SPOILERS AHEAD: for The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Hamlet, The Remains of the Day, Jane Eyre, The Lord of the Rings, Mockingjay and The Great Gatsby.
One of the most vital skills any storyteller can have is the ability to create crisis within the climax.
What do I mean by that? Take for example a heist film. If the climactic heist, such as the one at the end of The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven, goes precisely to plan without a hitch, the overall story is robbed of drama. One of my favourite writing mantras is to give the audience what they want but not the way they expect it. Injecting crisis into a climax is one such way of delivering on that promise.
There are a number of ways to add crisis into a heist, most obviously that it goes badly wrong in some way. In the afore-mentioned cases, we have the famous cliff dangling ending and the deliberate withholding of key information from the audience to generate said crisis respectively.
There are many other examples I could cite in books, films and plays.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone JK Rowling introduces crisis at the unveiling of Voldemort’s servant within Hogwarts – not Snape as Harry has been led to believe, but the cowardly Quirrell, who Harry believed to be above suspicion.
The Great Gatsby: The car accident in the finale proves a pivotal complication to Gatsby’s scheme to run away with Daisy.
Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte provides the requisite gothic climax, reuniting Jane with her beloved Rochester, but amid Bertha’s fiery vengeance.
Hamlet: The climax becomes a tragic bloodbath when multiple deceptions and schemes backfire, claiming the life of every main player.
The Remains of the Day: In the finale, Stevens’ notion that he might win back his former housekeeper goes awry when she decides not to divorce her husband on account of their soon to be born grandchild. In the context of the story, this is an understated but devastating crisis within the climax for the protagonist.
The Lord of the Rings introduces crisis by having Frodo decide to claim the ring for himself, provoking an attack from the murderous Gollum. The outcome is satisfying because the ring is ultimately destroyed but not in a way the reader would have necessarily foreseen.
Mockingjay: The climax of the Hunger Games trilogy features one of the best examples of crisis within the climax in recent memory. Katniss is to execute evil President Snow by firing an arrow at him, but instead turns the arrow on revolutionary leader Coin as revenge for the death of her sister (whom Coin deliberately sacrificed in her coup). Katniss also kills Coin to stop the cycle of violence since Coin had called for a Hunger Games featuring children of the Capital, as a reprisal for the years of Hunger Games inflicted on the children in the other districts. The ending of The Hunger Games is profound, ironic, moving and deeply satisfying.
In my own work, I have also attempted to introduce crisis in the climax of my novels. Check them out for yourself, and decide if I was successful.