The Ultimate "Aha" Moment
The ultimate aha moment, and that means that, I know you're probably thinking, wait a minute, we waited all day to get to the other side of that immediate stress, and we just did the opening scene, and now you want us to come all the way over here to the ultimate aha moment, why? Why are we doing that now? And that's a fair question, the reason is because starting from over here, if you don't know exactly what you're aiming for, and exactly what that aha moment is gonna be, chances are you will go offtrack going forward. It's sort of like the difference between saying, "Well wait a minute, you know, we just did that plot problem, and we have some idea what that's gonna be, so can't we just write in that direction?" And it's like saying, "Okay, I know I wanna go this way. I'm gonna go this way," but now you start going this way, and you're not really sure exactly where you're trying to get to, or exactly how to get to it, and it's very easy to then go astray. It's what you're looking to...
do, it's the difference between that, and saying, "Okay, I am leaving my house right here in San Francisco, and I'm going to New York." Right, we know what direction New York is in. We have a basic idea, you know there's more than one way to get there, but we know basically how to get there and where we're headed. And that means when you leave San Francisco, if suddenly you discover that you're actually headed towards Saskatchewan, which I'm assuming is not near New York, 'cause I'm very geographically challenged and you might be going, "Wait, Saskatchewan and New York, they're right next to each other." But let's assume it's over here. Suddenly you're going to Saskatchewan, you're gonna go, "Wait minute, I realize that's not where I'm headed. I'm actually headed over here. In fact, this journey that I thought was gonna take me there is taking me here. I need to go back and change a bit of what I've got before, and now I need to rearrange to go forward to get up there to Saskatchewan." It will keep you on track. In other words, when we talked in the beginning about all stories make a point, and if you don't know what that point is, how can you write a story that will make it? This ultimate aha moment is the moment when your story makes its point. The aha moment is the instant when your protagonist finally sees her misbelief for what it actually is, wrong. Now, to be very clear, there are stories where that does not happen. There are stories where the point of the story is that the writer, the writer, the protagonist is so deeply damaged that what you would think would finally cause them to realize the error of their ways can't, and that that pain is so deep that they would rather live with it than let it go and actually come to the surface and feel whole again. A great example of that is Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. If you saw it, it's a wonderful movie with Cate Blanchett. She's so good, and it's basically the story of Ruth Madoff, I mean not exactly, but it's a character based on her, and Ruth Madoff, as you might remember, it was the wife of Bernie Madoff who had the Ponzi scheme, and he went off. And in the story, it's interesting, because it follows a classic arc in the way that we assume stories are gonna go, is that she is so damaged, her husband goes off to jail. She is so damaged, and she feels like her identity so came from what happened, that every time something happens that seems like, now she's gonna wake up, she doesn't. She has a sister, and she goes and kind of lives with the sister, and screws her sister's life up, and we wait for her to wake up, but she doesn't. She gets a boyfriend, and he seems really kind of okay, and we think, okay this is gonna do it, but it doesn't. She gets a job, someone actually gives her a job, and this guy's like good to her, doesn't matter still. And it finally, and you're waiting, because you're watching these things build, and you're thinking, "Wow, something big is gonna have to happen to wake her up." Because you think she's gonna wake up. And then it hits a place, and I should watch it again, because I don't remember exactly what they said, but she has a son, and she goes to where the son is, and now they have some sort of disagreement, and it's very clear that he needs her to admit what she's done, and she can't do it. Instead she's gonna blame him for what went wrong. And at that moment we go, "Oh, I get it, I get it." The whole point is that she is so damaged, that even the one thing her son, you know the person who you would think would be the most, have the most meaning in her life. Even her son can't pull her. She'd rather let him go then let this damage go. And the movie ends, and it has this great ending, it ends, actually, we're filming this in San Francisco, and it ends not far from here in Union Square in San Francisco, and she's sitting on a park bench, and there's someone next to her, and she's talking, and you assume that she's talking to that person, and then you see the person kind of like look at her and walk off, and you realize she's talking to herself. That in other words, she would rather lose everything than admit to having made