The Hero’s Journey – Climax!
Huzzah! We have reached the Climax, the grand hurrah, the big shebang, a moment so exciting that only funny-sounding words can express it!
All the same, I’ll do my best in this post to articulate what goes on in the climax of a novel or film. To see how we got to this culminating moment, let’s situate it in the list of ten key plot events that comprise a hero’s journey storyline:
5. The Approach
The protagonist has been propelled into this final, do-or-die event. Remember that in the Call to Adventure, a guiding question was raised, which directs the rest of the plot: Will the main character survive? Will they catch the thief? Will they reconcile with their long-lost friend? Will they win over their crush? etc. The climax is the moment that ultimately answers the guiding question.
It is typically the most intense, exciting, or potent moment in the story, but for the climax to really have depth and resonance, it needs two things: an inner component and an outer action.
An emotional breakthrough, epiphany, or important realization.
The tangible, physical action that corresponds to the important emotional/intellectual/spiritual realization above.
This stuff has deep, deep roots. After all, humans are both inward creatures, with internal thoughts, emotions, and perspectives, and physical creatures who have to actually do things in the world around us.
At various times, I’ve mentioned the mythological and religious connotations of the hero’s journey. Indeed, some of the most powerful spiritual figures in history are those who synthesize the spiritual and the physical. The Buddha was the earthly prince who tapped into transcendent illumination. Jesus was called the “Word made flesh,” that is, the intangible made tangible. (I’ll do a post specifically on those fellows in the future!)
Inner Realizations spur Outer Actions
In most climaxes, the inner component leads to the outer action. In The Hunger Games, for example, Katniss and Peeta have been chased to the centre of the arena. There they confront and defeat super-buff baddie Cato, the last remaining competitor, but that’s just window-dressing in the lead-up to the real climax:
In this scene we see Katniss have her inner realization (in the film version she has to say it aloud so we know what’s going on): that the people of the Capitol, who run the games, need a victor and if they don’t have a victor, their gory spectacle will fail. They’ll look pretty darn foolish and the broader political symbolism of the games–that the Capitol gets to decide who lives and dies–will be spoiled.
The resulting outward action is that she and Peeta go to eat some poisonous berries in a sort of protest suicide. It’s important to note here that the outer action doesn’t have to be something physically spectacular. Often, climaxes involve big explosions or sword fights or something of that sort, but they don’t have to. Even a novel that is very action-driven, like The Hunger Games, might culminate in a final motion as simple as lifting berries to your mouth. It’s still a very potent action because of the symbolism involved.
(Of course, in the sequel, she gets a much more bombastic climax, shooting an arrow into a bolt of lightning, blowing up a big arena with a bunch of hovercrafts flying around. I guess it balances out!)
Katniss runs the gamut of finales from nutritional in book #1 to pyrotechnic in book #2.
On the whole, though, the climax need not be a fight or confrontation. It could be a moment of healing, a moment of romance, a conversation, or even an observation. Holden Caulfield spends most of Catcher in the Rye criticising the world for being phony and in the end, while watching his sister on the Central Park carousel, he breaks down and cries, probably because he has finally seen something true and pure and beautiful. The emotion is the main part of the climax and in this case the physical action is simply crying—the tangible display of his emotion.
Returning to The Hunger Games, does the climax answer the guiding questions that drove the plot? Absolutely.
Will Katniss survive? Yes.
Will Peeta survive too? Yes.
Will they find a way to not only survive but stick it to the Capitol? Yes.
Of course, not all stories end happily. Katniss goes 3-for-3 here, but tragedies or novels that strive for a more ambiguous ending might have guiding questions answered in the negative. In another excellent dystopian novel, Feed, by M.T. Anderson, the would-be-teenage-lovers break up, don’t take down the establishment, and the girl goes brain-dead. Happy or not, the climax needs to be satisfying, by answering the main guiding questions, even if the answer is unexpected or has unintended consequences. (Of course, you might withhold a few answers if there are sequels to come!)
The Hunger Games also provides a good example of how climaxes typically involve a moment of “Death & Resurrection.” The protagonist likely had a brush with death in the Ordeal and now they must face it full-on. I’ve detailed this in an earlier post on The Tyrant Complex. I’ve said that the hero’s journey thrusts a character into a new situation. In other words, it’s about experiencing a change, and the experience of the protagonist in the climax encapsulates this. There is no change more pervasive, powerful, or fundamental than death and resurrection. It occurs in the cycles of the seasons around us, the milestone moments of birth, death, and replacement by future generations, and it is a process experienced by many of the great religious figures throughout history.
Persephone, the Greek Goddess who winters in the underworld with Hades and arises every spring.
The characters don’t always have to literally die and be reborn, though they often do in fantasy and sci-fi. They may, like Katniss, be willing to die, which is just as powerful. Or some important part of their life may seem as good as dead. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Junior and his friend Rowdy have a huge argument and their friendship essentially dies. The climax consists of memories Junior has of his past experiences with Rowdy, and after many weeks of this slowly-building emotional healing, he and Rowdy go play basketball together in the final lines of the book (this is the outer action that results from the resurrected feelings of friendship.)
Sometimes, as often happens in fairy tales and stories based on them, the emotional realization enacts the magic that causes a tangible, outer transformation. This happens in Shrek, as the first picture of this blog shows, and in many other classic stories. (Yes, Disney is cheesy and problematic, but this clip offers a clear illustration:of this sort of climax:)
In the similar finale to the Pixar film Brave, the protagonist Merida has to mend a rift between her and her mother (who has been transformed into a beastly bear). She tries the tangible action first by stitching together a family tapestry that she tore, but that’s not enough. She needs to emotionally heal with her mom, which she does in the end, allowing the magical transformation to occur.
Outer Action First
In like fashion, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone features a climax with the outer action first and the inner element afterward. In the climax, duplicitous Professor Quirrell (who has Voldemort sticking out the back of his head!) cannot bear Harry’s touch. He breaks into deadly boils/turns into stone (depending on book vs. film) when Harry lays hands on him. If J.K. Rowling left this remarkable feat of Harry’s unexplained, it would not be a very satisfying climax. However, in the next chapter, she does explain the emotional component underlying the tangible action.
In this case, the emotional/inner underpinnings come courtesy of Harry’s mom, rather than Harry himself. By the end of the 7th and final novel, it is Harry who makes the emotional decision to physically sacrifice himself, only to be reborn.
He’s not dead. He’s just resting.
The END… almost!
We’re nearly done the journey! The main character has been thrust into a new situation and now ultimately, they have either been defeated by it, or (hopefully), they come into harmony/mastery of it, and their actions in the climax are probably not selfish. They have brought new light to their own life, yes, but also to the lives of those around them as we will see in the final Hero’s Journey post: the Resolution.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the winning picture links of this post:
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