Who can or should commit the climactic act?

by Amanda

Question: I am preparing the climax of my novel. I realize that there is a "moment of truth" before the actual climax where the character makes a decision that determines the outcome of the climax. This is her transformation, and the climax illustrates this, to my understanding.

So, for example, my character's moment of truth is when she trusts herself. This is a fantasy novel and she has the gift to tell when others are lying or telling the truth. So her moment of truth is when, against all odds and against the guidance of her friends, she trusts that what someone is saying is true. She trusts herself, and this is her moment of truth.

However, can the actual climax be committed by the person who she trusted, instead of her? For instance, let's say she's fighting the villain but is losing, and then this person comes through out of nowhere and defeats the villain, saves the day, etc. It's not the main character doing this save-the-day act, but he does it because of what the main character chose to do. Is this an acceptable way to go about writing a climax?

Answer: I have seen the type of climax you're describing. My personal feeling is that you have to be careful how you write it.

Here's why...

The main character's throughline concerns her inner conflict over what is the best or worst approach to take to finding a satisfactory resolution to the story problem. Her personal crisis, which you describe well, is the moment when she makes her choice: whether to take a chance on a different approach, or stick with the one she has been comfortable with all along.

The climax of the story then provides a way to pass judgement on the character's decision. Did she make the right choice? Did the choice she made enable the goal to be achieved or result in failure.

The reader has been with the main character all through the story, weighing the pros and cons of both approaches along with her, anxiously hoping she will make the right choice, but (if the story is told well) not certain
what the right choice will be.

What you want to avoid is a deus ex machina ending, in which another character or outside force swoops in and saves the day, regardless of how the main character resolves her inner conflict. Such an ending would fail to validate or invalidate the main character's choice. What would be the point of all that inner conflict and deliberation -- of the main character's leap of faith -- if someone else is going to solve the problem either way?

I think you have a solid grasp of how this works. It's simply a matter of making sure that the action the other character does to save the day depends entirely on the main character making the correct decision. In other words, it should be clear that, if she had chosen not to trust herself, to disbelieve this character, then this character would not have saved the day and a terrible consequence would have resulted.

The reader should appreciate that success resulted only because the main character made the correct leap of faith.

Of course, there are successful books that don't follow this formula. For example, in the quite successful and well-written literary SF novel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the climax seems to unfold purely by coincidence. The main character and the villain by a fluke are the only two people in the world who have memorized a particular, limited-edition graphic novel. The main character's choice to quote the graphic novel at the climax inspires a henchman to switch sides, saving the main character's life.

In other words, though the main character is perhaps the only person who could have caused the climax (or perhaps not, since the henchman was considering betraying the villain anyway), her choice is not really the resolution of a serious inner conflict. Moreover, the real happy ending (the restoration of civilization) occurs quite independently of the main character.

It's an ending that works in literary fiction, where it is more acceptable for random chance to determine destiny. However, in most genres, the climax is more effective it destiny is seen to be the result of human choices.

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