I was listening to a speaker talk to a group of us the other night and 45 minutes into it, I was looking for the door.
The subject was the speaker's life and I have to tell ya, it wasn't grabbin' me.
Incident after incident was unveiled, stories about the speaker as a teen, adult, and married man seemed to be of the had-to-be-there variety. And then, magically, he came to a story that tied it all together. It was a simple moment in which he realized what his life had meant. And I got it! Suddenly all the stories added up to something much more.
And my first thought was: I've got to tell my fellow screenwriters about this!
The "this" I mean is what we'll call the Moment of Clarity. It's that part of every story - whether it's found in a speech, big budget Hollywood movie, or 30-second commercial for furniture wax - when the hero realizes what the journey has been about. It is the life-changing Huzzah! of the light bulb going on. And understanding the importance of that moment is the secret weapon of anyone who writes Fade In.
A recent moment of clarity for me came while writing my new book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriters Guide to Every Story Ever Told. In it, I dissect 50 movies to see what makes them tick. At the outset, I thought I knew the importance of that part of the journey where the hero realizes the meaning of it. But it wasn't until I tried to pinpoint the mechanics of how this is executed that I got it. The book has 50 examples seen in films from the 1970s up to their 21st Century counterparts.
And the moment of clarity is found in every one.
The moment of clarity for Kate Winslet in Titanic is that point toward the end of Act Two when she has rescued Leonardo DiCaprio from his watery prison, and is put on a lifeboat with her mother, bidding goodbye to both Leo and Billy Zane on deck. It's a crucial scene. Kate's old life with her mother, trapped by marriage to Billy, has been given back to her. But looking at her mother, Billy, and Leo, Kate realizes she can't go back. She's come too far, and learned too much for having met the love of her life. So Kate makes the only decision anyone can who's seen the error of her ways; she jumps back on the sinking ship to rejoin Leo. Come hell or high water (sorry), she's changed.
Silly comedies have this moment too. One of the silliest is Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Busy marketing man Steve Martin is re-routed to Wichita and gets stuck with lovable boor John Candy. John will be Steve's guide in more than getting back to Chicago. For this journey's real lesson is how Steve has been neglecting his family; he's been too involved with his snappy fedora, lush shoes, and the client to realize he's been missing the best part of life. And the guy who'll teach him this lesson is John, who keeps a picture of his wife by his bed every night. Steve's moment of clarity comes when, happily riding home on the train after dropping John off, he recalls the trip, and suddenly puts it all together: John has no wife; she's dead. Steve even proves he's changed by doing something he'd never do at the start of this adventure: go back to rescue his pal. It's why the meeting of John and Steve's wife on the doorstep of Steve's home has such lovely resonance: John has brought Steve home as much as Steve has brought John.
You may not realize it watching these movies once or twice or even more, but in both films we are set up for the moment of clarity by stating the theme loud and clear. The Theme Stated moment of a movie is vital; it's what your movie is about.
In Titanic, the Theme Stated moment comes when Leo DiCaprio toasts the rich folk he's been invited to dine with, including the admiring Kate, with: "Make each day count." Whether Kate has this aphorism ringing in her ears while she sits on the lifeboat next to her mother, it's what she's learned -- and why she jumps back on the sinking ship. One day, even a last day, with Leo is worth a thousand days of a lifeless future.
Given the lesson of her journey, can she make any other choice?
In the John Hughes classic, the Theme Stated beat is right up front. And like many Theme Stated moments, it's spoken to the hero by someone the hero doesn't think has anything to tell him -- and seems unimportant at the time. It's in Minute 12 of this movie when, after phoning his wife about his flight delay, a dejected Steve hears a bit of wisdom from stately, plump John Candy: "I have a motto," he tells Steve. "Like your work. Love your wife." Steve scoffs. He has no idea that's what this trip will be about.
The Theme Stated must also tie into the B story, or what I like to call the Helper Story, because it helps the hero understand the change he needs to make. And it's amazing how Theme Stated is linked to the B Story that will link to the final revelation.
In What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson, about a chauvinistic ad guy who magically hears what women are thinking, the Theme Stated moment occurs at Minute 13. Mel's advertising agency boss, Alan Alda, 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 think Alan's talking about the agency business, but in fact he's talking about Mel. And who will Mel be helped by? None other than the B Story - Helen Hunt. Helen will be the love story and a good example of how the hero learns his lesson in pillow talk with the love interest. Helen will be the one who helps Mel evolve and pushes him toward his final transformation, the moment of clarity when he realizes he'd rather be the man Helen admires than get the promotion he thought he wanted when the movie began.
The moment of clarity has been set up in all these stories by the Theme Stated-B Story (Helper Story) - Final Transformation link - that is the internal story we need as an audience and must use as screenwriters. As a reminder of how to link up your moment of clarity to the mechanics of a well-executed screenplay, here's an easy 1-2-3 to make sure:
1. State it up front. The Theme Stated in most movies is just that. I vote we say it early. I like mine by page 5 of a pert and perky 110-page script. And while you may not know it on the first pass, by the time you turn your script in, you should.
2. Tie the Theme Stated to the B Story. The B Story is the Helper Story and many times the Love Story. It's the part of the tale that helps the hero internally figure out the meaning of the external story, the action that is the main plot.
3. Seal the deal! Sum up what this trip has been about with a definitive Moment of Clarity that shows your hero has not only transformed - but realizes he has.
The moment of clarity is the most important part of any story. Why? Because the reason we tell stories is to experience being touched by something divine, that unseen force that makes us realize life is worth living. New knowledge of ourselves or our lives, gratitude for the lives we've had, acceptance of change, love, and the death of old ways of thinking, are divine. It's what lifts us up as an audience. And as writers, reminds us why we do this job. Seeking meaning in the tales we tell allows us to be touched by something special too.
Our own moment of clarity can be as compelling as in any story we tell.