Further Reflections on the Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell

I enjoy getting emails and tweets from writers regarding the “mirror moment,” which is the subject of my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Recently I received two that I thought would make good fodder for a post (we at TKZ are always looking for good fodder).

The first email was a great question from someone who asked about the mirror moment in a long series. She used Sue Grafton’s alphabet series as an example. Should each book have a mirror moment? How can a series character go through so many changes?

I wrote back reminding her that there are two kinds of mirror moments. The first kind is about identity. It asks questions like, “Who am I? Why am I this way? What must I become?” It’s Rick in Casablanca.

The second kind is about death. It is the realization, “I’m probably going to die. The opposition is too great. How can I possibly survive?” That’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

So I suggested that in any Kinsey Millhone mystery (and in mystery series in general), there could always be a realization in the middle that this case, this puzzle, this villain is the most perplexing or dangerous of their career. It looks like they could “die” (professionally) this time.

But that is not to say the character in any given book in a series cannot have a personal crisis of identity, too. Exhibit A would be the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly.

C is for confession: I have not read all of the alphabet books by Sue Grafton. I think I may have stopped around F. But the question intrigued me, so I went to the library and picked one of the later books at random—Q is For Quarry. I sat down and, as is my practice when mirror hunting, turned to the physical center of the book and just started looking around. Was there anything relating to identity? Or anything indicating this was the biggest challenge of her career?

Lo and behold, I found that it was about identity. Kinsey, who lost both her parents in a car accident when she was very young, has had a hole in her identity ever since. In this scene from the middle of the book, she is looking at a photograph of her mother. You don’t even have to know the details of the plot to know that this is the language of an identity-type of mirror moment:

I placed the frame on my desk, sitting back in my swivel chair with my feet propped up. Several things occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of before. I was now twice my mother’s age the day the photograph was taken. Within four months of that date, my parents would be married, and by the time she was my age, she’d have a daughter three years old. By then my parents would have had only another two years to live. It occurred to me that if my mother had survived, she’d be seventy. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a mother in my life—the phone calls, the visits and shopping trips, holiday rituals so alien to me. I’d been resistant to the Kinseys, feeling not only adamant but hostile to the idea of continued contact. Now I wondered why the offer of simple comfort felt like such a threat. Wasn’t it possible that I could establish a connection with my mother through her two surviving sisters? Surely, Maura and Susanna shared many of her traits—gestures and phrases, values and attitudes ingrained in them since birth. While my mother was gone, couldn’t I experience some small fragment of her love through my cousins and aunts? It didn’t seem too much to ask, although I still wasn’t clear what price I might be expected to pay.

I locked the office early, leaving the photo of my mother in the center of my desk. Driving home, I couldn’t resist touching on the issue, much in the same way the tongue seeks the socket from which a tooth has just been pulled. The compulsion resulted in the same shudder-producing blend of satisfaction and repugnance.

Thus, any book in a long-running series can include subplot elements that relate to the hero’s identity and transformation.

Shortly after this I got an email from my friend, writer Rich Bullock. He told me he’d been watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and in the chapter titled “The Mirror Cave” Rey is being tempted by the dark side (what a shock) and challenged by Kylo Ren on her true identity. Rich told me it was smack dab in the middle.

So I checked out the DVD from the library, chucked in the player, and went to the scene. Rey has fallen into this mirror cave, and is hoping it will give her a clue about who she truly is. Kylo Ren is somewhere else, but able to communicate with her:

KYLO REN: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

REY: No! No!

REY (VOICE OVER): I should have felt trapped or panicked. But I didn’t. This didn’t go on forever, I knew it was leading somewhere. And that, at the end, it would show me what I came to see.

REY: Let me see them. My parents … please.

She touches the mirror. Two shadowy figures approach from the other side of the glass. But when the frost clears, Rey is looking at … herself!

I took a look at the DVD timeline:

Hmm, we’re 1:16 into a 2:32 movie. I’m no math whiz, but I believe you can’t get any more middle than that!

The mirror moment works every time.

(For more on this, see my post “Revisiting the Mirror Moment”.)

That’s it for today, kids. I’m on the road most of the day, but will try to check in later. Talk amongst yourselves, esp. those of you writing series characters. How do you handle any inner transformation?

21 thoughts on “Further Reflections on the Mirror Moment

  1. In my Mapleton Mystery series–small town police procedurals–we meet the protagonist in book 1 who’s a reluctant chief of police, accepting the job as a favor to his mentor. He’s faced with solving the town’s first homicide in its collective memory, and he worries that he doesn’t have the chops.
    As the series progresses (5 novels, 3 novellas), he gains confidence, deals with the small town politics, gets married, and (I hope) shows growth both as a person and in his job. He’s learned to stand up to the county homicide detective, to the mayor(s)–he’s been through several–and how to balance his personal life with his job.
    **And because in yesterday’s comment thread, Joe told me to let you all known when the new book was published, I’ll give a quick BSP shout out that Deadly Fun is now available for preorder. And that I’m sharing my royalties with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

  2. Excellent reminders, Jim.

    In my Mayhem Series, Shawnee Daniels has struggled with her past… orphaned, living in foster care and on the streets. In each book I let her discover something new — the death of her parents, her ancestral roots, etc., etc. — a stunning revelation that forces her out of her comfort zone, and into more and more trouble.

    My Grafton County Series is a little tougher, because Sage Quintano is well-adjusted. In that series, I use the threat of death as her mirror moment, whether the target be herself, someone she loves, or a psychological death, like the loss of innocence.

