An Introduction to Climax

The ablest writer is a gardener first, and then a cook. His tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate the strongest and most nutritive thoughts, and, when they are ripe, to dress them wholesomely, and so that they may have a relish. — J. C. and A. W. Hare

Climax (derives from Greek klîmax, literally “staircase” or “ladder”), is a figure of speech by which objects, ideas or episodes of events are gradated by a series of circumstances, ascending one above another in respect of importance, and all pointing toward the same object.

In simple words, climax is the presentation of ideas (in words, clauses, sentences, etc.) in the order of increasing importance.

A climactic order is usually used for arranging the points presented to produce the effect of increasing strength and emphasis. This same feeling of turning up the volume can also work at the sentence level. Observe the following constructions, where the objects are graded in degrees of importance:

Example I
Random order
  • When the bucket fell off the ladder, the paint splashed onto the small rug, the drop cloth, the Rembrandt painting, and the sofa.
Climactic order
  • When the bucket fell of the ladder, the paint splashed onto the drop cloth, the small rug, the sofa, and the Rembrandt painting.
Example II
Random order
  • Before buying the house, inspect the carpet for wear, the foundation for cracks, the roof for leaks, the plumbing for rusty water, and the paint for chipping.
Climactic order
  • Before buying the house, inspect the paint for chipping, the carpet for wear, the plumbing for rusty water, the roof for leaks, and the foundation for cracks.
As demonstrated in these examples, climax produces a logically natural sense to the presentation of ideas as well as the sense of increasing emphasis, which can also be termed as gradation. On the other hand, the randomly ordered list appears to have no sense to its arrangement, but directs the reader’s attention randomly. Climax, then is an important device for adding clarity.

Relatedness to other devices

Climax is closely related to Hyperbole, and differs from it, chiefly in degree. HyperboleOpens in new window merely functions to exalt our conceptions of a thing beyond the truth; whereas, climax serves the purpose to elevate our ideas of the truth itself. Climax is contrary to AnticlimaxOpens in new window — where ideas are gradated in downward trend.

Further Readings:
Robert A Harris: Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary WritingOpens in new window