that kind of a mistake. So it's not like they always realize what, you know, see their misbelief for what it is, but almost always, almost always. Now the thing about a misbelief is that it's not necessarily the last scene in your novel. In fact, it usually isn't. There are three places where that ultimate aha moment tend to happen. The first is sort of the closest, and it's almost always in the last 20%, and the first place it tends to occur is at the moment when the protagonist has finally got to leap that last giant hurdle. The one where if they had had any clue that this is where it was going when they woke up that morning, they would have stayed in bed and waited for it all to blow over. But they've hit that place, and they don't think they can do it, and now somehow they see their misbelief for what it is, and either it lets them know that yeah, you can solve this problem. Or it gives them the courage to try. And a great example of that is one of my favorite movies of all time, one of the best Christmas movies ever, Die Hard. And in Die Hard, which I'm going to assume that everybody's pretty much seen it. If you guys at home haven't seen it, hit the pause button, go watch, you won't be sad, and then come back. But in Die Hard, his misbelief, it's John McClain, New York City cop. His wife, who's in finance, and before the movie started she's gotten a great transfer, and she said, "Hey come on, let's take the kids, let's go to LA. We'll have a better life, I've got this great new job." And he's like, "Yeah, no I'm not going." And the reason he doesn't go, his misbelief is that on one level, that hey, I read the gender rule book and it says we stay where the man's job is, and the last time I looked, I was the man. So we're staying here, what's for dinner? Which obviously, as you can imagine, would not go over well. His deeper misbelief is that he was really afraid to go somewhere that was not familiar to him. He wasn't John McClain, who happens to be a New York City cop, he was John McClain, New York City cop. It was one thing, it was his self identity. If he went to LA he couldn't be that, so he stood with sort of his macho pride and let her go. They've been, as those of us who know and love the movie know, he's gone to Los Angeles to see her for the first time. He's hoping that they reconcile, but they immediately have a spat. He says something snarky and she gets really angry and storms off, and now the bad guys, the pseudo-terrorists, Hans Gruber and his band of merry men take over the building, and basically, he has to kill all of the bad guys, the terrorists, in order to save himself, his wife, and basically, although he does a pretty good job of destroying the building himself, but, the building and everybody else who's alive in the building. And as it goes forward, we realize that he is confronting that misbelief, because he what he wants, people say, "Well what does John McClain want?" And they'll go, "Well he wants to save his wife." Well yeah, he definitely, he wants to save her because he wants to save her absolutely, but what he really wants is he wants to win her back. So of course he wants to save her because he doesn't wanna like win her back in a body bag. That would be a Pyrrhic victory. Not at all what he wants. But so it goes forward, and it goes forward, and he's really starting to see how much she means to him. And he's really starting to see how much he loves her, and what a fool he was to hold onto this macho pride and to let her go, that she is way stronger than he ever gave her credit for being. And so it gets to this moment where, it's like Hans Gruber looks like he is going to just blow everybody up, and he's got a really bad feeling, John McClain does, but he's realized how much she means to him, and he's realized what a fool he was. Because they might die, he might never see her again, might not see anybody again, because they might all get blown up. And he's realized, and it hits this moment that it often hits in movies or stories that are gonna have a happy ending, you know, so that 20 minutes before the end it looks like all is gonna be lost, and the vice versa is also true, If you're watching a movie that you think is gonna be a tragedy, and all of a sudden it seems like everything's gonna work out, and you look at your watch and go, "Oh, 20 more minutes, everybody's gonna die for sure." So he hits this point, and it's also, it's a very early "bromance", so he's, 'cause it was 1988 when that movie was made, which is kind of terrifying if you think about it now. Anyway, so he's talking to Al, who's his cop BFF, and he's on the walkie, and he says, "Al, I gotta bad feeling, I don't think I'm gonna make it. When all of this is over, I want you to find my wife. Don't ask me how, by then you'll know. And I want you to say 'Honey, you heard me say I love you a thousand times, but you never heard me say honey, I'm sorry.'" And at that moment, he's overcome everything that's held him back. Now it doesn't tell him how to kill Hans Gruber, because he's really good at that. He doesn't need anybody's help in that. But he gave him the internal fortitude to now mount that last battle, which he in fact wins. And then