Plot Structure Part VIII: The Moment of Clarity

The moment of clarity is that part of every story when the hero realizes what the journey has been about.

A moment of clarity refers to an encounter with truth. More than an ah-ha moment, it involves a major, life-changing revelation. The lie one had believed in is unveiled—and rejected—and the shackles of defense, the coping tactics and self-protecting barricades fall away. One has chosen a new path. There’s mistakes to be made and learning ahead. It’s not an instantaneous transformation. It is, rather, the gateway to freedom and fulfillment,

For Rose in Titanic, the moment of clarity comes toward the end of the middle when she has rescued Jack from his watery prison and is put on a lifeboat with her mother. Rose’s old life, trapped by marriage to Cal, has been given back to her. But looking at her mother, then to Cal and Jack standing on deck, Rose realizes that she can’t go back. She’s come too far and learned too much. Rose makes the only decision she can at this juncture—she jumps back on the sinking ship to remain with Jack.

In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, career-man Steve Martin is re-routed to Wichita and gets stuck with a lovable boor played by John Candy. As John takes it upon himself to guide Steve back to Chicago, Steve will discover that he’s been guided in more ways than one. The journey home becomes an authentic return to a family neglected. For Steve, the moment of clarity happens when, happily riding home on the train after dropping John off, he recalls scenes from the trip and puts it all together. John is alone, his wife is dead. Steve then does something he wouldn’t have done at the start of his adventure. Proving he has changed, he goes back to rescue his pal.

To develop your protagonist’s eventual moment of clarity, some writers develop a subplot that is tied into the main theme. This gives the hero, and your readers, greater opportunity to understand the changes the hero needs to make.

A chauvinistic ad guy (played by Mel Gibson) becomes endowed with a certain ESP that enables him to hear what women are thinking. The thematic statement of What Women Want makes its debut thirteen minutes into the film. Mel’s boss calls Mel into his office and tells him, “If we don’t evolve and grow beyond our natural ability, we’re gonna go down.”  We assume that  his boss is talking about the agency, but he’s cluing us in on Mel’s potential downfall.

Enter Helen Hunt. Her arrival introduces a love story subplot where the hero will learn a fair portion of his lesson from pillow talk. Helen pushes Mel toward his final transformation, the moment of clarity when he realizes he’d rather be the man Helen admires than win the promotion he wanted above all else when his story began.

Another way to build toward the moment of clarity is to create a thematic statement early in the work that foreshadows the event and helps launch your hero on his course.

What do I mean by a thematic statement?  I’m referring to either a scene that demonstrates your theme in action or a line of dialogue that paraphrases it.

In Titanic, when Jack toasts the rich folk he’s been invited to dine with, including Rose, he offers up a thematic statement, lifting his glass to, “Make each day count.”  Whether or not Rose recalls the aphorism, it’s what she will learn. In the end, Rose seizes the present moment and chooses, even if it’s her last, that she will spend it according to her heart.

In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the theme statement—“Like your work, love your wife”—comes right up front, when John Candy tells his motto to a dejected Steve, who’s just phoned his wife about his delay.  Steve scoffs, naturally.  Like many thematic statements, it falls on deaf ears, spoken by someone the hero doesn’t think has anything of value to impart.

By providing a glimpse of your protagonist’s psychological plot information, focusing in ever so briefly on an inner need that ties into the theme, you can portray a thematic statement through his deficit, which then alludes to the eventual lesson he will learn.

However it’s made, the writer should finesse the thematic statement with a sleight of hand, conveying it discreetly, otherwise it will cheapen the work. If you look at what some of the masters of the craft have done, you’ll find thematic statements delivered with such subtlety that the undiscerning reader could miss it.

In Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler introduces sixty-years-old Liam Pennywell who is divorced and recently laid off from a job of irritations and offenses—poor grammar, dusty scuffed corridors, interminable after-school meetings, emails, and endless paperwork.  “It was just as well,” he says, “things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago.”  Which begs the question When?  Or Why? But Liam is vague. Readers may wonder whether or not Liam has ever put these questions to himself, as it appears thatMr. Penny-well has fallen in a well and doesn’t have one red cent to hear his own thoughts.

Liam consoles himself with the prospect that his job loss will push him toward the next stage, which he sees as “the summing-up stage”—like a day of reckoning or judgment day—when “he’ll sit in his rocker reflecting on what, in the end, it all means”.

