Definition of Climax

When used as a literary term, a climax in a story occurs when there is a turning point from which there is no going back. The climax is the point of highest tension in a narrative.

In a tragedy, the climax will generally reveal the protagonist’s greatest weaknesses, and the situation will go irreparably wrong. In a comedy, events will have been bad for the protagonist up until the climax, which will usually reveal the protagonist’s inner strength, thus leading to a happy ending.

The word climax comes from the Greek word klimax, which means “a staircase” or “a ladder.” It is interesting to consider the etymology of the word alongside the current definition of climax. Whereas a staircase or ladder implies upward movement, the climax of a work of literature is the very peak of tension, to which all the action is building and from which the conclusion comes down.

Common Examples of Climax

While the literary usage of climax applies generally only to works of drama, we can also understand climax as related to common jokes. The punch line of a joke could be considered the climax. The only difference is that there is no conclusion after this climax, unlike in works of literature. Here are some examples of climax in short jokes:

  • Q: What did the duck say when he bought lipstick?
    A: “Put it on my bill.”
  • Q: Why does Humpty Dumpty love autumn?
    A: Because Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
  • Q: What do you call a pig that does karate?
    A: A pork chop.

Freytag’s Pyramid

In 1863, the German writer Gustav Freytag described five stages of dramatic tension: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. He illustrated this concept with a diagram of a pyramid, as shown below:

Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s analysis is generally called the dramatic arc of a story. Here is a brief description of each stage:

  • Exposition—Exposition introduces the audience to the story by giving information about the setting, characters, and a general sense of the upcoming story.
  • Rising Action—Rising action takes up the largest section of most works of literature. Rising action is comprised of many important events that lead up to the climax. These events present conflicts and challenges for the protagonist to deal with.
  • Climax—The climax, as explained above, is the point of highest tension. All of the events in the story have been leading to this moment and after the climax nothing can be the same for the characters in the story.
  • Falling Action—Falling action may contain some final moment of suspense. Usually, falling action takes up only a short amount of space in the work of literature.
  • Denouement—In this final aspect of a work of literature the main conflict is resolved, whether for better or for worse. The conclusion to the story occurs in this part.

Note that Freytag’s analysis applies to classical drama, whereas not all modern drama contains each of these five parts, or perhaps contains more than one climax.

Significance of Climax in Literature

The climax is a very important part of each work of literature. All literature must contain conflict, and in order to resolve this conflict there must be some moment or event that decides the fates of the characters involved. Without a climax in a work of a literature, the audience would be frustrated to have invested so much time and attention without a payoff. The climax may be an event that the reader is waiting for—a battle that must come, or an inevitable meeting between the protagonist and antagonist. However, the climax also may be an unexpected turn of events after which nothing remains the same.

Examples of Climax in Literature

Example #1

IAGO:My friend is dead,
‘Tis done at your request. But let her live.
OTHELLO: Damn her, lewd minx! Oh, damn her, damn her!
Come, go with me apart. I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

There is some debate over the climax in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Some argue that the real climax of the play occurs when Othello murders his wife Desdemona due to jealousy. And, indeed, there’s no going back from this action. Only after Othello murders Desdemona does he realize her innocence, and of course there’s nothing he can do. However, the above excerpt is the psychological climax of the play. Iago has subtly convinced Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, and here Othello swears to kill her. Nothing after this point will convince him otherwise.

Example #2

JOHN PROCTOR: I have known her, sir. I have known her.
JOHN PROCTOR: She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore’s vengeance, and you must see it; I set myself entirely in your hands. I know you must see it now.

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

In this climax example, John Proctor admits to the court in Salem that he has committed adultery with Abigail Williams. Abigail has been the main accuser of women in the Salem witch-hunt, and has just accused John Proctor’s wife. He sees no way to save his wife but the shameful truth. After this moment in the play, the court can either believe John, thus discrediting Abigail and all her accusations, or accuse him of perjury. No matter which decision the court came to, nothing could be the same for John after his confession.

Example #3

LAURA: You won’t call again?
JIM: No, Laura, I can’t. As I was just explaining, I’ve got strings on me. Laura, I’ve been going steady! I go out all of the time with a girl named Betty. She’s a home-girl like you, and Catholic, and Irish, and in a great many ways we get along fine. I met her last summer on a moonlight boat trip up the river to Alton, on the Majestic. Well right away from the start it was love!

(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)

There are three main characters in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie—Tom, his sister Laura, and his mother Amanda. All three characters have slightly separated climaxes. However, this is the main example of climax, in which Laura’s “gentleman caller” Jim admits that he already has a girlfriend (a fiancé, in fact, as we find out later). Jim’s status as engaged affects the rest of the family. Laura is optimistic up until this point, after which she loses all hope and, subsequently, so does her mother. Tom cannot stand to be around them after they lose hope, so he leaves the family forever. This climax leads to the downfall of the whole family.

Example #4

Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tiled to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—
He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)

In the Harry Potter series there are many examples of climax, as each book contains its own challenges and conflicts. However, the entire seven-book series has been leading up to the moment in which Harry either lives or dies. At the very end of the final book, Harry confronts the villain, Voldemort, who attempts to kill him. Whether Voldemort is successful or not determines the conclusion of the entire series.

Test Your Knowledge of Climax

1. Which of the following statements is the best climax definition?
A. The point of highest tension in a story.
B. The conclusion of a work of literature in which the conflict is resolved.
C. The introduction of characters, setting, and conflict in a narrative.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. What is the difference between a climax in a tragedy and a comedy?
A. There is no difference.
B. In a tragedy, the protagonist’s strengths are revealed in the climax, whereas in a comedy the protagonist’s failings become obvious.
C. In a tragedy, the protagonist’s inner weaknesses lead to his or her downfall, where in a comedy the protagonist must draw on inner strengths to change the events of the story for the better.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following is not a part of Gustav Freytag’s pyramid?
A. Exposition
B. Setting
C. Climax

Answer to Question #3 Show