"What is a Climax?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers


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What is a Climax in Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video. Click HERE for Spanish transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State University Associate Professor of American Literature

2 January 2024

As we learned in Professor J.T. Bushnell’s “What is a Conflict?” video, the stories that we read and the movies and plays that we watch are driven by conflicts. Sometimes those conflicts are between two people—what we usually call the protagonist and the antagonist—like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort or Spider Man and the Green Goblin.  At other times the conflict is a bit more nuanced and involves a tension between what a given protagonist wants in the world and what the world gives them in return.  In either case, the narratives of most stories will build towards what is called a climax—the moment of highest tension that leads to the resolution of the conflict and makes way for the conclusion.

This model of storytelling should be pretty familiar to most viewers of this channel.  But what might be less obvious is WHY that key moment in the text is so useful to consider when writing a literary essay or discussing the meaning of a given story or movie. In this brief lesson, I want to share with you two important, interrelated properties of climaxes that have been useful to me in my teaching.  Approaching climaxes with these properties in mind will help you to develop sophisticated interpretations of literature you love.

The origins of the word hint at the first reason why climaxes are so important in storytelling.  In ancient Greek, the word κλῖμαξ (klîmax), means staircase or ladder.  And just as staircases and ladders can give you a bird’s eye view of what is below you, the climax of a story gives you a bird’s eye view of its central conflict, offering a great vantagepoint to help you to spot the major themes or ideas associated with that conflict in a clearer way.  This vantagepoint can be incredibly useful for early readers of complex literature, who often struggle to distinguish the key theme or themes of a given story from the swirl of characters, plot devices, and secondary themes that surround it.  Put simply, the climax tells you what the story believes its big ideas are.

Consider Yiyun Li’s masterfully ironic and incredibly complex story “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.”  The story follows the life of Mr. Shi, a retired Chinese rocket scientist (or so he claims) who travels to the United States to be with his daughter after her recent divorce.  In the first few pages of the story, Mr. Shi is desperate to uncover the reason why “the boat [of his daughter’s marriage ran] into a hidden rock,” believing that “whatever the reason, it must not be her fault.” He also wants to comfort his daughter as she deals with what he presumes is the disgrace of being abandoned by her husband.  Throughout the first two thirds of the story, his efforts are foiled again and again by his daughter, who refuses to discuss the details of her life or be comforted by the many acts of kindness he tries to bestow upon her.  Their awkward exchanges push Mr. Shi and his daughter further apart and this conflict constitutes what a literary critic might call the “rising action” of the narrative. 

At this point in this story, attentive readers would probably expect two different climaxes for the narrative.  On the one hand, Mr. Shi’s daughter might finally reveal the truth behind her divorce to Mr. Shi, and through the revelation, they might be reconciled.  On the other hand, depending on the nature of the revelation, it could push them apart, leading to the dissolution of the family.  Li’s story seems to dutifully fulfill that expectation when Mr. Shi’s daughter answers a phone call late in the story. Leaving the door to her bedroom open, she allows Mr. Shi to overhear her conversation with a man she had been having an affair with.  This affair, she later tells her father, is what led to her divorce, making her the “abandoner” rather than the abandoned.  Now, this is a big reveal, and it does lead the two primary characters to a heated argument, but this isn’t the actual climax.  A page later, when his daughter tells Mr. Shi that he and her mother never talked about the problems with their marriage, Mr. Shi tells her that his job as a rocket scientist forced him to withdraw from the family.  It is here that the actual climax occurs:

“Your mother and I never had a problem.  We were just quiet people.”

“But it’s a lie!”

“No, it’s not.  I know I made the mistake of being too preoccupied with my work, but you have to understand I was quiet because of my profession.”

“Baba,” Mr. Shi’s daughter said, pity in her eyes.  “You know it’s a lie, too.  You were never a rocket scientist.  Mama knew.  I knew.  Everybody knew.”