But life soon barges into the room in the form of Liam’s four-year-old grandson.  When Jonah (a child named after the Biblical prophet who was swallowed by a whale) asks Liam about Noah’s Ark, Liam delivers the plot’s thematic statement.  “There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat.  He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn’t need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant.  …the whole world was underwater.

And this, Noah’s Compass, is the story of Liam Pennywell’s navigation from no place, bobbing helplessly in a drowned world, to some place. Unlike Noah of Ark renown, he will need a compass for the journey ahead.  Furthermore, as with seafaring men of old, he will need a north star—his past, his when and why—to navigate the passage from inertia to a future horizon.

Another wonderful portrayal of theme is found in The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

While doors are often used metaphorically as portals between two worlds, Stockett takes the imagery further. Two cultures, coexisting in a semblance of civility, meet at the screen door, the porous barrier that lets in the refreshing breeze and keeps out the flies.

In 1960 Jackson, Mississippi where white women rise to their lifelong ambition by becoming wives, Skeeter dreams of establishing herself as a writer in New York City.  Aibileen, her counterpart in the black community, has assumed her expected destiny, working as a maid and nanny for one of Skeeter’s friends. Though the maid is reluctant, the two women eventually connect on a personal level as Skeeter, pursuing her goal, enlists Aibileen’s aid.

Stockett shows members of both communities speaking to the other through the screen door. If a black person gets fired, the yellow slip will be tucked into the screen door. On one occasion, a frightened and angry Gretchen says to Skeeter, “Say it, lady, say the word you think every time one of us comes in the door. Nigger.”  She then leaves, giving Skeeter one last look through the screen door.

The scene that nails down the imagery comes when Minny tells Aibileen, “I sure ain’t apologizing to her [Celia, her white employer].”  The two characters then grow quiet, and Stockett turns Minny’s attention to a seemingly arbitrary detail—

“I throw back my coffee, watch a horsefly buzz against Aibileen’s screen door, knocking with its hard ugly head, whap, whap, whap, until it falls down on the step. Spins around like a crazy fool.”

A lesser writer would have had Aibileen saying, You’re banging your head against the wall, here, Minny. But Kathryn Stockett is not a lesser writer. Instead, she paints at a discreet level, showing us that if Minny buzzes on about her grievance, rather than playing by the rules, her mutiny would amount to banging her head against the wall.

The futility of the situation is emphasized when Aibileen’s book is published. She returns to work, mopping, ironing, and changing diapers, and although she’s defied the rules, no acknowledgement is made in the Leefolt home or anywhere. “It’s like I ain’t even written a book,” she says.  “I don’t know what I spected—some kind a stirring—but it’s just a regular old hot Friday with flies buzzing on the screen.”  In other words, it’s still the same white world, nothing’s changed out there. No greater irritation than the status quo of her trivial existence has been introduced to those behind the barrier.

And Katherine Stockett continues to work the imagery. Disillusioned, Skeeter becomes prone to sitting on the back porch staring through the screens, which gives the fields a hazy, distorted look. But as she peers beyond the barrier, she finds herself slipping into Aibileen’s skin. “I am not here,” she says.  “I am in the old Jackson kitchens with the maids, hot and sticky in their white uniforms.  I feel the gentle bodies of white babies breathing against me.  I feel what Constantine felt when Mother brought me home from the hospital and handed me over to her.  I let their colored memories draw me out of my own miserable life.”

The tragedy of The Help’s central conflict, as Stockett so beautifully illustrates, is nothing more tangible, albeit commanding, than a point of view as seen behind the barriers we erect.

And before long Skeeter passes completely and for all time through the barrier.  While never truly fitting in to the values of her culture, she now hears the sharp-pitched whine those values elicit.

“I stare at the tiny gray squares of the back porch screen.  I stare so hard, I slip through them.  I feel something inside me crack open then.  I am vaporous.  I am crazy.  I am deaf to that stupid, silent phone.  Deaf to Mother’s retching in the house.  Her voice through the window, “I’m fine, Carlton, it’s passed.”  I hear it all and yet, I hear nothing.  Just a high buzzing in my ears.”

Stockett’s premise: Racism is a destructive false belief. Her theme: “We are just two people. Not that much separates us.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist