Commandment Number Four

You must have a climax in every unit of your Story.  Because the climax is the truth of character.

It is the precise moment in your beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global story when your character acts on his/her crisis choice. And as we all know, choices and actions tell the truth about our character/s. We may make a choice to do one thing, but when the moment actually comes, we often act differently.

Seriously, this kind of stuff happens every single day to us. Our friend may tell us that she’ll back us up and stand with us at a meeting to discuss what to do about our school’s lunch program…but when the meeting commences, our friend often (sadly most often) remains silent.

Our friend’s crisis choice that she so passionately told us about before the meeting (she was going to stand up with us to change something that would require a lot of work and risk the majority group’s disapproval) is all well and good, but it is not a reflection of her character.

Only her actions reflect her character. Her silence at the meeting tells us who she really is (fearful and cowardly when in a group). That moment of truth is the climax of the scene and it changes the way we view her character from that point forward.

A Climax is the active answer to the question raised by a Crisis.

It’s the choice the character makes between the best bad one or between irreconcilable goods. This is the big reveal of character. Not who he says he is, but who he really is.

Also it’s important to remember that when the protagonist makes a choice and acts on that choice, that climax must be on stage. That is, it has to happen on the page or on the screen, not in some previous scene or moment that another character reports. To rob the reader or viewer of the crucial moment of truth for a protagonist will devastate them. It will make them so angry that they will probably never read anything you write ever again. You’ve promised them page after page that you are going to give them a great scene where the protagonist faces an impossible choice. You’ve got to deliver it. Seriously.

With that said, secondary characters can choose and act off stage and then the results of those choices and actions can be reported as revelations later on. Protagonists, though, must make their choices and actions ON STAGE!

As with Crises, Climaxes move from minor to medium to large to life changing. In a story with both external and internal genre dimensions, if faced with the similar crisis in the beginning hook and the ending payoff, what your protagonist chooses at the beginning of your story and what your character chooses at the end of your story should be opposite choices.

What I mean by that is this: Do you think Rick in Casablanca would choose to give up his long lost love at the beginning of the story? No way. At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick is a self-obsessed sad sack who won’t stick his neck out for anybody. By the end, he’s a hero, a character willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good of humanity. What happens between the beginning and the end is a progressive escalation of crises and climaxes in Rick’s life that make him change his worldview. This is what’s known as the internal arc of the character and is determined by your choice of Internal Genre.

It is true that some of the external genres don’t require an internal arc…like a master detective murder mystery or a James Bond action adventure, but they still require external crises and climaxes aplenty].

You’ve probably heard a million times that a character must “arc.” What that means (again some genres do not require an internal character arc) is that lead character in a story cannot remain the same person he/she was at the end of the novel/movie as they are at the beginning.

The Internal Content genres are those that move a character and his status or worldview or morality from one place to another by story’s end. And the global story’s climax delivers the catharsis inherent in such a journey.

Many commercial writers find this “protagonists must arc” rule silly. And extremely talented action writers disregard it all of the time. Don’t people face threats in their lives, overcome them, and then return to stasis? Didn’t Donald Trump build a fortune, lose most of it, and then regain it? Isn’t he the same person he was in 2014 as he was in 1980? Probably he is.

But I would posit that Donald Trump (the public Donald Trump, who knows he may be a philosopher king in private) is not a three dimensional character. He could be the basis of an action hero, or amateur detective murder mystery (lead characters in long form storytelling that do not arc) like a a John Connor or a Lara Croft or a Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes or Columbo. But as a fully fleshed out lead character in a literary novel or a thriller or any of the other genres that require a compelling subconscious as well as conscious object of desire? Not so much.

What the character arc is crucial for is to achieve a cathartic global story climax. When I say catharsis, I mean an overwhelming emotional reaction from the audience…tears, indescribable joy…the kind of experience that keeps us coming back to the movies, to books, to plays. If you’re a writer and you tell me you have no interest in bringing the audience to catharsis, you’re lying.

