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The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story’s Climax

km-weiland-avatarK.M. Weiland, from her blog post of Feb. 8, 2015  Here’s the link: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/storys-climax-3/

When you plan your story’s climax, the first thing to come to mind might not be the setting. Too often, the climactic setting is an afterthought. The action, after all, is what’s most important–not where it takes place. But setting can make or break any scene in your story, and this is nowhere more true than in your story’s climax.

What makes a great climactic setting? There are actually several factors. As the summation of your entire tale, your story’s climax needs to be a metaphorical microcosm of the story as a whole. Not only should it serve the external and immediate needs of the the scene’s plot, it should also resonate symbolically and thematically. Let’s consider five of important techniques for making the most of the setting in your story’s climax.

How Do You Know You've Chosen the Right Climactic Setting? Infographic

1. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Logical for the Plot?

The first criterion in choosing the proper climactic setting will always be: does it work? Is it logical? Does it make it sense? Consider the nature of your story’s climactic confrontation. What sort of physical locale will it require? If you’re setting up an epic medieval battle, you’re going to need a broad swathe of landscape to accomodate it. If you’re writing a chase thriller, then an airport or a moving train might be appropriate. If your story is an emotional or intellectual drama, then a quieter, more confined area, such as a coffeehouse, might be appropriate.

Example:

In Charles Portis’s True Grit, the climax begins when protagonist Mattie Ross is kidnapped by Ned Pepper’s outlaw band and taken to their mountain hideaway. The setting makes perfect sense within the context of the story, creates new obstacles for the protagonist and her allies to overcome, and resonates nicely, since she has been searching for the outlaws’ hiding place throughout the story.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

2. Has the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Been Previously Featured or Foreshadowed?

No matter how logical or spectacular the setting in your story’s climax, it will end up feeling like a loose end or a hasty afterthought if you haven’t properly prepared readers for it earlier in the book. When possible, it’s a nice touch to be able to return to a previous setting for the climax. Doing so easily brings the story full circle and often offers opportunities for creating symbolic or ironic resonance.

If you find you can’t recycle a previous setting (as might be the case if you’re writing a chase story that has the protagonist traveling from place to place), then you’ll at least want to find a way to foreshadow the climactic setting. It might be a place characters have been talking about and trying to reach throughout the story (as in True Grit). Or it might be a setting referenced symbolically earlier on (a character reminiscing about a candy shop early on might end up in a candy shop in the climax, or a character with an acknowledged phobia of clowns might find himself in a circus tent in the climax).

Example:

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House reaches its climax when protagonist Esther Summerson finds her estranged mother dead at the gates of a pauper’s graveyard. The graveyard was a setting visited several times previously as the place where Esther’s nameless father was buried.

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany visits an entirely new setting–an airport–in its finale, but it resonates beautifully because it has been repeatedly foreshadowed through a character’s portentous dreams of his own death.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

3. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Thematically Resonant?

Once you’ve taken care of the practicalities of logic and resonance, you can focus on the aspects of setting that have the ability to raise your story’s climax into something truly special. Start with theme. What settings might you choose that will offer a thematic commentary on this final step in your protagonist’s journey? If you’ve been exploring themes of freedom, a prison might be an appropriate closing setting. If your character has been struggling with his relationship with his parents, then his childhood bedroom might be an interesting choice.

The thematic significance of your climactic setting isn’t necessarily something you’ll ever need to comment on outright, but an imaginative and appropriate choice can add layers of subtext to this most important of all your scenes.

Example:

Stephen King’s The Green Mile ends in the execution chamber that has featured prominently throughout the story (easily fulfilling the first two requirements of a good climactic setting). The climax dramatizes the execution for murder of a man who is not only innocent but who has the ability to heal and give life. Life and death are huge themes throughout the book, and the Death Row setting underlines that throughout the story, leading right up to the climax.

Green Mile Tom Hanks

4. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Emotionally Traumatizing for the Protagonist?

Your story’s climax should never be a walk in the park for your protagonist. If he’s ever going to prove he’s marched through hell and come out the other side a stronger and better person, he has to first withstand the most unbearable of circumstances in the climax. Often, these circumstances will be the result of bodily discomfort, as is common when the final conflict is a physical one. But the character’s emotional discomfort is even more important. Choose a climactic setting that makes things as difficult as possible for your protagonist. When he walks through the door into the climax, the place itself should hammer all his weak points, making him all the more vulnerable to the antagonist’s final assault.

Example:

William Wyler’s Roman Holiday ends when Gregory Peck’s American reporter finally confronts Audrey Hepburn’s princess. He has to confess to her he knew she was a princess all along and that he, in fact, had been trying to write a story about her but changed his mind after falling in love with her. The scene takes place in the foreign embassy, where the princess must formally address a crowd of reporters, of whom her new impossible love turns out to be one. Their confrontation is full of subtext, since they can’t even admit to knowing one another in front of the crowd and the princess’s political advisors. Any other setting might have allowed them a more natural and open revelation–but it wouldn’t have been as emotionally wrenching or, in the end, as emotionally satisfying.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

5. Is the Setting in Your Story’s Climax Physically Confining?

Finally, one of the most important aspects of a good climactic setting is one that is hardly ever considered: the space. The less physical space your characters have to work with, the more mentally and emotionally cramped they’re going to feel. Tight spaces will always make physical battles more interesting (how much more challenging for your protagonist to beat up the antagonist in the cockpit of a B-17 than in an open hangar?). But tight spaces also increase the pressure even in climaxes that feature only talking. The confinement not only creates interesting physical situations, it’s also a great way to symbolize the pressure the characters are under.

Example:

Dashiel Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon features a physically low-key climax. But the tight confines of the setting–protagonist Sam Spade’s small house, where he is being held captive by the array of antagonists–ramp up the tension. The fact that so many people are crammed into this small space raises the ante even more.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

If you can find a way to creatively and harmoniously combine all five of these setting requirements into your story’s climax, you’ll end up with a slam-bang finish that works well on every possible level!

NOTE FROM DAVID WOLF: I’ve only been following this blog for a short time, but every time I look at it, I learn something new. Ms. Weiland is wise, observant and very helpful to writers. I strongly recommend you subscribe to her blog. (Link is next to her photo at the top of this page.)

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This entry was posted in: Writing & Publishing

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I made my bones as an advertising copywriter. My TV, radio and print ads have amused millions of people and helped sell tons of cleaning products, coffee, macadamia nuts and other goodies. But I prefer that other kind of fiction: short stories and novels. My first published novel, Mindclone, is a near-future look at the amusing and serious consequences of brain-uploading. It’s garnered mostly five star reviews. The sequel is percolating in my brain even now. Stay tuned.

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