Autistic Writer Series: Identifying the Climax

There are norms that apply to so-called “genre fiction” that at times literary fiction ignores. Literary fiction being more about language and deeper human character experiences, and genre fiction being…well…most of everything else. Mystery, suspense, romance, fantasy. You get the idea. Genres.

One such virtual-must for genre work is the climax.

Without veering too much into 9th grade English class territory, the climax of a story is defined variously as:

-the moment the conflict of the story is resolved

-the most exciting part of the story

-the point at which the protagonist is changed forever

-the scene in which the protagonist defeats, or is defeated by the antagonist

-the scene of greatest drama, action, and decision making (usually by the protagonist)

-the moment of the highest, most palpable tension in the entire story

And, to be most accurate:

-some combination of all of the above.

I struggled early on with identifying the precise “English teacher” climax of a story. True, it is somewhat open to interpretation, at least outside of a classroom. Variance exists. Yet those who look for the climax of a story generally locate the same moments.

I believe that even before I realized I was Autistic, my Autism blurred the concept of the narrative climax during my younger years.

A common example in schoolbooks even through high school was the first Star Wars movie.

The conventional wisdom is that the climax of that movie is the destruction of the Death Star.

One could take the broad view of climax, and state that the entire final battle qualified. Others could take a much narrower approach and contend the true climax was the moment Luke fired the fatal blast into the center of the space station. Regardless, the destruction of that weapon is the indisputable climax of the movie.

Indisputable, except to me.

The climax is usually near the end of the story. In this case, the Death Star exploding matches. But I asked myself some questions. (I eventually stopped asking teachers and other students because they never took my views seriously.)

-Was the battle of the Death Star objectively the most exciting part of the movie?

Action packed for sure, but so were many other scenes. That is kind of the point.

-Why couldn’t the death of Ben Kenobi be the climax?

 If the climax is when the protagonist is changed forever, surely this qualifies. Luke lost any semblance of viewing the whole thing as a game at that point. He was forever changed, even if not fully developed yet. When it was explained to a younger me that this was too early in the movie to be the climax, I pointed out how we said, “usually” the climax is near the end, but not always.

“Just, trust me,” is the gist of the answer I got to the question. He didn’t change enough and that was that.

The Empire still exists after the Rebels blow up the Death Star. They knew that even in the first movie. How is it a climax if the main antagonist has not been defeated by the protagonist within that first film?

Some version of “the Death Star isthe Antagonist in this case,” usually followed. But it isn’t. It just isn’t. Even today, that doesn’t fly with me.

A few friends tried to convince me that Vader was the antagonist. But he escaped. And even if Luke and the others thought Vader was dead, the climax isn’t for them, it’s for us, the viewer, and we know the antagonist in that case survived.

Nor was the protagonist defeated by the antagonist, whoever you choose as the antagonist.

I have plenty of other questions like these from when I first was taught about narrative climax via Star Wars. But you get the idea. In my Autistic mind, I could point to several places where the true definition of climax applied.

Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t see why I had to identify the correct scene anyway. Who cares when the climax of Star Wars happens, I asked myself. Or any story for that matter. If a story is being told that people enjoy, do we need to point to a climax? (or inciting incident, or falling action, and so on.)

These days I can accept why any given stated climax is the  textbook climax. And in my writing, sometimes a climax naturally shows up as the story unfolds. But I am still not locked in with the concept, because as an Autistic person I see through, around, over, under and deeper into the “obvious” climax of a day a year, a life. I live and perceive the world in moments that lead to moments, with no real climax. And though fiction supposedly “has” to have a climax,  I run the risk of a climax feeling forced if I label “ABC as the climax of a story as I outline it.

I tend to climb a plot until I find the peak. Then I go down the other side.

I guess to many, that approach seems, well, anticlimactic.

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