Is Your Climax a Fizzle?

Good climaxes like this one from Rob Roy are not only exciting fights that are well performed, but also reflect the themes and actions in the rest of the story:

What is the climax of a play or movie?

It’s the point where the tension gets so high that something snaps. Psychological tension is released by physical action. It’s usually either a fight or a kiss. In a romance, the two lovers are kept apart by their own misunderstandings or by forces outside their control until they overcome the odds, and embrace. In most other forms of drama, the climax is an explosive fight. Even in romances, there are often fights along the way as mini-climaxes or complications to the plot.

Characters talk and tension builds up, they form goals, and they meet obstacles. Eventually, things get physical. In order to achieve, they have to overcome their greatest obstacle. That obstacle is the villain, and vanquishing the villain is usually done in combat.

High Stakes

Remember that the play is the most important time in your character’s life. The climax is the single most important moment within that story, and is usually a life-or-death struggle.

The question for actors, directors, and anyone in the process is this: If the climax of your production is a fight, and that is the most important part of your show, wouldn’t you want to devote more time, energy and resources to that moment than to any other?

Or think about the opposite question: Is the fight in your play a disappointment?

Beyond Genre

Maybe you have a kitchen-sink drama, and the climactic violence is a single slap. The slap is the culmination of frustrations of both characters. It is the physical release of every emotional step before it. It is the turning point and the instant when words fail. That slap has to be perfectly executed, because if it looks fake it has ruined your show.

Maybe you’re doing Hamlet. You have four hours of internal conflict and interpersonal drama that culminates in a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. In that scene, everyone important dies. Earlier, we had the death of Polonius, but that merely heightened the tension. We had Ophelia going mad and we hear that she drowned herself. Important events, but we are still waiting for the moment when Hamlet will avenge his father. We can’t bear him to choose “not to be” and give up. In the critical fight at the end, Hamlet overcomes. Although he dies, he takes all the evildoers with him.

The fight is 5 minutes compared to the rest of the play’s 240 minutes. Does that determine its importance? No way. The fight and the deaths in the final act have to be planned from the first rehearsal, with plenty of time to choreograph and perfect the moves. Otherwise the audience will feel cheated of those arduous 240 minutes if you don’t give them a spectacular final fight.


I’d go so far as to say that the longer the build-up — the more time is spent on talking and non-fighting — the more time must be spent rehearsing the fight scene. If you have a 5-minute skit, spend a few minutes on the fight. If you have a 60-minute Fringe show, devote a few hours with a fight choreographer to getting the violence right. If you’re doing a full-length play, spend one out of every 4 hours of rehearsal on stage combat. And if you’re doing a fight-heavy show, consider that maybe that’s what the audience came to see, and spend more time on fights than you do on acting.

I’m not exaggerating or thinking only of a fight director’s ideal world… think about The Three Muskateers. People go to that play to see the swordfights. People bring their kids because they know it will be exciting because of the action and the fights. And if that’s the major draw, then make it the majority of the rehearsal time.

Reality Check

Directors: give yourself a reality check. Your mind is full of each character’s motivations, the set construction, the symbolism of your chosen props, and all kinds of details. Take a step back and just focus on the climax of your story. If it’s a fight, will it be a fizzle? If so, all your other work will be for nothing.

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