September 24 – 30: “Thrillers are known for their grand, loud, all-out climaxes. How do you set them up?”

This week ITW Members Tess Gerritsen, Steven James, J. H. Bográn, M.R. Gott and Jeff Carlson discuss climaxes…in thrillers: “”Thrillers are known for their grand, loud, all-out climaxes. How do you set them up?”


Trained as a medical doctor, Tess Gerritsen built a second career as a thriller writer. Her 24 novels include the Rizzoli and Isles crime series, on which the TV show “Rizzoli & Isles” is based. Among her titles are THE SURGEON, ICE COLD, and THE SILENT GIRL, and the upcoming LAST TO DIE. Her books are translated into 37 languages and more than 25 million copies have been sold. She lives in Maine.

M.R. Gott, the author of WHERE THE DEAD FEAR TO TREAD and the forthcoming sequel WHERE THE DAMNED FEAR REDEMPTION, is a resident of New Hampshire, content with his wife, two cats and a dog, while his controlled imagination produces spine-chilling works, leading readers to self-knowledge. With disciplined skill, Gott binds disparate scenes of truth flashing across his “imaginaire” into a coherent whole achieved through “outlining and mapping the series of events and character’s growth”, followed by rigorous editing. Aside from writing, M.R. enjoys strong coffee, dark beer, red wine, and fading light.

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator. His short story fantasy fiction, DEEDS OF A MASTER ARCHER, will be released in September. You can find him on Twitter @JHBogran, Facebook and Blogger.

Steven James has penned 30+ books including the award-winning Patrick Bowers series. He has received wide critical acclaim for his work including two Publishers Weekly starred reviews and three Christy Awards. His thriller The Queen won a 2012 ECPA Award and a 2012 Christy Award. Steven is an active member of International Thriller Writers, the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and International Association of Crime Writers. He is a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest and has taught writing and storytelling principles on three continents. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and three daughters.

Jeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of Plague Year and The Frozen Sky. To date, his work has been translated into fifteen languages worldwide. Readers can find free fiction, videos, contests, and more on his web site at





International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
  1. To me, building up to a great climax is a matter of making and keeping promises. There are certain forces that shape the outcome of every story and four of them specifically come into play when we’re moving toward a story’s climax: believability, inevitability, surprise, and escalation.

    The climax needs to (1) be believable within the narrative world of that story, (2) be logical and the only inevitable conclusion to all that precedes it, (3) end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying, and (4) contain the culminating moment of tension and excitement after which nothing can sensibly escalate within the context of that story.

    Okay, so that’s the theoretical side of the equation but how does all of that fit in with the idea of making and keeping promises?

    Every word we write is a promise to the reader. If we spend two paragraphs describing someone’s sweater, that’s a big promise to the readers that the sweater is important to the story. If we just drop the sweater after that, we’ve broken a promise. So, set up the climax by making bigger promises. In one book I had a character warn my hero to watch out because the serial killer had a twist waiting for him that he would never see coming. That’s a huge promise to readers, and that’s what readers want.

    As long as we fulfill them.

    The central struggles of the main character (external, internal, and interpersonal) will only be ultimately satisfied at the story’s climactic scene. As we write the lead up, we are constantly deepening and tightening the tension in those three areas.

    Some climaxes implode because they lack believability, others because they don’t make sense or they’re too predictable, others because they don’t contain escalation of everything else in the story and end up being, well, anticlimactic.

    Running the risk of making it all sound too simplistic, I would suggest that the solution to all of these problems is keeping the promises we’ve made to our readers by maintaining believability, creating endings that are inevitable and yet unexpected, and tightening the tension, ratcheting up the action, relentlessly building up the suspense, heightening the stakes and escalating to a finish that reaches its pinnacle at just the right moment for the protagonist and for our readers.

  2. On the surface, writing the thriller climax seems easy. You just put your hero in danger and throw in some bad guys chasing him in a spooky locale. Hero gets cornered, death seems imminent, and he either saves himself or gets saved by the cavalry. A big-stakes action scene should do the trick and get readers’ hearts racing, right?

    Not necessarily. An effective thriller climax isn’t all about action, which can in truth be pretty boring. I first came to this insight while watching a James Bond film, and realized that the car chase was going on too long and I wanted to get on with the plot. The scene itself wasn’t revealing anything to me except crashed cars and broken bodies, and since you already knew the hero would survive, I wasn’t feeling particularly thrilled.

    So what does make a climax thrilling? Tension. This is not merely action; it’s the fear and adrenaline that precedes the horrible thing you know is coming. The longer you can draw out that tension, the longer you sustain that sense of imminent jeopardy, the more thrilling the scene. I think of it as slowly blowing up a balloon bigger and bigger, waiting for it to pop. One trick I use is to have several crises building at once, involving multiple characters. Intercut between these scenes. Leave each scene with a mini-cliffhanger or a question begging to be answered. Don’t get to the blood-and-guts too soon, or the balloon will pop and you’ll lose that tension.

