maverick and Rooster hug it out, we know Maverick's story stakes are successfully resolved.

Stick the landing

There you have it. One little thing that’s easy to overlook, but that can make a big difference in whether your audience leaves feeling completely satisfied.

There isn't one "right" way to resolves the story stakes, but if you're not treating the resolution with some care you may be shortchanging the emotional payoff. Remember, it all comes down to creating an effect on the audience. How the stakes are resolved contributes to that effect, and to the overall experience you're delivering.

If you're struggling to figure out what happens in the Climax or in the wrap-up scenes that follow, think about how the main conflict and stakes can be resolved, and what kind of experience it will create for the audience.

Need some fresh eyes on your screenplay or work-in-progress? Book a session!

Naomi | Write+Co. for screenwriters

I help screenwriters, producers, and directors develop (and finish!) their movie and TV projects.

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