Crisis and Climax in Casablanca

CRISIS vs. CLIMAX—what’s the difference?

The two are often confused—resulting in a weak story structure .

They’re not the same thing. 

Oh, sure, you can write a story in which the protagonist battles her way single-mindedly to the finish line.  Protagonist achieves exactly what she set out after.  (Yawn.)

The CRISIS (occurring earlier) readjusts the protagonist’s sights.  It educates her.  It remakes her into a more mature version of herself.

A story is more about the CRISIS than it is about the CLIMAX. 

For example—Casablanca.

Casablanca’s climax occurs at the airport, right?  Rick surprises us all by surrendering the letters of transit to Ilsa and her freedom-fighter husband, Laslow.  As the plane takes off, Rick shoots the interfering Major Strasser, then wanders into the night with Louie, the French captain, and the “beginning of their beautiful friendship”.  End of story.

That CLIMAX is fantastic… because it serves to prove Rick’s metamorphosis… which occurred earlier… at the CRISIS. 

On one side of the CRISIS we have the “old Rick” who “sticks his neck out for nobody”.  On the other side, we see the “new Rick” sacrificing the love of his life for a higher cause.  

Casablanca is about a man rising above his small self. 

This profound and impossible feat occurs—not at the CLIMAX but—during the CRISIS.  Did you notice it? 

Directors have a cinematic technique for helping us spot it.  They call for a close shot on the protagonist.  It’s a static shot.  Time stands still because the thrust of the story is swinging around this moment.  We’re seeing the birth of a new protagonist.

In Casablanca it occurs the night Ilsa shows up at Rick’s office with a gun to steal the letters of transit.  He calls her bluff.  It works.  She confesses she’s still in love with him, and hasn’t the strength to leave him again.  She falls into his arms.

Rick now has what he’s always wanted.  The story could end there.  But a good writer knows that…

The best fiction doesn’t leave a hero self-satisfied. 

Good protagonists make a quantum leap to another order of being.  This is the moment when the hero adopts a second goal, a higher cause.

“You’ll have to think for both of us,” Ilsa says.

Look at Rick.  It’s the classic “CRISIS” close up.  With Ilsa in his arms, his gnarly old belief system has collapsed.  He is once again the person he was in Paris at the start of the war, patriotic, principled, generous, vibrant and alive. 

We don’t know what he’s going to do, yet.  But look in those eyes.  No more self-pity.  That look is the look of a person who has transcended the crippling effects of his narcissism. 

Regardless of what happens from here on in, as audience, we’re satisfied at a deep level.  More superficially we demand a happy ending.  Bring on the CLIMAX.

Casablanca’s CLIMAX is memorable for all sorts of reasons, but in terms of how fiction works, it serves to prove that Rick’s metamorphosis at the CRISIS was the real thing. 

CRISIS and CLIMAX… voila la difference!

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  1. says

    Wow you have left me reeling. So much to think about:
    “the best fiction doesn’t leave a hero self-satisfied”.

    I’ve just finished reading Dave Eggers Hologram for the King and can see what you say here exemplified.

  2. says

    Eggers won’t disappoint you, PJ. Today summer, tomorrow fall – we go up and down with tropical deluges in between!

  3. says

    Hey PJ! Your post made me sit up and realize, that my protag has already undergone his first crisis. And it’s only chapter 15. Yet, I know he still has two or three more to endure before we get anywhere near the climax of my WIP. You’re the expert on Heart of Story. Is it possible for the protag to suffer more than one crisis in order to emerge as higher versions of himself? Or do you think it’s too much? Overkill, so to speak! :-)

  4. says

    “Is it possible for the protagonist to suffer more than one crisis…?” Yes, absolutely. The more the merrier. “The Artist” for example. I thought he was at his lowest ebb…when the film was only half over. The writer kept taking more and more away from him. After all the material stuff is gone, there’s his self-respect, self-esteem… you can take him down all the way to self-loathing. “Up in the Air” with George Clooney is another good example of a protagonist with a multi-beat crisis. It’s a series of disillusionments that work to destroy his bogus belief system, or as I like to call it… his b.s. Cheers, Yvette!

  5. says

    Thanks, PJ! I was just thinking, in our lives we go through the same process. It’s just as well we don’t know there’s more of them to come, when we’re suffering our first petit morte, huh! The same goes for our protagonists, they need to feel this is the pits, this is the worst thing that’s happened to me. Then, just like that, they’re set up to fall again.

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