  3. Excellent lesson today, Professor JSB. And quite prescient as I have been pondering this very question for the sequel to my first novel (currently under contract to a small press awaiting the sequel before scheduling a publication date). It makes sense to me. Thank you for reading my mind.

  4. Jim, you truly are a mind reader, as Douglas says.

    I just took a break from editing book 4 in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series and clicked on your post. Suddenly an opportunity I hadn’t noticed before smacked me in the face. It’s too early in the book for a full-blown mirror moment but I think it can work as a mini-mirror moment on Tawny’s journey of self-realization.

    Thanks for being at the right place at the right time with the right advice!

  5. I’m reading a Kinsey book right now (W is for Wasted). It’s similar. Can’t say more without giving it away. Very different than A is for Alibi (the last one I read). That one was all about the crime with only a cursory “who am I?” glance.

  6. In my series the main character shifts among several characters. All characters are present in each book, but the focus changes with the story. This allows the mirror moment to be different for each.

    Again your examples help to visualize the mirror moment. Other tips I read about the Mid Point were confusing until I read your book, Writing from the Middle. 🙂

  7. Jim, Your book “Write Your Novel from the Middle” had a huge impact as I was beginning my second novel (currently in progress), and I was determined to include a mirror moment in the middle of the story.
    I did – literally. When the protagonist is injured because she won’t give up trying to solve a murder mystery, her steady boyfriend tells her their relationship is threatened by her dogged determination to find a killer. After he leaves, she goes to the bathroom to wash her face, looks in the mirror, and “reflects” on her inner motivation to avoid failure.
    Thanks for the advice. I think this character is much more interesting and nuanced because of her time at the mirror.
    Question: How important is it that the mirror moment occur right at the midpoint? I keep a spreadsheet that lists the number of words in each chapter and the percent of the way through the book for each one. My mirror moment is at the 60% mark.

    • Kay, that’s fine. Doesn’t have to be exact, but I’d continue to think of that as the sweet spot. It’s sort of like the first doorway of no return. If it comes in a bit later, the story feels like it’s dragging a bit.

  8. The Mirror Moment is such a crucial piece of writing structure, I reference it when talking to my writing friends. I’ve experimented with placing it toward the beginning of a story, in the middle, and toward the end. Each time, it changes the pacing and stakes.

  9. There can be many “revelations of self” discovered within a plot if the author challenges the main character (and/or adds complexity to the relationship of a protag with a primary secondary series character). Such conflict can result in a protag being forced to deal with a major or minor flaw. Give a main series character a basket of flaws that shape their world view & force them to confront who they are or who they should be. Let THEM decide.

    As you have said, there can be an overarching series mirror moment – something universal that we can all relate to, but each book in a series can showcase growth in a protag OR have them embracing who they are & finally accepting it.

    I love your approach to making plot structure about the emotional journey of one main character (or a series of secondary characters). It adds nuanced layers to any story. It can also enhance internal conflict, especially if it pairs well with the external threat, to test the protag.

    Excellent post, Jim. Thank you.

  10. Do you have any mirror moment tips for writing an ongoing series without an apparent end? I’m thinking Crais’s Elvis Cole series.

    I noticed as the series progressed, Crais wrote more serious emotional content for Cole. Especially as he got to THE FORGOTTEN MAN, dealing with his connection with his estranged father. Maybe that’s why he shifted to stories on his spinoff secondary character Joe Pike.

    I tend to write organically without a detailed plot, other than knowing the major turning points. You’ve made me think more about mirror moments, but it’s a challenge to get it half way if you don’t know how long your book will be. If you write a good build up to a character’s revelation, how important is it to hit the 50% mark?

    True confessions from a former pantser.

    • Jordan, if you, as a pantser, finds the right mirror moment (and I think you always can) then you can adjust things upon revision. I would say the same thing about the first doorway. After you’re done with that first draft, you can see if your true confrontation happens by the 20% mark and, if not, make it so!

      The great thing about the mirror moment is that it informs YOU (and later, your readers) what is really going on in the novel on a deep level…structural thought can come after.

  11. Speaking of moments…You and your short story book about the shattering moment were referenced not long ago on Story Grid Editor’s Roundtable podcast. They were dissecting a short story, “Wolves of Karelia”.

  12. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy appears before his circle of friends, including Red. They are at lunch, and Andy’s just finished his stint in solitary for playing the opera record over the PA system. Andy mentions music and hope. Red says hope makes no sense, that it’s dangerous. Andy disagrees, and Red turns away from his friend. It’s the only time in the film Red gets angry. The story’s theme is hope, and this mirror moment beautifully presents it. After all, as Red finally wins the “Final Battle” in his mind, he breaks his parole and hopes. He hopes he can make it across the border, to see his friend and shake his hand, that the Pacific is as blue as it has been in his dreams. Then states the very last line in the movie, “I hope.” This mirror moment occurs 1:11 into the movie with 1:11 to go.

  13. The electrifying moment when you write the sentence, look at your word count, and realize your mirror moment is at exactly the right spot.

    In the project I’m working on now, the mirror moment comes when my MC looks at a picture of her mother, who’d passed away years ago. Looks into her eyes. Locks eyes with her. And finally understands (or so she thinks at this moment) the meaning of the words on her mother’s ring, and what her mother has been trying to tell her.

    Truly a delicious moment.

    I’m going for a walk now to think about it. 🙂

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