In the climax, the fight turns and the ending becomes inevitable. Usually this will happen through a debilitating injury of some kind, though it can also happen through one character suddenly gaining the upper hand. Villain gets disarmed – boom. Climax. Hero discovers formerly unknown abilities – boom. Climax. Character loses a leg – boom. Climax. The climax happens the instant the reader knows who will win.
Remember that a fight focusing on character impressions and feelings is a “thinking fight,” while a fight focusing on action is a “thrilling fight.”
In a thinking fight, the climax happens the moment the reader realizes, “Oh, the point-of-view character isn’t worried about this.” This can happen as early as right after the inciting incident:
Wiry fingers closed around Megan’s wrist, jerking her to a halt. “I said, what’s the —” The man’s words ended in a yelp as Megan drove a fist into his nose. Megan sighed – yet another thug she had to mop up.
In this example, that phrase, “Megan sighed,” was the climax. We know instantly that she’s going to win. This is why, to preserve tension, you want to avoid too much exposition in your fights; it makes them peak too early. Even if the thug starts aggressively fighting back, the reader has been primed to think about the fight as a sure thing, and they’re not all that concerned about the outcome; they’re just waiting to see how Megan wins.
In a thrilling fight, the climax comes when one character is rendered unable to continue. Disarming, maiming, lethal wounding, and restraining are all viable methods of accomplishing this. One character trapping the other in a tight choke hold or joint lock works as well. Here are some examples:
1. Megan’s arm snaked around the thug’s throat. She locked her hand in her opposite bicep and squeezed. The man croaked as the pressure began to strangle him.
2. Megan slammed her heel into the thug’s knee. His leg snapped backward with an audible crack. He screamed and fell, clutching his mangled limb.
3. Megan drew her service weapon and blasted a round into the thug’s skull.
4. The thug flashed a malevolent grin and stepped back. “Shgrinyarsh glarfingabladagook,” he chanted, the words lilting in an arcane tempo. Instantly Megan’s limbs snapped to her sides, held prone by some invisible force.
In each of these cases, something severely crippled one of the combatants, making it very unlikely that they can continue. It’s possible to do a fake-out fight where the apparent climax isn’t the real end, but that’s a more advanced technique. In basic fight structure, the moment when one combatant is incapacitated serves as your fight’s dramatic climax.
A long fight scene will have several mini-climaxes, moments where one character attempts to finish the other character off. However, the difference between these and the actual climax is that they are only attempts; the actual climactic attack succeeds.
It’s important to show such success in a definite, clear climax to your fight, as this is the moment your readers will lean in, gripping the pages, eager to see the aftermath of the violence. If the climax swings in the protagonist’s favor, the reader lets out a mental cheer. If the climax swings in the antagonist’s favor, they let out a mental “oh no!” and their heart skips a beat. Your fight’s falling action then capitalizes on that emotional reaction caused by the fight’s climax.
Next Time: Falling Action (Wrapping Up Without Losing Momentum!)