he does basically go and kill everybody. So that's when it happens, right before that big giant leap at the end. The second place it tends to happen is in the middle of that, in the middle of the big, whatever that thing that they've gotta conquer. The thing that they never thought that they could do. That last, that last hurrah, and they're in the middle of it, and they feel like it's not gonna work at all, and then something happens, and they have the insight, they have the knowledge, and that's what allows them to solve it at the very last minute. The third place that it happens is literally at the very end. Everything has happened, it's over, the plot problem is resolved, and now they're looking at it, and they feel very differently than they thought they would. Either they thought that something awful was happening, and had happened, and when they look back, they realized it wasn't as bad as what they thought it was. That's the ending of, and I won't go into it in great depth here, of another really great Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life ends that way. It's the very end, he's not gotten what he wanted. He wanted to be able to leave Bedford Falls and build big things, and he realizes at the very end that in fact, what he'd wanted to begin with, which was to be a success, that he actually was a success. In fact, he was a bigger success than he would've been had he gone and gotten what he wanted all the way through, which was to build, what was it, big buildings and bridges all the way through. So that's where that happens. It also happens that way the flip side in romantic comedies. Like what we were talking about. Let's revisit for a second Some Kind of Wonderful. Go all the way to the end where it was Keith, and he really wanted to get together with Amanda Jones, and Watts, his BFF who's the tomboy has been helping him. And we get to the end, and he's got her. He's won her, she likes him. And it doesn't feel the way he thought it would. And he realizes he's made a mistake. And he realizes it isn't what he thought. That she, that getting her hasn't given him that sense of self-worth that he was sure that it would. And at that point he, it's kind of funny. This will tell you how old this movie was. In the movie, he had saved up a bunch of money to go to college, but he did not want to go to college. I think he wanted to be an artist, or go to art school. So he'd taken that money, and he bought her a pair of diamond studs. The amount of money he'd saved up to go to college was $2,000. (laughing) It's like, good luck. But so he's given her these really expensive earrings, at least for 1987, and she takes them off, and she says to him, "I think you meant to give these to somebody else." And he's realized that yes, he did. And then he turns to Watts, and she goes, "Oh yeah, I really wanted those." And he says, "Yeah, you knew all along. How come I didn't know? You knew all along that we should be together." He goes, "How come I didn't know?" And she goes, "Because you're stupid." (laughing) And he goes, "Why didn't you tell me?" And she says, "Because you had to figure it out on your own." Which is what the story was about. That's what the story's about. How we figure these things out on our own. How life forces us to figure these things out. So that is the three places. Now it's not written in stone, but those are the basic three places where misbeliefs usually bite the dust. So what you wanna ask yourself to really dive into this, to find out where your protagonist's misbelief is gonna bite the dust, is ask yourself, given you know the plot problem, you know where you're beginning, what is going to happen externally that is going to force her to confront and overcome her misbelief? What's gonna happen out there? Now keep in mind, as we said earlier, that it's not like she's gonna flat line and then something big is gonna happen here, and she's gonna realize it. She has been earning her way toward this scene from the very beginning, scene, by scene, by scene, by scene. Something happens, she realizes something new. She tries something, it doesn't work. Now she changes a bit, her plan for achieving her agenda shifts a bit. It goes forward all the way through until finally, it's at the moment where she is going to see her misbelief for what it is, it's wrong. It's what's been holding her back. It's almost always the irony that the protagonist thought the misbelief was helping them get the thing that they wanted. Just like we were talking about in Some Kind of Wonderful. He thinks if he gets Amanda Jones, that's gonna give him what he wants, and suddenly, because his misbelief is, I'm not worthy by myself. And that is what's driving him toward her to do it. Once he realizes that isn't what I wanted, he realizes, I am okay in and of myself. I don't need that, so the misbelief is often, it's what keeps the protagonist from getting what they want, but they don't know it, they think it's helping them. They think it's a positive thing. They think it's a good thing. There's always that irony of, the thing I think that's saving me is actually the thing that's keeping me from what I'm actually looking for. So you wanna ask