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What Role Does Theme Play in Your Storys Climax?

Today, I'm going to be a bad blog writer. I'm not going to make you think at all
to find the answer to the title question: "What is the role of theme in a story's
climax?" I'm just going to tell you straight up: The role of theme in your story's
climax is all-important. The theme is what makes the whole thing work with any
kind of realism or meaning.
No pressure, right?
Actually, there is a lot of pressure, because if you miss the opportunity to knock
your theme out of the park in your story's climax, then not only are you settling
for less than the best for your story, but you may also end up crippling it.
But not to worry. As important a role as theme plays in a story's climax, it's also
a totally fun and rewarding one. Even better, if you can figure out how theme
will factor in to your story's climax, then you'll also have a shortcut to figuring
out everything else you need to know about your theme.
The Most Important Job of Theme in Your Story's Climax
Just what does theme do in the climax?
We sometimes think of theme as window dressing. It just sits there, looks
pretty, and dresses up our novels with a little bit of moral magnitude. It makes
our simple but entertaining tale of two star-crossed lovers into something that's
more important than just another happily-ever-after.
But if theme's going to do that, it has to be more than just icing on the cake. It
has to be the flour and eggs.
Stories themselves are just an expression--a dramatization--of their themes.
And if your theme is a question, then the climax is the answer. When the storylong conflict comes to a head in the climax, the result of that final confrontation
must provide more than just the external evidence of who won--the protagonist
or the antagonistic force. The result of that conflict must also prove your story's

Consider Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Andy
Dufresne's climactic escape isn't just about his physical escape from the prison.
It's the final proof of the thematic Truth that hope lets us live through horrible
circumstances and emerge triumphant on the other side. If he fails in his
escape, he will not only remain in prison for the rest of his life, but his thematic
premise will be proven false and its opposing assertion ("Let me tell you
something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.")
will be proven true.
How Your Story's Climax Will Help You Find Your Theme
If you're ever uncertain of your story's theme (or, by extension, your character's
arc), you need look no farther than your story's climax. In his book Story, Robert
McKee reminds us:
For no matter your inspiration, ultimately the story embeds its
Controlling Idea [theme] within the final climax.
What happens in your climax? What battle is your protagonist fighting? He's
almost certainly going to be in pursuit of some physical goal. He needs to kill
the bad guy, win back the girl, steal the Maltese Falcon. But beneath the surface
of the physical treasure hunt, there will always be a deeper reason. Your
character's motivation for gaining this thing must be central to your story's
If he fights this final battle for a reason unconnected to your theme, then your
story will fall apart. It may still be a slam-bang finale. It may even still be a
reasonably entertaining story. But it won't be an intellectually and emotionally
stimulating tour de force. Worse, it will be fundamentally sloppy and incoherent
on at least a subconscious level.
Create a Story That's Built to Reinforce Your Climax's Theme
Creating a thematically sound climax involves much more than than the climax
itself. In order to create a climax that resonantly answers your story's thematic
question, you first have to build an entire story that asks the right question.
This involves not just setting up the question in your story's opening act, via the
Lie Your Character Believes. It also means creating a consistent, story-long
battle between the Lie and the Truth. McKee again:
The positive and negative assertions of the same idea contest back
and forth through the [story], building in intensity, until at the Crisis
they collide head-on in a last impasse. Out of this rises the Story
Climax, in which one or the other idea succeeds.

Here's an easy rule of thumb: Ask yourself, Is your story going to end with a
positive assertion of your theme? If it does, then, for all intents and purposes,
your ending will be a happy one, no matter the physical circumstances in which
your protagonist ends the story. If your story ends with this affirmation of your
theme, then it needs to begin with a negative assertion of the theme. In other
words, the story's beginning must posit that the theme is false. For example,
Shawshank Redemption opens with its main character in the most hopeless of
all situations: imprisoned for life for a crime he didn't commit with no chance for
This negative assertion will then be countered by a positive assertion, then by a
negative one, then by a positive one--and so on throughout the story until the
final confrontation in the story's climax when the thematic premise is finally
proven once and for all.
(Of course this works in reverse for a story that will end by disproving the storys
Truth: it will begin with a positive assertion of the theme.)
Consider your story's climax. How will it end? Happily or unhappily? How will
your character have arced? Will he have overcome his Lie and discovered the
Truth? Will he have helped others to find a Truth he already knows? Or will he
have fallen away from the Truth and into the Lie?
Within the answers to these questions, you'll find your story's theme. Funnel
your story's main conflict into a final confrontation that will drive and by driven
by the principle at the heart of your theme. Do that, and you will have
strengthened every other aspect of your story.

About the Author: K.M. Weiland is

the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called
Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in
western Nebraska.


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