The Split Climax
One of the things I teach in my seminar on The Agile Writer Method is that the climax is the seventh and final turning point in the story. There is the classic climax where the hero defeats the villain and solves the main goal of the story. But there other ways to handle a climax. One of them is what I call the Spit Climax.
In most stories, we get to the sixth stage which I call “The Gathering Storm.” In it, the hero gathers their friends and makes a new plan to get the Main Goal. This usually follows the “Death or Disappointment” moment where getting the main goal seems impossible.
If you look at the climax of the Pixar film Toy Story, there comes a moment where Woody and Buzz are in the clutches of the evil kid “Sid Vicious.” Sid is known for destroying his toys and mangling them into fearsome forms. Sid has strapped a firework rocket to Buzz’s back and is getting ready to light the rocket and send Buzz to his ultimate demise.
Meanwhile, Woody has gathered all of Sid’s toys and created a plan to save Buzz. Just as Sid is about to light the rocket, the other toys break the primary rule of toy-being, and rise up like zombies to confront Sid. Sid is terrified of the approaching toys and goes running to his room to hide.
This is what I call “Vanquishing the Villain.” This is the first half of the split climax. The second half is called “Resolving the Main Goal.” Woody and the mangled toys have scared Sid straight and saved Buzz. But that’s not their ultimate goal. Their Main Goal is to return to Andy before he moves away. If Andy moves away before they can get home, they won’t know where he lives and they’ll be lost forever.
In the next scene, Woody and Buzz work together to chase after the moving truck. They hop in a toy car and are pulled along by the slinky dog. But that plan fails and Woody realizes the only solution is to light Buzz’s firework rocket, which is still tied to his back. When he lights it, Buzz opens his wings and flies just like the real Buzz Lightyear might. After some thrilling moments, Woody unties the rocket and the two buddies fall through the moon roof in Andy’s car and they land in his box of toys. Andy looks down and exclaims that he found his toys which must have been there the whole time. Thus resolving the Main Goal of returning our heroes to Andy.
The great thing about the Split Climax is that the reader gets two moments of relief, or “catharsis.” In the first half, Vanquishing of the Villain, the reader experiences the relief that the hero is safe and the villain has been dispatched. In the second half, the hero resolves the Main Goal and the reader gets a second feeling of satisfaction. This gives the reader two cliff-hanging moments in one. It’s a great way to end your story.
But wait, there’s more. The Split Climax can also work in reverse. A lot of Marvel movies incorporate the Split Climax. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the heroes in the story are fighting a horde of robots who have managed to raise the capital of Sokovia high above the Earth. The city is falling and if it crashes to Earth it will cause a global extinction. To make a long story short, the Avengers land the city safely back to Earth. Then the “Vision” character destroys Ultron.
In this case, the Main Goal (saving the city and hence the world) is resolved first. And Vanquishing the Villain is accomplished second. As you can see, the Split Climax works both ways.
So, the next time you plot out your climax, remember that there are other options besides a showdown with the villain that resolves all the problems in one scene. Sometimes you can get twice the bang for the buck when you use a Split Climax.