When I asked fellow novelists for help understanding and writing novel epiphanies, one of the first to answer my call was middle grade historical fiction novelist, Jeannie Mobley. What a gal!
As a matter of fact, I was reading the ARC of her latest book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS (September 2014 from Margaret K. McElderry Books) when she responded to my question. Jeannie crafted this crystal clear epiphany primer, complete with Disney examples – she obviously understood who she was dealing with.
So please welcome celebrated author Jeannie Mobley.
I was intrigued by your recent blog post in which you asked fellow authors about how the epiphany moment was set up in their books, because I never really thought about my books having an epiphany moment. When I first read it, I actually felt a little stupid, like, “oh, great, I’ve been writing MG books for years and haven’t even heard of this part that I’m supposed to have.” Then I realized, it isn’t that I don’t have that moment, I just think of it differently. I prefer to think of it as the climax of the character arc, and the key moment that ties the character arc to the plot arc. Thinking of that moment as the climax of the character arc makes the question of how to set it up a bit of a non-question. If it is part of an arc, then just like with the plot arc, that climax comes out of the natural progression, flow, development of the entire story ‘s action up to that moment. If your book is well plotted, then you wouldn’t say, “I’ve got this whole story, but now I have to set up three chapters of action to make a climax happen.” The plot builds and builds from page one until you’ve got a situation that’s taken on a life of its own by half way through the book and the characters are propelled along to the climax.
Likewise, the character arc should chart out the same way. Whatever the character has to resolve in the character climax (find inner courage, realize they love the guy, see who the real enemy is, outsmart the bad guy, etc.) that should be building all the way through the book. Say the epiphany moment has to be the moment the character overcome her self-doubt. In that case, the reader should see self-doubt holding her back at the beginning of the book. Because it holds her back, it causes the next thing to happen, and the next, and by 1/2 way through the book, she’s struggling against it but can’t quite overcome it, or she tries to overcome it and fails. Then, at that pivotal moment, the darkest moment, the do or die moment, the bad guy taunts her and says she’s too weak to win, and she realized (in one or two sentences) that it’s nasty voices like his holding her back, not anything inside her, and from that she puts away her self doubt, finds her courage, and rushes off to save the day. But the reader should have seen her reaching and struggling, and falling back from her self doubt all the way through the book. She doesn’t see she has self doubt, but we the readers do, and so when she faces it, we all nod sagely and don’t need pages and pages to fill in the details.
I’m thinking about the movie Beauty and the Beast, just because when my daughter was little I had many, many opportunities to analyze the story. The “epiphany moment” would be when the Beast is stabbed and dying, and Belle, realizing she is going to lose him, says “I love you.” That’s an epiphany to Belle, forced out of her by the belief that she’s losing him. But to the rest of us, it is totally believable without any set up in that moment, because the whole movie has set it up. We’ve seen her throwing snowballs and feeding little birdies, and eating oatmeal, and dressing up and dancing and reading books with him. We’ve seen her tell Gaston, “He’s not the beast, you are!” and Gaston replies, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you have feelings for this beast.” We’ve seen her gaze lovingly into the mirror that shows him and heard her voice go all tender when she says “He’s my friend.” She’s the only one who can’t see that she’s in love. She also doesn’t know that admitting the love will break the spell, so the viewer is kept in suspense–we don’t have any suspense about whether or not she’s in love, we just don’t know whether or not she will realize it and utter the words before the last rose petal falls.
My upcoming book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS (McElderry Books, Fall 2014) has a bit of a mystery element in it, in that they are (believe it or not) searching for the truth about Silverheels–a legendary dance-hall girl that lived in the area sixty years earlier. She is also dealing with people who are accusing her friend Josie and her family of sedition during the early months of World War I. She has an epiphany for both plot elements–she has to realize that the boy she likes is really unlikable and find the strength to tell him to shove off, even if he is considered the best catch in the county, and she also has an epiphany where she sees what she’s been missing the whole time to figure out the truth about Silverheels. To avoid a BIG spoiler, I am not going to tell you about that second epiphany. But the first one, finding the strength to break up with George, is set up like this:
All the way through the book, both Josie and Pearl’s mom have been telling her she has to stand up for what she believes in, and we’ve been seeing her wrestle with that issue. This is her main flaw. The epiphany comes when Pearl’s friend Josie, a suffragist, gets arrested for standing up for her rights, and George belittles her sacrifice. This isn’t a big spoiler, because the reader can see that George isn’t right for Pearl, and increasingly, that George isn’t a very nice guy. But Pearl can see it, she’s blinded by love, or more accurately, by her unrealistic, dime-novel ideas about what love is supposed to look like. She’s been confused by things like her first kiss to George, which doesn’t feel all sweet and wonderful like she expected, and by him putting her in an awkward position, which she justifies away. It’s this last straw moment, when George is so awful to someone she cares about, specifically because that someone has done the one thing Pearl most needs to do, that makes Pearl see what we’ve seen all along–the guy isn’t worth it! But in the scene itself, the epiphany unfolds across the scene with a few short sentences–when George tries to put his arm around Pearl’s shoulder to calm her and she steps away. When she finds the strength to tell him to leave, and realizes being strong is a good feeling. No big set up or internal pondering, just a subtle shift, a straightening of her shoulders, a new determination that makes us cheer.
So to anyone wondering how to set up an epiphany, my advice would be, look at it as the climax of an arc rather than an epiphany. Plot out the emotional element that has to come together at the climax: make sure there are scenes from the beginning that point to that pivotal moment. Let them build, double back on themselves, change directions, keep building, just like you would plot elements. Then throw in a crisis that forces a decision without waffling–a decision the MC is ripe for making (stab the Beast in the back. Or get her best friend arrested).If you’ve done all that, then the “epiphany” will be just that–a quick flash of self-discovery that drives us into the climax of the book, needing no big awkward set up scenes added in.
Thank you, Jeannie.
Now, fellow novelists, go have some fun with your epiphanies. And don’t forget to add SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS to your “to read” list.
About SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS (from Goodreads)
In her small Colorado town of Silverheels, Pearl spends the summers helping her mother run the family café and entertaining tourists with the legend of Silverheels, a beautiful dancer who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic in 1861 and then mysteriously disappeared. According to lore, the miners loved her so much they named their mountain after her.
Pearl believes the tale is true, but she is mocked by her neighbor, Josie, a suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote. Josie says that Silverheels was a crook, not a savior, and she challenges Pearl to a bet: prove that Silverheels was the kindhearted angel of legend, or help Josie pass out the suffragist pamphlets that Pearl thinks drive away the tourists. Not to mention driving away handsome George Crawford.
As Pearl looks for the truth, darker forces are at work in her small town. The United States’s entry into World War I casts suspicion on German immigrants, and also on anyone who criticizes the president during wartime—including Josie. How do you choose what’s right when it could cost you everything you have?