This is not to thumb the nose at the action genre or the murder mystery or any of the other external content genres. Because these genres have be so thoroughly mined over the centuries, creating a surprising action story or inscrutable murder mystery story is practically impossible. It takes a tremendous skill and imagination to breath new life into these classic genres. They are as difficult to successfully execute as writing a book that wins the Booker prize. For my money, they are harder to write.

But back to Climax:

What do I mean by progressively complicated climaxes?

Let’s look at the The Silence of the Lamb’s protagonist Clarice Starling and track some of the climax moments she must face in the novel. By the way, the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs is dead solid perfect. You know why? Because Ted Tally, the screenwriter, and Jonathan Demme basically “shot the book.” They recognized how perfectly constructed the novel was, so they didn’t ruin it with “interpretation.” You can watch the movie and get the same effect as reading the book. Doing both is one of the rare pleasures in life…especially for Story addicts like myself.

Alright, let’s track some scenes:

The Crisis in the very first scene of the book (Chapter 1) is a best bad choice situation.

Clarice Starling is given the opportunity to interview the madman Hannibal Lecter. Just being in a room with the guy will open her up to serious darkness. It’s no small decision. Her choices are that she can decline the opportunity and protect herself and stay on course to become a garden variety FBI agent. Or she can take the job and earn brownie points with the man she’s trying to impress, the head of Behavioral Science Jack Crawford.

The Climax of this first scene is that she decides to take the job.

It’s an exciting active choice that shows that Starling is no coward, but it is in no way a decision that will change Starling’s worldview. Is it a huge climax? No. It’s a big choice though and one that has just enough oomph to keep the reader turning pages wondering what is going to happen next…

Now the Crisis in the third scene of the novel’s Middle Build (Chapter 13) is another best bad decision, but the stakes here are much higher than in the first scene.

Starling must decide whether or not she should confront Jack Crawford about his behavior toward her at the crime scene in Potter, West Virginia. When the two were there to fingerprint a victim of serial killer Buffalo Bill, Crawford asked to speak with the sheriff privately…out of her hearing range…as if she were too delicate for “manly talk.”

Crawford left Starling to stand with a gaggle of low level cops as if she were a little girl and he her father was going in to speak to the principal. The disrespect stings and it hurts her ability to get the townspeople to take her seriously as an FBI agent. She suspects that Crawford’s is using her.

As she is doing the job of an FBI agent, even though she’s an FBI trainee, Starling wants to be treated as such. But if she confronts Crawford about his behavior, she may lose him as her mentor. He may not want to have the kind of honest personal relationship with her that she needs and he could dump her from the investigation. On the other hand, if she doesn’t confront him about the disrespect, he will probably continue to treat her as a trained dog instead of a colleague with something to contribute.

So the crisis is confront and risk banishment or let it go and guarantee servitude.

The Climax of the scene is that Starling chooses to confront Crawford

Here is a perfect example of “showing, not telling.” Harris never describes Starling as “courageous.” Instead he has her act courageously.

And then Harris has Crawford react to her courage too. He apologizes, in his way, by saying “duly noted, Starling.” Just enough for her to get satisfaction, but not enough to lower his position.

This moment may seem small, but it is a Climax of one of the novel’s subplots as well as the climax of the third scene of the Middle Build. The subplot in this case is an Internal Genre Status Admiration plot. This moment not only moves the Serial Killer Thriller and Disillusionment Plots forward (Harris’s External and Internal global Genre choices), it represents a large change in Starling’s status. Her ultimate goal (external object of desire) is to work with Crawford permanently as a certified FBI agent. This moment shows that she’s progressed to a place where her superior has acknowledged that she is worthy of respect.

Just to track the progression of climaxes here. In chapter one of The Silence of the Lambs, we have a climax that propels the entire action of the novel…Starling decides to take the job. By the Middle Build, we have a climax that shows that Starling has not only done the job well, but is now respected as someone capable of doing the job the rest of her life.

Harris’s climax progression is natural and organic…seamless.

For fun, let’s examine where Harris escalates the crisis and climax even more to what is often called The Point of No Return. The Point of No Return is the critical moment of irreversibility for the protagonist…that place where she’ll never be the same, no matter what choice she makes in the crisis.

At the beginning of the novel, Starling decides to expose herself to a brilliant manipulator. She does this rather unconsciously. That is, she doesn’t really think too much about the fact that she’s serving her own mind up on a plate to the cannibal Hannibal Lecter.

She’s jacked up with ambition to join the venerable FBI, so she acts with blind belief in the institution and it’s stewards, without deeply thinking about the consequences of her decisions. (Sound familiar?) That sentence could describe a Freshman in College or a new CEO coming in to IBM or us joining a fancy Country Club.

At the height of the Middle Build, Starling faces a crisis that will make her come out of her fog and confront the reality of just what she’s gotten herself into. She’s progressed from life as normal to life as extraordinary, to living without much self-knowledge unconsciously to consciously facing the truth about herself. She’s coping with the prospect of her actions or inactions leading to end of the line of human experience…DEATH.

Here’s the situation:

Buffalo Bill has abducted another woman and is planning to skin her to create the final piece for his “woman suit.” Induced by Crawford, Starling goes to talk to Lecter to convince him to help them stop Buffalo Bill. But Lecter won’t speak to Starling unless he gets a quid pro quo. He won’t help her, unless she opens herself up to Lecter’s own special brand of psychoanalysis.

He wants to get inside her mind.

I’m going to analyze this crisis as an irreconcilable goods situation. Starling can either reject the quid pro quo, and save her inner most thoughts and self and unconscious desires from being toyed with. Good for her. Or she can accept Lecter’s terms and perhaps save a woman from certain death. Good for the woman and the rest of society. If she decides to agree, though, she’ll essentially be letting the devil into her mind.

This is a major moment of truth and will tell us whether or not Starling has the stuff of the hero.

At the beginning of the novel, if Starling had faced this same dilemma, chances are she would chose to keep her mind to herself. But because she’s progressed so far in her quest to become an FBI agent by the time of this critical meeting, she’s vulnerable to this ultimatum. There is no turning back once Lecter gets inside of her mind.

She’ll never be able to get him out.

As you’ll see if you take a look at The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs, Harris gives us the point of no return in the middle of his story. The promise he’s making the reader by doing so with half of the telling left, is that he’s going to take his story to the end of the line of human experience.

In terms of the Story’s values, Starling has moved from positive life at the beginning of the story to the negative of unconsciousness at the end of the inciting incident of the global story to now comprehending that she’s in a life or death situation. If she does not act, someone will die. Now the story value is clearly in the negative death arena. But with this big scene coming so early, Harris is promising that the value will go more negative still. He is going to drive it down to the fate even worse than death, the place of damnation.

Harris is making a promise in the middle build of the story that is so attractive, the reader won’t be able to stop reading.  What’s even better is that he delivers on that promise so assuredly by the novel’s ending payoff.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


16 comments on “Commandment Number Four

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    I’m so glad you chose The Silence of the Lambs for this series because I’ve already read it and am able to follow your painstaking analysis – this is incredibly helpful as you add layer after layer of all the elements we need to build into our own story. Can’t wait to see the finished book next month! As always, thanks Shawn!

    1. Doug Walsh says:

      Same with me. I read the book multiple times as a teen (early 90s) and had seen the movie too many times to keep track. What’s really interesting to me personally is that SotL was a major influence on my wanting to be a writer. That and all of the Stephen King books I was digesting.

      I always knew it was a fantastically written story. But it’s only now, some 25 years later, that I can see why.

      By the way, Mary, if you never read “Red Dragon” do give it a look. I enjoyed all three of the Hannibal the Cannibal stories, but SotL, for me, certainly stands above.

      1. Tina Goodman says:

        Aren’t there 4 Hannibal novels?

  2. Ah; so by setting the bar high at midpoint, the writer promises escalation. Which is why I feel so disappointed when they don’t deliver.

    Crisis and climax; promise and delivery. Excellent.

