The Epiphanal Moment
We started to talk last week about the All is Lost Moment, both in stories and our real lives. (I’m going to spend the next few weeks examining this, particularly as it relates to our own Wildernesss Passages).
The All is Lost Moment always comes with a matching bookend—the Epiphanal Moment. If the All is Lost Moment is the ultimate dead end for our story’s hero (or for us ourselves in our real lives), the Epiphanal Moment is our hero’s (and our own) response to this dilemma.
It may be a breakthrough that saves the day (Huckleberry Finn, Top Gun: Maverick.)
It may be a wrong move (Chinatown) that leads to even deeper catastrophe.
It may be a spiritual realization that succeeds on the level of the soul (Hidalgo.)
Or a simple but profound acceptance of a hard reality (Big Night, Far from Heaven.)
What is an Epiphanal Moment?
Consider Thelma and Louise (Oscar-winning screenplay by Callie Khouri). The All is Lost Moment comes seconds before the film’s climax. Thelma and Louise, fleeing the law in their ’66 Thunderbird convertible, have at last been cornered at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Cops and state troopers have the ladies zeroed-in in their gunsights. There’s even a police helicopter hovering to trap them further.
Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) face a fatal choice. Try to flee and they’ll be shredded in a hail of gunfire. Or surrender, in which case they’ll no doubt be railroaded on a charge of murder through some kind of male-dominated kangaroo court. Or, even if they miraculously beat the rap, they’ll wind up returning to some form of misogynistic, toxic-masculinity hell in which they continue under the thumb of the patriarchy.
That’s the All is Lost Moment. What’s the epiphany?
The T-bird with Louise at the wheel and Thelma in the passenger seat is pointed at the precipice of a 500-foot cliff. The brink is just a short burst away. Behind the women squats a phalanx of law enforcement vehicles. Cowboy-hatted sheriffs and Highway Patrol officers sight their rifles on Thelma and Louise. The chief officer, through a bullhorn, demands that the women surrender or he’ll order his men to open fire.
INT. CAR – DAY
We’re not giving up, Thelma.
Then let’s not get caught.
What are you talkin’ about?
(indicating the Grand Canyon)
Thelma is smiling at her.
They look at each other, look back at the wall of police cars, and then look back at each other. They smile.
Louise floors it. The T-bird accelerates straight at the canyon brink …
That’s the Epiphanal Moment. See how it’s an answer to the All is Lost Moment? Thelma and Louise make the fatal decision—as friends, as a twosome—that it’s better to go out in a blaze of independent glory than to let the System devour them one piece at a time.
Click here for the film version of this scene from YouTube.
For you and me, it can be an illuminating exercise to re-watch or re-read some of our favorite movies or books, looking for the All is Lost Moment and the Epiphanal Moment.
More on this subject in the weeks to come.
My eyes always go to that hubcap, and the metaphorical deliciousness of that little flourish, the shackles dropping away.
And if I were to look behind Ridley Scott’s curtain, I’d be curious to know whether they set it up to come off at the right moment or if the hubcap separated serendipitously. You know, in service of the shot. If it WAS just dumb luck, can you imagine the camera crew high-fiving the shit out of each other?
This scene as an epiphanal moment… I’m guessing that they chose to fade to white, rather than black, signaling that there’s something good here.
Oh, sweet… I did a little googlin about the hubcap and wasn’t immediately finding an answer (which you know must be out there somewhere). So I went to ChatGPT and typed: “In the final scene of the movie ‘Thelma and Louise,’ did they plan for the hubcap to come off the car or did it come off by luck?”
In the final scene of the movie “Thelma and Louise,” the hubcap coming off the car was not planned, but rather a happy accident that occurred during filming. According to an interview with director Ridley Scott, the hubcap came off the car by chance and was not part of the planned sequence. However, he and the film crew liked the spontaneous nature of the moment, and they decided to include it in the final cut of the film. The unplanned hubcap coming off the car is now one of the most memorable moments in the movie, and it adds to the overall sense of chaos and wildness in the scene.
What a great tool so far.
Ahhh, but with ChatGPT, you might miss the adjacent things that you stumble into, like this clip from an interview with the screenwriter Callie Khouri (https://slate.com/culture/2022/07/thelma-louise-ending-meaning-ridley-scott-callie-khouri.html).
I love this thing she says about believing in the story. A total novice and being willing to go for broke:
Did you have to fight for this ending?
Early on, when we were taking the project around, there were certainly people that asked, “How are you going to change the ending?” And at that point, I mean, this was my first thing that—not my first screenplay, it was the first thing I had ever written. And so I felt like I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t in any mood to say, “Oh, you want to change it? Oh, OK, well, what do you want?” I was like, “No, this is the story.” I mean, Jesus Christ, it’s a yes or no question. You want to make it or not?
And this interesting, and shows that those AI tools may give wrong information. In the Slate interview, Callie responds to the hubcap question:
How did he get the hubcap to come off the car just right?
That’s 10,000 hours of him making car commercials.
Joe, I just laughed aloud at “That’s 10,000 hours of him making car commercials.”
Hmm. Callie Khouri is married to T-Bone Burnett. This is the rabbit hole, right? Chasing interesting factoids and trivia like a dog in a yard full of squirrels.
