Powerful Moments in Fiction

I just finished chapter seven in the draft of book four in the Emergence series. Crafting The Specter (or The Spectre I haven’t decided yet) is such a different experience since it’s book four out of five. Threads are coming together. Some in the way I planned them and others are a surprise even for me. As I’m bringing back characters from all the books, I want to hit the right emotional notes. The readers who have stuck through the series deserve a satisfying payoff.

All of this research and careful planning brings me to powerful moments in fiction that have affected me over the years. Things like Butters accepting the broken sword—and the sword accepting him—just when everything was lost in Dresden Files, Kisten and Rachel making love for the first time in The Hollows, the representative of Katniss’s sister, Rue, dying in Hunger Games, Nick returning after his death to help Stu in The Stand, and so many more. Every one of these scenes brought me to tears. But I also recognize that there are so many more books than TV shows. So I’m going to use TV show examples here to illustrate what my options are as I see them.

Warning: There are spoilers ahead. But most of these shows aired decades ago, so I say they’re fair game. Nevertheless, you’ve been warned.

Surprising death of a beloved character

  • M.A.S.H. – “Abyssinia, Henry”
    • After three seasons—and in the 70s a season was like 24 episodes—of the fun-loving commander of M.A.S.H. unit 4077, Colonel Henry Blake gets to go home. They spend the episode having parties and indulging in a few sentimental moments. So far, basic and about what you’d expect from an episode like this at the end of a popular season of a popular television show. I mean Blake was anything but Army and definitely didn’t belong in a war zone, especially as the commander of a medical unit. But he was a great doctor and a caring human being, and we loved him. So in the very last scene, with the doctors in surgery, the company clerk Radar O’Reilly shambles into the room, unmasked, and announces that Blake’s helicopter was shot down by enemy fire and there were no survivors.
    • The reactions of Hawkeye and the other surgeons and nurses were disbelief and shock. Reactions they couldn’t indulge in while in the midst of surgery to save wounded soldiers. It’s the very last scene; there’s no time for the audience to deal with our shock and disbelief either. It’s jarring and so effective that I saw it in reruns and was so moved I’ve never quite recovered from it. That’s powerful story telling.

Return of an absent character just in time

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Two to Go”
    • Just after the sweet reunion of Tara and Willow, one of the best fit couples in the series, Tara was shot by an angry rival of the Scooby Gang—that’s what Buffy and her friends are affectionately called. Her death was devastating for the audience, but it was world shifting for Willow. She went full on dark and relentlessly sought revenge on those responsible for Tara’s death, regardless of who tried to stop her, including her best friends in the world. After episodes of back and forth, Willow gains the upper hand against Buffy and is about to kill her, when their white knight arrives. Rupert Giles, Watcher and father figure to Buffy, shows up from across the pond and puts Willow down long enough for Buffy to get away.
    • Everything was dark and terrifying, then there was no hope. The audience was on pins and needles. Obviously, Buffy was in the right, but Willow was, well, Willow. We wanted Buffy to win but didn’t want Willow to die. When Giles shows up, there was such a rush of relief and a thrill of hope. I’ll never forget the way it made me feel or the happy tears I shed. It’s proof that killing a character isn’t the only way to make your audience feel something profound.

Self sacrifice of a character

  • Supernatural – “Swan Song”
    • For fans of this show, you can just move on to the next one. I don’t want to reopen old wounds. If you need a reminder, brothers Sam and Dean have been thrust into the center of a celestial war where they’re both supposed to play the starring roles in the biblical apocalypse. The only way they could figure out how to defeat Lucifer was for Sam to accept possession of the fallen angel. Naturally, he couldn’t break through the possession even though he was confident that he could when they formed the plan. On the day of the big fight, Dean shows up and says he had to be with his brother when the world ended. Stuff happens and Lucifer, in Sam’s body, badly beats Dean—I have to close my eyes when I rewatch this bit. During the violence, Sam sees the Impala that the brothers grew up in and something clicks enough that he’s able to gain control and jump into the pit to trap Lucifer still possessing him.
    • Though Sam’s sacrifice saves the world, that’s not why he did it. He was able to gain control and sacrifice himself because of his love for his brother. And the audience was on board for the entire four seasons culminating in this masterpiece in storytelling. I’ll never forget the bitter sweet ending, where the brothers technically won, but it came at a high cost—the loss of each other.

Truth told through a character’s experience

  • Ted Lasso – “The Diamond Dogs”
    • This is a sneaky scene that should not have made such a huge impact—quite frankly there are a few of those in Ted Lasso. A star coach who knows everything about American football, but nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls football takes a position in Britain where he’s supposed to fail. Through his relationship with his players, the owners, and his fellow coaches, Ted triumphs to the extent that even their losses feel like wins in life. For this particular episode, he’s playing darts with the team’s ex-owner who’s been disrespecting and emotionally abusing his ex-wife who now owns the team. He references a quote by Walt Whitman, “Be curious; not judgmental.” Then explains that people always underestimated him because they thought they knew everything and simply judged, instead of being curious and asking questions. Then he goes on to win the day with the dart game.
    • This scene is a study in how you can make a hero out of an atypical example of one. And the moment it happens, it changes the audience. We’ve all felt misunderstood and judged, and he describes it in such a way that we’re all on board. And when Ted explains that it’s not about us, but about the person doing the judging, we feel better. Nothing changed, and we feel better. It’s such a strong reaction to such a simple scene that I cried watching it again while I wrote this blog.

All four of these scenes have stuck with me in visceral ways. I want that same reaction in the fiction I write. Though everything I do has magic and mythical abilities, I still try to tell the truth of the human condition. With these scenes swirling around in my head, I’m trying to create something that will impact the readers, something they’ll think about after they’re done reading, like I do with the scenes above.

What scenes have impacted you? Which ones do you think about years later?

Note: It did not go unnoticed that Anthony Stewart Head appears in two of these scenes. I have no idea what meaning there is in that fact.

Note 2: I did think about adding a Doctor Who scene, but there were so many I couldn’t narrow it down.

Note 3: M.A.S.H. is rerunning on Hulu and I know what I’m doing when I’m done rewatching Burn Notice. Eleven seasons should keep me busy.

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