  3. PJ Reece says:

    Shawn… I remember reading Robert McKee and being fixated on these “values” and especially the “negation of the negation.” I even let it guide me through a final rewrite of a novel. But you seem to be the only one who is taking these concepts and running with them. I’d sure appreciate (in the future) any further clarification or even spelunking deeper into these ideas, which are so key. Cheers.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi PJ,
      Did you read this?
      There is definitely a resource that could be created to take a whole slew of values to the negation of the negation. I’m putting that on my “to do” list for the future.
      All the best,

  4. Jeff says:

    Shawn, this is truly awesome stuff. Thank you.

    Not sure if you’re a fan of Every Frame a Painting, but since you’re analyzing this Silence of the Lambs scene with such care (and since you mentioned that Ted Talley and Jonathen Demme basically “shot the book”), I thought you’d enjoy this cinematic analysis of the same scene, which also emphasizes critical beats and turns:

    I love how this scene analysis echoes the plus and minus framework from your post, “Thinking Like a Writer.”

    Anyway, hope you liked the video clip as much as I’ve been enjoying these posts.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Great stuff! Love that analysis of the film. That is exactly the same approach as The Story Grid only from the Director’s point of view. If you look at film as the storytelling medium of the director, all of those little choices add up to extraordinary skill. When I say that Demme “shot the book” I was merely pointing out that Harris’s scene by scene creations were so cinematic that Demme wisely chose to keep them (most of them) and tweak them from the POV of a Director. Anyway, love that site now! Thank you!

    2. PJ Reece says:

      Wow… that’s a powerful analysis, I love it. “Who wins the scene?” there’s a mantra worth writing by. Thanks for heads up on that website.

  5. Christina Gross says:

    Hi Shawn,

    I find great value in reading your Story Grid posts and wish you every success on your soon-to-be-published book.

    Just between us: You have a typo in your “Fourth Commandment” post that you may wish to correct: change “prid pro quo” to “quid pro quo” in italics preferred (Latin=foreign language).

    Please know that you are very much appreciated.

    Best wishes,

    author of Bend in the Ocean

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks for catching that Christina. I think I caught both of them in there. I’ll be the first to admit that I make silly mistakes like that all of the time. I wrote about typos etc. at Steve Pressfield’s site a while back with tongue planted firmly in cheek, It’s not making the mistake that’s so terrible, it’s not correcting it when you’ve been graciously corrected that’s a mark of hubris.
      All the best,

  6. Trudee Romanek says:

    This is all extremely useful when working on an actual project, so thank you! I find, though, that I’m getting confused between “turns” in a scene and each scene’s climax. Can you remind me which blog talked about turns? I had a quick look but couldn’t figure out which one delved into that topic. Thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Trudee,
      The Little Buddy of Commandment Number Two is all about Turning Points.

  7. Cheryl says:

    It seemed weird that I watched SOTL on Netflix while reading this post, pausing the movie to re-read parts of the post and review the foolscap and story grid of the movie until I realized how much this helped me get a better grip on internal and external genre. I’ve seen this movie many times, but I have never understood Story like this before. I of course have much farther to continue on this study. Thanks, Shawn!

  8. Dan Stout says:

    Hi Shawn,

    I’m curious about the decision to analyze Starling’s crises with Lector as an irreconcilable goods situation. To me it seems closer to best of bad choices (open herself to Lector, or let Bill’s victim die). Maybe this is simply indicative of a half-empty worldview on my part!

    How much of a difference is there really between the yin and yang of those two interpretations? Or are they flip sides of the same coin, and the difference is in tone, allowing us to present another version of the same dilemma without giving the reader a sense of repetition?

    Just mulling it over out loud while I think about it….

    Thanks for the food for thought for all us fellow story nerds in the audience!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Dan,
      I think they are flip sides of the same coin. In fact, probably those crises that can be seen through both lenses are the most satisfying… But there are instances where there is a clear cut distinction and those are fine too. Obviously you can think yourself into a coma if you get too analytical, but some of us find that kind of fun, so if you’re one of them…enjoy the deep dive.

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