My Aha! Moment

The other day I got a lovely email that began:
I want to send you a big, sincere ‘thank you’ for writing your book on plot and structure.
After trawling through many books on plotting and feeling more and more confused and anxious it was a relief to come across your book. Finally I began having ‘aha!’ moments – and I’ve only read three chapters!
You are so encouraging and the exercises are really useful – although now I find myself watching television and asking ‘what if?’ a great deal of the time…
If an ex-lawyer can still have working cockles in his heart, mine were warmed. I love hearing when a writer starts to get it. An “aha moment” is exactly what I strive to provide in my teaching. Because it was just such a moment that put me on the path to selling my work.
I know exactly when it was, too, because I was keeping a journal of my writing quest. On September 15, 1990, I wrote these words:
Light! A bulb! A flash! A revelation! My muse on fire!
I feel like I’ve suddenly “clicked into” how to write . . .  I mean, everything I’ve been reading and brooding about has finally locked. There is this tremendous rush of exhilaration. It just happened, and now I feel like everything I write will be at least GOOD, but can also be EXCELLENT.
I was writing screenplays at the time, and I’d written five or six over two years without success. But the next one I wrote was optioned and got me into a top agency. I optioned other properties, too, and did some assignment work (including a treatment for the late, great Whitney Houston). But when the projects didn’t get pushed up the ladder (an old Hollywood story) I got frustrated and wrote a novel using the same revealed wisdom. The novel sold. Then I wrote a legal thriller and got a five book contract. My career as a novelist was launched.
And all of it I trace back to that epiphany. Here’s the story.
I was a member of the Writer’s Digest Book Club at the time. One of their offerings was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. I’d been reading screenwriting books, like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. I thought, well, there may be some cross-over here from the novel world, and I bought the book.
Bickham advised this was a book for people wanting to get serious about becoming professional writers. Not fluff, only what had worked for him and his writing students at the University of Oklahoma. He said it should be studied sequentially, as each chapter built upon the last.
So that’s what I did, starting at page one and working my way through. And when I got to Chapter 8, covering “scene and sequel,” that’s when the bulbs started popping in my brain.
Up to that time I did not have a strategic approach to writing the next scene. I just sort of let it bubble up in my imagination (or had committed to it on an index card) and went for it. But my scripts weren’t working. People told me so, but couldn’t tell me why, which was frustrating beyond measure.
Now, suddenly, I knew why they weren’t working. A superb writing instructor had nailed it and explained it to me.
In brief, a scene is a unit of action made up of a goal, conflict and disaster. There are of course nuances and variations, but all of them emanate from this basic understanding. The disaster doesn’t always mean something huge, though it sometimes is. It is a setback of some sort, making the hero’s situation worse.
I have the key paragraph highlighted in yellow, and underlined in red, in Bickham’s book:
We make our story go forward by pushing our hero backward, farther and farther from his ultimate goal, through scene disasters. The reader reads excitedly, roots for the hero––then is crushed with him. The novel flies along, lifelike, dramatic, suspenseful, hard to put down, filled with twists, surprises and setbacks––and more and more tension as well as admiration for the battered hero who simply won’t quit.
Bam. Boom. Bingo. This was my breakthrough, my foundation. And it’s never let me down since.
So I wonder, have you ever had an “aha moment” in your writing? Maybe it came when you first realized something was (or wasn’t) working for you on the page. Maybe it was while you were reading a novel and thought, “Oh, now I see!”
Or maybe you’ve had a series of these moments, perhaps not as dramatic as my own, but meaningful just the same.
Let’s hear about them.
NOTE: I will be on the road teaching my two-day intensive “Next Level” seminar this year. The cities and dates have just been announced:
Austin, TX, June 16 & 17

Nashville, TN, August 11 & 12

Cincinnati, OH, September 15 & 16
For further information, testimonials and sign-up forms, go here

33 thoughts on “My Aha! Moment

  1. My biggest epiphany had to do with sensory detail, which I struggled with for a long time. I was treating it as setting, as flat description. Then, at the NC Writer’s Conference in 2005, I attended a session with writing instructor Nic Pizzolatto. He opened by quoting from Tom Piazza’s short story “Brownsville.” The point-of-view character is sitting in a cafe in New Orleans looking at the pictures on the wall, which the character describes as “Napoleon at Waterloo, Napoleon holding his dick…” (at least that’s how I remember it from 6+ years ago). And suddenly, I just got it. Sensory detail is about character–about how the POV character sees the world. Eventually I realized that you can do the same thing with setting, too. The description of the setting should capture the character’s mood. Ironically, one of my critique partners now tells me that description is what I do best. More proof that craft can (and must) be learned.

  2. My first “aha moment” was when I read Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters and found out character and plot are inextricably linked. I also found out how valuable a great teacher can be. I used to think that either you could write fiction or you couldn’t, because writing fiction couldn’t be taught. I was very wrong. BTW, James Scott Bell is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.
    My second “aha moment” was when I read a post in Kay Kenyon’s blog in which she explained that you need to think, develop and write your stories in scenes, not in chapters.
    Writing fiction have been relatively easy ever since.

  3. Actually, one of mine occurred fairly recently. I was asked to contribute a story to an anthology and was very pleased with myself (the first warning signal) after completing the first draft. I discovered while reading it over that I had constructed this an attractive bowl of air. It had interesting turns of phrase, a sympathetic protagonist, and an extremely interesting group of antagonists, all clanging together without any sense at all. I didn’t throw it out, but simply started over, going in an entirely different direction, creating, I believe, a much better story.

  4. My first “aha” moment came when I was thrown into writing books; after years of musing about writing–but not actually writing–I was invited to submit a story idea for a YA series. Things progressed quickly from there. Next thing you know, I had six weeks to write a first draft. I used other books from the series as a template. It helped that the assignment came with a “bible” that specified many aspects of the writing–acceptable adjectives, cliffhangers, character activities, instructions for how to open the first chapter, etc. After writing four of those books successfully, I no longer felt intimidated by the prospect of writing an original story of my own.

  5. I wish I’d taken the time to write that email to you, Jim, because its true. Your non-fiction books on writing are the bomb.

    You explain this craft in an amazing way.

    I’m currently enrolled in Jordan Dane’s Young Adult workshop, sponsored by RWA and as we writers discuss craft and voice I’ve had a couple of “AHA” moments this week – lightbulbs flashing.

    I did what you did, let scenes bubble up from that place, and while they were good, the rejections I’ve accumulated were the same – people told me they liked my writing but they didn’t connect with my MC – but they couldn’t tell me why.

    Now I see how to take those scenes forward, and how to torture my characters. I wonder what the future will hold?

    Thanks to you, and Jordan, and everyone here at TKZ for illuminating the essentials.


  6. Jim–Now that you’re coming to Austin, TX in June, I’m checking my schedule to clear the decks. I’ve wanted to attend one of your workshops for a long time. I’ve had several “aha moments” but there’s always room for more. Can’t wait.

    And thanks, Paula. You’ve been a joy to have in my online YA class. That “TKZ sharing attitude” really set the tone.

  7. Great aha moments here. About description, character, scenes, even the story as a whole.

    I’m fascinated by Kathryn’s beginnings. She was given a template ant told, do it this way. And do it in six weeks. That strikes me as a great way to learn novel structure. Concentrated effort copying a form, fighting through it, having to make it work. It’s like Boot Camp. And after four of them, she was ready to do her own.

    In Plot & Structure I lay out a 12 week concentrated-effort program aimed at the same results. It’s hard work, but at the end of the 12 weeks a writer will be miles ahead of where she started.

  8. Jim, Your comment about the book on writing screen plays reminds me of material from Secrets of the Selling Writer by another U of Oklahoma professor, Dwight Swain. In it, he suggests scenes are made up of “motivation-reaction units.” That has been a great help to me as I tried to move my scenes along.
    And, of course, my biggest first “aha” moment came the morning I was ready to leave my first writing conference, but my wife talked me into attending the class she was loving–taught by some guy named Bell. Thanks.

  9. Doc, indeed Swain was Bickham’s mentor, and the two of them were involved in a great program for commercial writing, in Oklahoma of all places (to my friends in OK, this is not a dis, just that I would have expected such a program to develop in Los Angeles or New York). Little Seton Hill in PA has an MFA in commercial writing, but I don’t know of any other programs like it.

    Thanks for mentioning that early class. You are a prime example of someone who learned the craft, worked at it, got an agent, got a contract and now has, what is it, four novels out?

    Warm cockles.

  10. Funny – Plot and Structure was my Aha moment too. I’ve always been a decent writer, I guess. I did well in AP Lit. I’ve always known I wanted to write, and until I read that book, I thought I was good. Then I realized how far I had to go before I could be in the vicinity of good…and I knew how to get there. Reading your book was like…So THAT’S how it’s supposed to be done!

  11. Thank you for that, April. I had sort of an “AP lit” background, too, in college short story class. I really wasn’t taught how to “do” it, but I’d turn something in and told, well, that wasn’t “it.” Oh, and by the way, you can’t ever learn to have “it.” I believed that lie for a long time.

  12. James, Plot & Structure, the whole book, was my Aha! moment. I started looking at movies and books differently. Each time I plot a book, I read P&S AGAIN, and take copious notes. My blog readers know that I am an avid P&S groupie–that’s how much it helped me.

    I wrote novel #3, secured an agent, and hopefully the book will find a publishing home. And now I’m editing book #4, using Revision & Self-Editing. No matter what, the lessons I learned from you are priceless.

  13. I’m still in the middle of mine, which was the moment when the three-act arc lightbulb went off a couple of years ago. I now read books seeking those turning points.

    Everything else is just the same constant polishing. My characters and dialogue are strong. It’s just whipping the tale into the narrative arc form that still challenges me.

    And, since I’m writing a legal thriller, not painting myself into the boring corner I did with my trunkers.

    I really want to come to one of your classes. If Jordan is going to Austen, that would be double the fun. I wonder if the Marriott would mind if I parked my little motorhome in the lot (or if they’d even notice).

    ::starts rooting in sofa for change::


  14. Mine came while reading THE DAY OF THE JACKAL in high school, when I saw how Forsythe used space breaks and shifting points of view to ratchet up the tension. (I did not yet know what to call them, but I saw how he used them). Later, I saw the same pattern in Stephen King’s books. Watching the masters at work gave me my sense of structure.

    After that, it was just a matter of learning from hundreds of thousands of mistakes.

    John Gilstrap

  15. Julie, that is so nice to hear. Thanks very much for the kind words. Congrats on getting an agent. That is major. Good luck all the way forward.

    Terri, I had a similar experience with the 3 Act structure, when I determined the keys to the two “doorways,” or act turning points. I hadn’t seen it explained anywhere, so it was another “aha.” This is why I love teaching, passing those moments on.

  16. That is a time honored way to get at the craft, John. Early on I went to my favorite used bookstore (now, sadly, gone) and picked up an armload of King, Koontz and Grisham, and started reading them with an eye toward watching what they did. Invaluable.

    Day of the Jackal is a classic. I can see the influence in your work.

    Re: mistakes, another reason I teach is to save writers massive amounts of time on the learning curve. Many writers can get to publishable material after years of trial and error. I try to spare them a lot of the error.

  17. Plot & Structure is my own personal writing bible. I’ve dissected it thoroughly and filled a notebook which I’m constantly referring back to. And like Julie, who I can personally attest does often recommend your book to others, I am one of P&S’s staunchest advocates. So thanks for providing me with many aha moments. It is much appreciated!

  18. When JSB said I can learn to write fiction, my aha was knowing I’d been led astray. Yes, P&S is a great book, but The Art of War for Writers brought me out of the darkness and into the light. I, too, have made a notebook with forms and questions about my story, plot, and characters. Thank you JSB. You make sense of this writing process.

  19. My aha moment came in a writing class a little over 2 years ago. It was the first scene i had written that was to be ‘workshopped’ in a small group.

    I chose a fictionalized version of an event i had experienced. The real event was one that impacts me to this day.

    The scene I wrote was one that I could no have read aloud due to the emotional effect it had on me.

    In the small group a screenwiriter grad volunteered eagerly – “This is a mess!” Another student said “It’s a sad story but the physician is so cold and unemotional.”

    I was that physician.

    The “aha” was that i learned that writing a scene that impacted me was not enough.

    I had to learn to place myself in the reader’s head and make the reality unfold in their mind.
    Been working on it ever since.

    JSBs books and TKZ are among the resources i’ve benefitted from.

  20. @tjc, a few years ago I wrote a short story about a suicide that happened in our local jail.

    The editor kicked it back rejected with a note, “this is ridiculous, no one would ever commit suicide that way.”

    Yes, the editor was an asshat, but the truth was that I didn’t sell it.


  21. I took Epiphany Millerberger to the Pickerington HS Senior Prom in 1984. The “Aha” moment was when we got back fifteen minutes late and while I tried to kiss her good night her dad stepped out with a shotgun and the kind of expression that carried Genghis Khan across continents.

    Fact: A ’78 Mercury Zephyr 2-door sedan can indeed go from 0-60 in approximately 6 seconds, in reverse, on a gravel driveway…in dry weather and generally panicked conditions.

  22. Aha moments! I had one this weekend at a conference in southwest Florida. We were talking about great writing workshops and influential writers and one author said, the best I’ve been to was a weekend writing retreat with Donald Maass, another author (who slips my mind because I’m running out of brain waves at this point), and James Scott Bell.

    That is when I said, Aha! I know James Scott Bell from The Kill Zone! It was great to see a fellow TKZer held in such high regard. Congrats, James.

  23. That’s right, James! How could I have forgotten Christopher??!!

    Man, wish I could have been there. Three powerhouses in one place. What an opportunity for writers. Holy Smokes!! If you guys ever do that again, I’m going. Period.

    (This is the 3rd time I’ve posted this because I kept writing typos. I am TIRED! Sign of a good conference weekend.)

  24. I’ve had a series of “aha moments” in trying to get my first novel in publishable shape.

    I started all wrong. I set forth the puzzle then outlined all the things my main character needed to learn to solve the mystery. Wrong! No wonder my first draft dragged in the middle.

    Thanks to writers who are willing to share their secrets, I’ve learned that story–action and tension–matter more than the intellectual solution to the puzzle.

    Guess I had to do it wrong first in order to ask how to do it right.

  25. I didn’t realize how little I understood about point of view until my third published book. Finally I got what the editor had been trying to tell me all along. Suddenly “bouncing heads” made sense. And from that moment on, I’ve never had this problem again.

  26. One “aha” moment I had came after reading Stephen King’s On Writing, when I realized I was spending way too much time on my first novel (two years or so). I started writing a lot faster after that and it has worked out.

    I don’t read too many fiction instructional books, but maybe I’ll try that one you suggested.

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