The All Important Mirror

WHY have I gone two weeks without updating my blog? Shame on me! But not really shame on me because I was off at a writing seminar taught by James Scott Bell. I want to learn how to write really good books, you see, and that means I must occasionally tear myself away from the fun of writing and focus on the craft of writing.

And friends, I learned a lot. One of the concepts cited frequently was that of “sign post scenes.” These are the moments that recur, book after book, in much good fiction. Many writing instructors have a of list of them, or particular names for them–the inciting incident (JSB does not like term because every incident in a good book ought to incite somebody to do something, right?), the black moment, the point of no return.

I’m not much of a list maker, not much of a conscious book plotter, but one scene we discussed stood out: The Look in the Mirror. This is the point in the book where Our Hero and/or Heroine is barreling along, trying to mind their own business or save the world or stay drunk, when the Clever Author puts them in a situation where they must face what sort of person they’re becoming (or have become). They further face the fact that they have choices regarding whether that’s the sort of person they continue to be.

Interestingly, Mr. Bell noted that this scene is often dead center in the book. Michael Hague of Storymastery legend says what he finds at the dead center of the book is a scene he calls, “the point of no return.” By that point, the protagonist has gained enough insight to know the old self or life is lost to them forever, but they haven’t quite located the courage to commit to change.

And I’m sure every half-awake romance reader in the room is noting that around page 175 is usually when the relationship is fully consummated. This makes sense to me. What is an intimate moment, except a time when we’re forced to deal with who we are, who we really, truly, probably not entirely happily are?

And yet, I don’t think one scene of a character peering into the moral mirror will do for a solid romance. From my perspective, the function of the entire budding relationship is to give the character the courage and motivation to deal with their wounds, weaknesses, and flaws, and  step by step, to change themselves if necessary to earn a life graced with  true love.

What do YOU think? Have the books you’ve enjoyed had a light bulb scene in the middle of the book, or shown character growth over a progression of scenes? Both? Neither? Does any of this relate to real life?

To one commenter, I will give a SIGNED copy of Eloisa James’ lovely, “The Ugly Duchess,” which has a lot to tell us about change, growth, and true love.



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28 comments on “The All Important Mirror

  1. Both!! The books I frequently reread have protagonists that evolve the entire way; even if it is sometimes the dance of one step forward and two steps back or sideways. They feel more real than the old romance books where the hero is an Alpha-jerk until the final reveal or there isn’t any clear communication until the last chapter.
    Plus, the heroes I adore the most are the ones we get glimpses of throughout a series (Villiers!) complete with many mirror moments that culminate with the final series book as their extended point of no return.
    Grace, cannot imagine what incredible stories you will tell as your craft improves. What is the level beyond must-read-must-buy-reread often?

    • I agree with this. How much better can you be?

      I like books where you see the struggle, the progression and digression, until the characters finally have the aha moment. If it’s well written we didn’t have the aha before they did. I guess this goes along with Hauge’s Identity vs Essence paradigm.
      Kind of like your books, your Grace.

  2. Larisa, when Villiers was wounded, I was turning pages to make sure he lived, and to heck with Elijah and what’s her name.
    The next level is a masterpiece. My editor keeps telling me I have masterpiece in me. She’s Laura Kinsale’s editor now, and says “Flowers from the Storm” is the level I need to aim at. A book that transcends the genre and makes the genre transcendent.
    I’m not sure I agree with her, because I’m not willing to mine my darkest, darkest experiences for the sake of a fictional HEA. Tears? OK, sure, but darkest night of the soul…? Probably not.
    I am, however, perfectly comfortable trying to up my craft game in each and every book. And the craft and the soul are related. The better your craft, the more soul become effortless…
    Um, you did ask.

    • Grace, we’ll cope, absolutely gleefully, tearfully cope with you going Masterpiece. And not all Masterpieces have to be torturous. Think the Tortured Soul stands out more since they don’t fit the old constrained mold…on top of being a Masterpiece of Storytelling.

  3. AAAAAHHHHH! To make a choice?! I like both.
    I think I prefer the one light bulb realization to come closer to the end. Leave me in some suspense and the BAM! Hit me with it.
    At the same time I like the progressive light bulb. The progressive is probably a little more realistic in my mind. Lucinda Brant’s Roxton Series does a wonderful job with the progressive light bulb. I especially liked the fact that in *Autumn Duchess* there was no complete dissolution of the relationship as things came to light. We just progressed right through them to a happy ending.

