The climax is the do or die scene.
Everything comes to a head and it looks very dismal for our main character. We are left wondering if a happy ending is at all possible (maybe it's not). It's tempting to rush the ending, especially when you've spent so much time working your way to get there, but make sure you keep an eye on your pacing (more on Pacing in another tip). Readers who've committed to reading your book through to the end deserve satisfaction. They want to be wowed by the climax and content with how all the loose threads are tied up at the end. They want a meaningful resolution. Series books may end with a cliffhanger and loose threads, but it better all be rewarded by the last book.
“The beginning hooks the reader, but the ending makes them fans.”
-Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer
In HARRY POTTER, Harry has entered the chamber and finds Quirrel without his stutter and the head of Voldemort under his turban. Even in this form, Voldemort is a fearful foe and Harry has to use his wits and the stone to fight him off.
Resolution: Harry is safe for now.
In HUNGER GAMES, Katniss and Peeta fight off the final competitor; they are the last 2 standing and the winners – until the rules changed back to only 1 victor. Now they have to make a hard choice. Instead, they call the Capitol's bluff.
Resolution: Katniss and Peeta return to District 12 as heroes.
Since these examples are of series books, not everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end, but the main plot is resolved and the story question is answered. (More to come on the story question.)
When writing Mystery Thrillers or other genres with a thriller component (there’s a flesh and blood villain out to get the protagonist), the third act will include a Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene and a False Ending scene.
The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene is when the protagonist is trapped by the villain and it looks like this can only end badly for her. The False Ending is when we think it’s over, but the villain or protagonist revives, and a second final ending happens.
In PERCEPTION, The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain happens when Noah and Zoe are together at the campground making their escape and the villain finds them. He’s in the position of power and the odds of the heroes defeating him in a physical fight are slim.
The False Ending is when the villain is holding Noah off the ground by the neck, strangling and suffocating him. It looks like the end.
But then Zoe makes a move and the real ending happens at her hands.
Resolution: Zoe and Noah are safe, but still on the run.
In GIRL ON THE TRAIN, The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain happens when Tom finds Rachel and Anna together at his house. He’s letting her know all the ways she screwed up and why he’s left her no option but to do the same thing to her that he did to Megan. The False ending is when Tom incapacitates Rachel and we think Anna is going to help him kill her. (It’s a light False Ending.)
Rachel runs for her life, Tom catches her but then she gets the upper hand and stabs him in the neck.
Resolution: Rachel is cleared of Tom’s death as self-defence (Anna’s witness) and Megan’s murder is solved.
For Romances, the third act includes a separation of the couple with a dim outlook for their future, and a final climatic confrontation and turn of events that bring the couple back together.
In SUN & MOON, Katja believes Micah chose another woman over her, and goes back to Berlin to take care of her family. She believes that the gap between her impoverished family situation and his position of wealth and means is too much of a barrier for them to over come.
Then Micah makes the “grand gesture,” and Katja forgives.
Resolution: they live happily ever after. 🙂