yourself, what in that last scene that you have been building toward, what is going to happen that's gonna force them to confront that misbelief? And then, you wanna ask yourself what will your protagonist realize? Because this is exactly like the origin scene that we talked about, in every scene, they're going to realize something. They're going to draw a conclusion exactly the way that they did in the origin scene. Something is gonna switch, they're going to see the world with new eyes. As T.S. Eliot said, "The end of our journey is to arrive at where we began, and to see the place for the first time." That is what they're gonna do. Misbelief gone, they're gonna look back, and they're gonna see things differently. Again, as we said, story is about how the plot forces the protagonist to make the unconscious conscious. Now it's come up to the surface, they're looking at it. What conclusion do they draw? This is where your story makes its point. This is what your reader has been on the ride for. And that's why when this happens, you wanna put us inside your protagonist's head. You don't wanna have them suddenly realize something and act on it, and we don't see how they came to that realization. Story is in the way we process information. It's not in what your protagonist does, it's in why. If they're suddenly gonna realize their misbelief is a misbelief, I wanna see that train of logic, that aha moment, what was it that led them to that? It's internal, it's not external. Don't lock us out, let us be inside their head as they're struggling. So, let me give you an example, and yes, we are going to talk about the Wizard of Oz because it's a perfect example. So what is the desire, what's Dorothy's desire when she enters the story? And her desire is she wants to be treated fairly. She really feels like she gives things everything she's got, and the world is not treating her fairly. She wants to go to a place where the world does treat you fairly. If you listen to the lyrics of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, there's a place where the lyric is something like, "And troubles melt like lemon drops." It's like, I will go to someplace where people treat me fairly, that's what I'm gonna do. As opposed to staying and fighting, because that's her misbelief. Her misbelief is, when things go wrong, the best thing to do is to run away and start over. And again, we don't dislike her because of that, because Miss Gulch, isn't it Miss Gulch is her name I think, who is Margaret Hamilton before she's the Wicked Witch is Miss Gulch and like, she's in Kansas? I mean, she's gonna kill her dog Toto, that's pretty awful. But instead of staying and fighting or dealing with it, she's gonna run away, that's what she's gonna do. So she ends up in Oz, and what happens is, is in helping her friends dig deep, in other words the tin man, and the scarecrow, and the cowardly lion, she helps them dig deep to find their strength to fight for what's fair. 'Cause they can't run away. They've gotta find that in order to stand up and to be able to go forward and not get burned up or eaten up or become crushed by the witch. But in helping them dig deep she finds her own strength because she can't run away, she doesn't run away. The irony is, is she's run away from Kansas. Now she ends up in Oz, and all she wants to do is get back to Kansas. So she can run away again, at that moment, she still doesn't wanna go home. But she wants to get back. By the end she does wanna go home, because what she's realized is, is that running away is not going to make life fair. Wherever you go, there you are. It's not gonna make everything perfect. She realizes that if you're able to stand up to life's unfairness, maybe you can change things. Maybe then you have a chance of making fairness as opposed to expecting it to be given to you. So what does she learn, what does she learn? And it comes at the end, and we've already seen the tin man get his, they've gotten everything, they don't need it anymore. But he gets his heart, and they get the brain, and he gets the courage. And so, then Dorothy, to go home, well what have you learned? And the tin man literally says that to her. "What have you learned?" And she says, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with." And what she means by that is that it's inside me. It's inside me, my desire, what I need, what I'm looking for, it's in me. It's not out there somewhere. She doesn't literally mean her backyard, because God forbid she should stay in that horrible little dusty Kansas backyard for the rest of her life. I mean, of course she's gonna go somewhere else. That's, it's not literal, it's figurative. It's what she feels, and it's what's true of all of us. And the same is true, as I keep saying, of your story itself, the answers that you're looking for as to why a character would do what they're doing, as to what's the worst thing that could befall them, as to where true drama lies, is in your story's backyard. It's in everything we've been developing. It's not something out here that you're gonna lob from a grab bag of really general bad things that could happen to make it more dramatic. It always comes from their backyard.