  4. Most of the books I enjoy have that lightbulb moment in the middle and my husband swears he can always find them consummating something around page 105. 🙂

    • SheriV, there’s always flirtation and carrying on in the first half of the book–at least in the books I read–but the first really significant intimacies often lurk in the middle of the book. It probably depends some on the sub-genre, and there’s also a type of book I call the “Pretty Woman” approach: The intimacies happen early, and they’re superficial, and that creates all manner of remorse and confusion… for a while.

    • I wonder if each author doesn’t write the kind of character arc that feels closer to his or her life experiences. I tend to notice the a-ha’s in my life (to wit, last post’s mention of the “tell me about your father” moment), but if I were in a significant long-term relationship, I might have a better yardstick for the slow, incremental changes.

  5. I read both, but I do enjoy that moment where the characters realize they’re in love. It is interesting to see whether it takes a near-death experience to bring it about, or just some random moment.

    • Or if in one book, he and she have the same kind of moment…. Does one know well before the other, does one get it in an instant and the other only slowly… so many variables, and so many good books.

  6. One of the last books I have read started of with a short introduction of the two characters who were the only characters through most of the book. They had the sexual thing going from the beginning and then through their talk about their sexual preferences, likes and dislikes they started to loosen and open up to each other, talking about other things apart from sex, mainly about their lifes, hopes and dreams. Two thirds through the book the H/H get seperated, the place “gets crowded” by two more characters, and he has his moment where he realizes that he has started to change. That his plans for the future have been altered by the encounter with that woman who shared her bed with him the last two nights. So it does have all the elements mentioned in your blog but not at the places that have been predicted. I liked it very much -not because it may or may not be realistic but- because it comes close to phantasies of a stranger becoming a lover. And it most certainly differs from the mainstream romance (whether it is a bad, a good or a masterpiece). ;o)

    • Manuela, I think one of the good things about the present climate is that the story that’s not quite conventional can now find its readers. There are no longer just a few gatekeepers with preconceived notions about what has to happen by page 15, or page 150. Diversity is a good, good thing!

  7. Sometimes it depends on the situation. They could have had a past, gotten separated and are now re-united and must forge a future. I’ve read several books with that theme recently and the best one was by a Christian author, full of sexual tension but with no show-and-tell and, it wasn’t in a Christian line either. I don’t like predictable either; guess I’m weird that way. Now I’ll be counting pages to see where the aha moment comes!

    • Trudy, a lot of authors seem to be dialing back their show, and upping the old UST. To me, that’s and indication of trust in the readers. It shows that those authors are being read for the story, not for the few explicit scenes the story might (or might not) include.
      And for those who like it hot, there’s still plenty to choose from.

  8. The “point of no return” scene depends on the novel (and by that, I mean the author, the characters, the tone.) and I think that’s the beauty of literature, the variety of everything under the sun that represents human kind.

    We’ve read books where the “revelation” happens at the start, and is the trigger for the journey in the novel(think Harry Potter); we have our usual “mid point” mirror moment, which, after all the build up, ends in a revelation that pushes the character to do something (think most of all the good romance books); we have the ones who realize something positive in the end (think The Hobbit); and then there’s the ones who realize “too late”, and by late I mean the end of the book, where we can’t read what happened with their life afterwards (think Scarlett O’Hara).

    As far as romance goes, I like a balanced, smart progress of character and conflict. I absolutely hate a hero or heroine who is a douchebag until the very end and is turned around quickly and sloppily. I am sick and tired of supposedly prim and proper heroines who wrap all their limbs around the hero and suck his mouth like a succubus from the very moment they saw him. And I am disappointed when the couple only gets along in the bedroom from beginning to end of the novel. I will not mention examples, but I am thinking of some pretty recent novels that were an insult to any intelligent mind.

    Usually, in romance novels, the aha moment happens when heroine is threatened (not to say, kidnapped). Sex and scorn and all in between have happened before. Which is why I treasure those very few novels where there is a buildup of relationship, connection, friendship, confidence and trust before any sexual marathon happens. (That’s not to say I don’t like a book where an erotic encounter promotes the romance, I just like something other than plain lust moving things along.)

    • If Michael Hague could read your post, you’d get a hearty Amen chorus from him. His biggest pet peeve with romance is where–no matter what a brat she is, or an insensitive jerk (cranky toddler?) he is, “I love him/her” seems to erupt from the pages regardless. Michael’s contention is that in a proper romance, the chemistry springs from the fact that the protags have a sense, from early one that, “this person gets me, wounds and all… and he/she accepts who I am right now.” From the longing for acceptance, intimacy can blossom.
      I tend to agree with him, and he’s also one who points to “Pretty Woman” as a script where settling for second class intimacy early on just creates relationship problems for half the movie.