What everybody “knew,” as we discover in the falling action, is that Mr. Shi was dismissed from his position as a rocket scientist because of an office affair that he had carried out forty-two years ago.  When the affair is discovered by his superiors, Mr. Shi is reassigned to a job far beneath that of the job he claims to hold.  Throughout the rest of his life, he has tried to keep this revelation from his family, and these efforts, coupled with the fact that that his wife and daughter knew about the affair, are what drive his family from him.

Whew!  This is a big reveal!  Like most climaxes, it occurs near the end of the story and like most good climaxes, it offers a surprise that modifies our understanding of the central conflict. This modification illustrates how paying attention to the climax of the story can help us to understand the central themes and ideas within it.  Instead of a simple (and ethically dubious) story about a father trying to rescue his daughter from supposed ruin, through this climax, we are instead given a much murkier and more interesting story of Mr. Shi trying to somehow address or correct or rewrite the tragic story of his past by projecting that story onto his daughter’s life. 

The sudden shift in our understanding of the conflict also forces us to quickly recalibrate our understanding of the key themes of the story.  Instead of a story about the lengths to which a father can go to comfort his daughter, it becomes a story of a man whose anxieties, guilt, and shame drive his actions to such an extent that he cannot see himself or his family clearly.  It is also a story of a daughter’s responsibilities for propping up or puncturing a father’s fantasies.

As Professor Bushnell’s "What is a Theme?" video suggests, themes can often be expressed as questions, and a few good ones to ask here might be: Which is more important for Mr. Shi and his daughter: a duty to self or a duty to family?  How are their answers to those questions similar or different from one another? Is America a place for reinvention, as it seems to be for Mr. Shi’s daughter? Or does it merely offer the promise that you can outrun your past, as it is for Mr. Shi? How do gender expectations shape attitudes towards marriage or family for both main characters, and do those gender expectations change as we move from China to the United States? How and why do people find comfort in projecting upon others the anxieties that they wish to conceal from themselves? How do feelings of shame or guilt structure people’s behaviors?  These thematic tensions simmer beneath the surface of “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” but they are only thrown into relief at the climax.

So that’s the first reason we should pay attention to climaxes—they help us to clarify or complicate some key themes of a story. The second reason is that climaxes enable us to re-read previous sections of a given story with that big revelation in mind, helping us to understand character and narrative structure in new ways that we couldn’t before that moment of highest tension. This is why I often tell my students to read a story twice—once to find the climax and a second time to determine how that climax is foreshadowed by earlier elements of the plot and how those earlier elements are transformed by our knowledge of the climax.  If we only read Li’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” once, we miss out on the rich, ironic nuances of earlier passages that make the story so interesting to read.  For example, early on in the story, after his daughter tells him of her divorce, Mr. Shi asks her to allow him to visit to “help her recover” but she refuses.  He only manages to convince her to let him travel to America when he adopts a different rhetorical tactic:

“She finally agreed when he announced that his wish for his seventy-fifth birthday was to take a look at America.  A lie it was, but the lie turned out to be a good reason.  America is worth taking a look at; more than that, America makes him a new person, a rocket scientist, a good conversationalist, a loving father, a happy man.”

If we read this passage with the climax in mind, we might ask how the “lie” he delivers here foreshadows the “lie” about his career and his own affair at the climax.  We could also ask if America does in fact “make him a new person,” and if it does not, why he believes this lie and how this belief sheds light on his status as a deeply unreliable character.  Finally, we might ask just how successful his lie is.  Does his daughter truly believe the lie or is she simply aware of how he manages his shame and feels unable (until the climax) to call him out on this coping strategy?

As this passage suggests, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” is, obviously, an unusually complicated story, but students can manage that complexity (and the complexity of other challenging stories) by attending to where its climax occurs.  This moment of highest tension can tell us what the “big ideas” of a given story are.  It can also encourage us to re-read a story with that moment in mind, shedding new light upon its structure and content and guiding us towards new interpretations about its meaning. Happy reading, everybody!


Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Malewitz, Raymond. "What is Climax in Literature?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 2 Jan. 2024, Oregon State University, liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-climax-literature-definition-example. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms