A good novel consists of four primary components, all of which interact in an interdependent and symbiotic way. Those elements are plot, character, theme, and style.
(The recapitulation of theme-and-plot combined is what I call The Situation.)
Of those four components, the first three are primarily concerned with subject-matter, and the last — style, which is the most complex component of all — is concerned with presentation. It is execution.
Presentation is The How of art.
At root, all artworks consist of two basic elements: subject and style — i.e. the what and the how.
There’s what you present (a love affair, a battle, a contest, a sunset) and there’s how you execute and present it (clearly, dryly, concisely, sprawlingly, strangely, beautifully).
The Who — and I’m not speaking here of the band — are the characters. They’re part of The What.
These elements are all brought together by the climax.
Climax is also part of The What.
Climax is that point near the end of your story where everything you’ve been building toward, all throughout your story (i.e. your story’s plot, which is the progression of sequential events told by means of scenes), comes together at last in an explosion of activity.
Climax well-done synthesizes and resolves all the elements of your story.
Climax implies clash and conflict.
Climax is a sub-division of plot, and in a certain very real (yet subtle) sense climax marks not only the ending your story, which every serious writer on some level grasps, but also, far less understood and appreciated, the beginning and middle of your story as well:
All the elements of good story, from the beginning to the end, are implicit in a good, strong, satisfying climax. The reason for this is that the good, strong story build inevitably toward the climax because the the writers of good, strong stories have constructed it precisely this way.
Experienced, strong storywriters have their story’s purpose already planned. Their sequence of events, therefore, is a purposeful sequence — and the purpose its lead by is directed, with singular focus, toward the story’s climax, which is the ending.
Climax is culmination. It is resolution.
A good resolution will invariably leave the reader feeling satisfied.
Climax is the point at which your characters and their conflicts are resolved.
Remember this: the greater the struggle, the better the plot, the more satisfying the resolution.
The climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark is when the Ark of the Covenant is finally opened. That is an example of a climax that delivers well.
The climax of Star Wars, which is also a satisfying climax, is when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star.
A good climax resolves all conflicts that the writer has developed throughout the course of the story. When Chekov gave his famous advice — “Never hang a shotgun on the wall in the first act if you don’t intend for it to go off in the third” — he was speaking partly of climax, and here he spoke correctly.
A poorly constructed climax is one that does not resolve the conflicts. David Lynch’s movie Fire Walk With Me is an example of this.
Anticlimax is a minor or inconsequential event after the climax that doesn’t flow naturally from the climax and thus has no logical necessity to the plot. Anticlimax is a flaw: it is bad writing. For example, if in the first Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed had begun haggling over their purse after the fight (which is the climax, and a very good one at that) this would be an example of anticlimax.
(Sidenote: the term anticlimax has developed a secondary meaning: when the climax or punchline doesn’t deliver or isn’t satisfying — usually because the means by which it’s done are painfully trivial.)
Often I’m asked how best to go about the business of novel writing. It’s a difficult question to answer, in part because there’s so much that goes into the process, but one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve discovered is this:
When you’re building a plot, come up with your climax first. If you can construct a climax that brings all your characters and their conflicts together, you can in essence write backwards from that point. (By that I don’t necessarily mean you write chronologically backwards, although I have known writers who do exactly that.)
The reason I think this is so useful is that if you have a solid climax, you’ll always be dramatically safe. You’ll still make errors along the way — if, that is, you’re anything like me (heaven help you) — but if your climax is sound, those errors can easily be fixed in the revision process, and your story will live.