Climax in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:35 What is a Climax?
  • 1:05 Examples of Climaxes
  • 2:55 Multiple Climaxes
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Do you know how to identify the climax of a story? Learn what a climax is in literature, with examples from stories you might have read for class or on your own.

What Is a Climax?

You might not know it, but you probably use climaxes in the literary sense all the time. Just think of the way that you tell a story. You don't start off with the most exciting part; that would take all the drama out of it. And besides, without background, it might not even make sense.

Instead, you lay out the background, set the scene, and walk through everything that happened before you finally reach the big reason you're telling the story. The whole time, you're building up to that crucial moment, and the tension of not knowing what's going to happen keeps your audience engaged. And then, when you finally get to the end, it's rewarding for the listener.

That big moment at the end is the climax, the decisive moment in the story that all the action builds up to.

This is often expressed in a diagram called a plot pyramid. In modern stories, the plot pyramid doesn't work perfectly, because a lot of modern literature starts right in the middle of the rising action, and the falling action and denouement are often very short if they're present at all. But most stories still have rising action that leads up to a climax.

Examples of Climaxes

To help you figure it out, let's take an example.

The book Frankenstein by Mary Shelly tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a nameless monster. The monster escapes from Frankenstein's lab and initially tries to befriend humans, but becomes bitter and angry when they reject him. Finally, he goes back to Frankenstein and asks Frankenstein to make him a wife so he won't have to be alone forever.

Frankenstein initially agrees, but he can't do it. He's so disgusted by the thought of making any more monsters that he destroys his work. In revenge, the monster promises to kill Dr. Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth. That tension hangs over Dr. Frankenstein until the night before his marriage, when he asks his fiancée to stay safely in her bedroom while he patrols the house to keep her safe from the monster. But while he's out, the monster breaks into Elizabeth's bedroom and kills her.

Elizabeth's murder is the climax of the story. All the major plot lines lead up to it. The monster tries to join human society, becomes angry when he's rejected, and turns against humans instead. Murdering Elizabeth is his final act of revenge against the human who hurt him the most deeply, his own creator. Dr. Frankenstein plays with forces he doesn't understand and loses everything. His fiancée's death is the ultimate tragedy because she was everything to him. Both of these plots converge on the murder of Elizabeth as the climax of the novel.

In the book, there's also some falling action, where Dr. Frankenstein chases the monster to the North Pole, tells his story to an explorer, and finally dies. But even though that part is closer to the end, the action wasn't building up to it, so it's not the climax.

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