  9. I’ve read many novels over my many years and I must say that I prefer that I get to know the characters and see them grow. An epiphany that is too late makes me feel that it is not a sincere growth, and an epiphany that is too early makes me feel that the story is all down hill from there. Does that make any sense, or am i just crazy? (actually, you don’t need to answer that…i already know i’m loopy…) Anyway, in all seriousness, i like to grow along with the characters.:)

    • My thinking on this is that life is enough of a mystery, and healing enough of a challenge, that most of us encounter slow, steady illumination and light bulb moments. I think each kind of insight feeds the other. And the same thing is true in the opposite direction… you compromise your integrity a little, and a little, and a little, and a big compromise will find its way to you. This is maybe backstory material?

  10. I prefer the gradual build-up in writing because I feel that tends to be more like my life. It is a slow metamorphosis that continues. However, there have been a few instances that may appear to some as “ah-ha!” moments but a lot of thought had already gone into that decision before it was finalized. Most major life decisions are not made in a split second. It takes thought and time.

    • The iceberg theory of personal insight–it rings true for me, Phoenix, especially when I’ve been working on an issue, and working and working, gradually making sense of it, and THEN…. suddenly (after a long time), the pay off insight blooms.

  11. Both, for sure! You want to see your characters grow and change, like you yourself grow and change. But that “AH HA” moment is also important. Without either you have nothing but a one dimensional character,a one dimensional story and that’s boring! But the more I think on it, it seems there is always one character who is one dimensional, usually the villian or the strict aunt or the headmistress of a an upscale girls school. That’s the person who believes and acts in only one manner, and they think it is the only way to behave/act.

    • Amy, you put your finger on a weakness in many romances (including mine). We don’t do villians very believably. The suspense and thriller writers take great care with their villains, and regard them as just as important as the protags, but romance writers not always so. I struggle with my bad guys, and am just now (working on manuscript No. 30 or so), giving myself permission to like and empathize with my bad guy enough to make him just a tad human.
      Always, with writing, there is room for… growth.

  12. Being attracted to each other, feeling some “chemistry” and even falling in love with each other, can happen very quickly. But to really LOVE someone you do have to know him (her) and yourself thoroughly, and that just takes time. And changing takes time, too.
    But: there can be certain incidents and also moments in life, where you suddenly DECIDE/or that make you REALIZE that something has to (or you have to) change or be done in your life to make it happy and go the right way, and then you just go for it. And I read enough stories where (through half or more of the book but) within days of their lives the H/H was a completely changed person.
    Sooooo, the only important thing to me is, whether the author can MAKE ME BELIEVE what he wrote down! And it doesn’t need to make me believe it could happen to me like that, but is the case for the characters in the book.
    Which way I like best? –> VIVE LE DIFFERENCE!

  13. I have noticed that it seems like it’s always at the half way mark when the hero/heroine have given into their attraction and sleep together. It doesn’t matter that it’s in the middle. You get to see both characters evolve during the lead up to the big sex scene.

  14. For me, light bulbs are too harsh and sudden (and the impact is over too quickly). Since the Golden Moment of Truth is typically the climax of the best books I’ve read, I love when it unfurls like a night-blooming jasmine (think Planet Earth hi-def video on slow fast forward)… or melts like butter in a warm pan… I want to savor it.

    In other words, you’ve had all the pieces of the puzzle faithfully fed to you by Masterful Author for a hundred or several hundred pages. You are intrigued but left to wonder. And then you come to that Moment, and it begins.

    You (the reader) find yourself in the body of the hero/heroine (preferably both, each in their own right, although I recognize very few authors are skilled enough to realistically capture this metamorphosis in both male and female characters in the SAME story). Your breathing is faster. Your heart starts to thud heavily. You mentally look with the character back down the road traveled.

    Like the slow clearing of fog over a breathtaking landscape on a sunny morning, the reader/character reaches Total Clarity. The pieces fall into place.

    When an author achieves this, it’s at this point that I usually get goose bumps. I often break into a grin or laugh in awe or let out some kind of involuntary “sigh” sound or all of the above – because This Moment is just so much fun to experience as a result of masterful writing. Admittedly, it usually never takes more than a handful of pages to complete This Moment, but those are enough. What comes before is necessary and makes you vested in the outcome, and what follows are the growth steps the character suddenly has the courage to act upon to their conclusion.

    You achieved this in The Virtuoso. Diana Gabaldon achieved this in Outlander. Eliosa James and Julia Quinn have each achieved this in a few books among their collections. Judith McNaught… there are a small handful of authors that can do this in my opinion.