    The Big Reveal makes the climax even more thrilling. It’s the surprise that your hero never saw coming, the shock that makes a reader suck in a startled gasp. In my medical thriller HARVEST, after a desperate struggle, the heroine is strapped to an operating room table, about to be sliced open. She’s reached what you think is her darkest moment … until the surgeon walks in. He’s not just any villain; he’s the man she loves. It’s not the action or the violence that a reader will remember; it’s that heart-stopping moment of ultimate betrayal. Give your Big Reveal an emotional punch, and the climax will be far more powerful. It can also be your way to explain parts of the mystery that are otherwise unknown to the hero/reader. Not a stilted “as you know, Mr. Bond” conversation, but a dropping of clues through dialogue or a sudden insight on the hero’s part.

    The Rescue wraps up the action. It can mean either self-rescue by the plucky hero or a rescue by outside agents. My own preference is to not draw this out. Make the rescue happen, make it quick, and end the scene in another page or two. The tension’s now gone, so don’t linger too long over your spent balloon. Move on to the final scenes.

  3. Late to the party, that’s me! We had a net outage. Back now.

    Steven, I love the Important Sweater. This must be the sweater which Bond will use to rappel off of a thousand-foot cliff after the bad guys run his car off the road.

    Tess, I haven’t read HARVEST, but the reveal you’ve described is awesome.

    Here’s what I wrote in prepping for this week’s question:

    I think we’re hardwired to expect a crescendo and fireworks. We need it emotionally, mentally, and physically. If an activity doesn’t intensify and then end with a bang, how do you know it’s over?

    This isn’t a cultural phenomenon. Look at storytelling through the ages. Across history, across the world, one tendency remains constant – our stories build to the darkest moment, then a decision is made or an action taken, followed by the big reveal.

    With luck, the heroes live happily ever after. But first we want conflict and resolution. This holds true from the shallowest Hollywood gossip in PEOPLE magazine to Homer’s epic THE ILLIAD.

    Jen has decided to keep her baby after leaving Brad and may finally find happiness in Justin’s arms? Oh, the lovely downs-and-ups of her story!

    What’s that you say? Achilles lost everything in the Trojan War but ultimately defies the very gods to exact his vengeance upon Hector? Why, his tale of suffering, skill, persistence, and victory seems even more satisfying than Jen’s trivial romances!

    Aha ha ha.

    The more that’s at stake, the more gripping story and the more gratifying its climax. Putting the hero’s life in danger is expected and almost inconsequential. That his soul or his honor is at risk means more. There must be a personal cost. Even the end of the world is never as gripping as our deepest personal fears and hopes.

    For me, as a writer, assembling a novel is like solving an incredibly good puzzle or playing a fantastic game of chess. I’m not only the white pieces and the black. I’m also the chess board. I marshal my armies against each other, and I play both sides to the best of my ability.

    As a reader, I want the bad guys to be smart and capable. I also want them to have good reasons for being the bad guys. The same holds true for the heroes. Personally, I hate it when characters make stupid decisions or when there are convenient coincidences to further the plot. These feel like cop-outs on the author’s part. Coincidences lessen the tension. Stupid decisions weaken the release of the finale.

    If I’ve done my job well, every element in the story pushes the other elements to their greatest possible heights – setting, mood, growth.

    Then it crashes together with a bang!

  4. You have your hero, you have your villain. Each is battered physically and bruised psychologically. You lean forward in anticipation and excitement. You know this moment has been coming. This is the end, or is it?
    A thriller’s climax should be an emotionally cathartic experience. Your personal investment in the characters should be paid back in full at these times. If it is a physical battle it should be emotionally satisfying as well and not merely a collection of clever moves. Your investment in the character should result in a cringe of every blow rained down upon your hero.
    As an author climaxes are incredibly important to me. The Legacy of the Devourer which begins in Where the Dead Fear to Tread, was built around the idea of physical confrontations between characters that represented their shattering emotional states. The first two chapters introduce my antagonist, The Devourer and my protagonist William Chandler. Each is introduced in a scene of violence with what I intended to carry with it an emotional resonance. While neither character is even aware of the other’s existence at this point in the story, I hope my reader knows that these two are condemned and bound for a confrontation that both men cannot survive.
    Throughout Where the Dead Fear to Tread, William’s and The Devourer’s actions impact each other more and more and when they finally confront one another it is not a plot device, it is an inevitability.
    The climax of a thriller provides us with a catharsis we rarely have in our lives. An all-out confrontation with a clear definitive end. Characters in a novel can ride off into the sunset, I have to get up and go to work tomorrow.

    I’d love to hear your feedback. What is one of your favorite confrontations between two characters?
    In my formative years reading the Batman Knightfall epic contained one of my favorite moments of catharsis. Through multiple issues Bane has worn out Batman both mentally and physically. Finally they are before each other, and you know Batman cannot win. The moment when Bane brings Batman battered above his head in an amazing image.
    “I am Bane—and I could kill you…But death would only end your agony–and silence your shame. Instead I will simply…BREAK YOU.”
    And he brings Batman down on his knee before discarding his broken form in utter disgust.

  5. Gee, I’m really late to this party.

    Great comments above!

    The planning of a grand scale finale is akin to a match of Chess.
    Firs you deploy your pieces; be them random bits of the plot, some character unexplained actions.

    Then you move to strike. That’s the climax.

    Of course, it is easier said than done. Making it happen is where the fun is for me, though.

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