I never really thought about an epiphanal moment before, but it makes a lot of sense. In literature, it is easier to see it, it is in the course of the plot. But in the context of a personal wilderness journey, I think it would be harder to notice that moment until the rewards are reaped. A drunk can swear off booze a hundred times, but he won’t know the time it takes until he has been sober long enough. A person can put their dreams first, but it won’t make any difference if there is not something gained. Have I had my epiphanal moment? Is it yet to come?
Good thoughts, Colleen. We think of an epiphany as being accompanied by soaring strings and a chorus of angels. Thinking how an epiphany can also be as dirty and simple as: “I can’t go on like this.”
“Why do I keep making this dumb mistake over and over…?
I agree and was commenting to a friend about feedback mechanisms the other day. The problem with ‘good habits’ is the feedback is so far removed from the act…which means we have to find other ways to see the feedback or change our character about what motivates us. Neither is easy.
Great point Brian, the lack of proximity between the action and the analysis. I suppose this is an argument for making a deliberate daily practice, perhaps after climbing into bed, of asking the hard questions about how the day panned out, and was there daylight between plans and actions.
Callie Khouri said, “How are you going to change the ending?” And at that point, I mean, this was my first thing that—not my first screenplay, IT WAS THE FIRST THINGI HAD EVER WRITTEN. And so I FELT LIKE I HAD NOTHING TO LOSE. I wasn’t in any mood to say, “Oh, you want to change it? Oh, OK, well, what do you want?” I was like, “No, this is the story.” I mean, Jesus Christ, it’s a yes or no question. You want to make it or not?”
All is lost moment/Epiphanal moment.
May we all be as gutsy as Thelma, Louise and Callie.
There it is, Jackie. Callie’s moment. Love it.
I was also inspired by Callie’s courage. Courage is ALWAYS inspiring. Possibly the dearth of courage is why it is always recognized as well—plus, it also made me think of ‘our’ Callie Oettinger. I miss her and Shawn.
Ya. The name Callie has good connotations.
Gotta love Joe’s Rabbit Holes!
As I was reading this I thought of how many times I’ve questioned “Why does it have to be this way?” Usually this is in the middle of or coming out of an All is Lost Moment.
I answered my own question with another thought I’ve come to recently believe, “Because we can never become who we are destined to be unless we are pressed upon. Pressure makes diamonds” Epigenetic response. Caterpillar/butterfly. Does the caterpillar ‘know’ it is going to change into something even more beautiful?
If the bug is conscious–I bet he’s terrified.
I think the Epiphanal Moment is somehow born of a mishmash of pressure, environment, past failures–it breaks to the surface akin to a volcanic eruption.
A discredited book that I really enjoyed “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer was about creativity. There was a passage in which Lehrer made stuff up, didn’t have the interview he discussed–but I don’t think that invalidates everything he wrote. Anyway, he wrote that creative ideas (which are gamma wave bursts of connection) only occur after the ‘linear’ mind has exhausted itself with traditional problem solving.
Is the All is Lost Moment a cosmic ‘gain of function’ trial, and the Ephiphinal Moment a successful outcome?
Sitting in front of my computer with a warm cup of coffee all of this makes sense. In the trenches of an all is lost moment, I don’t think I see the pain as beneficial…
“All is Lost Moment as a cosmic ‘gain of function’ trial.” Good one, B! It’s not lifting the weights that makes the muscles bigger and/or stronger. The weights are tearing the muscle down. It’s what happens in the repair and recuperation that the gains come (but until after the effort).
Joe, I have to admit, reading your comment I started thinking, “Duh, we all know how muscl– OH! Right! He’s saying it’s the same for creativity!” The school of thought where, to solve a thorny problem, you learn every thing about it that you can, and then go do something else, and let your subconscious arrange the pieces. So kudos for catching me off guard. This stuff really does all tie together, doesn’t it?
And Brian, somehow that made me picture a caterpillar as a screaming toddler trying to hold the chrysalis together: “NO! I DON’T WANNA BE A BUTTERFLY!!”
Ya. Making connections, each a little creative big bang, stronger web.
That’s a pretty close description to what I had in my mind as well. “WHAT?!?! You want me to do WHAT?!!!?!? NO WAY! I’ll lose all my friends! I don’t want to look like that!”
I need to see this film!! I loved the final clip of it. Reminds me a bit of the “All is Lost Moment” in Fincher/Sorkin’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth is highly intelligent, but has Asperger’s, so she is often taken advantage of. When she is raped, one can see the soul death that occurs. Arguably the worst thing that can happen to a woman. She loses trust in others and in herself. This post made me smile because her “Epiphanal Moment” is when she she gains financial freedom from her abuser/rapist and hog ties him up only to tat “rapist pig”on his belly. The rest of the films she rocks it. She steps into her own.
I will be looking at things differently now!! Very interesting post today.
Strange as it seems, I asked the universe for an epiphany today.
A suicide pact is the best you can come up with for an epiphanal moment?
Thank you for the post dear Steve,
I will comment later, I just had an insight and I share it with you: another form of Resistance can be the problems we face (with people or skills) in our shadow job/career. So the shadow career doesn’t only have it’s legs stopping our calling, but the consequences of it’s dynamics also exert Resistance. So we must be aware of that, everything that turns as away from our calling actually brings numerous descenants with it, whether they are problems or opportunities. It is never alone…
Can we view this epiphanal moment as the turning point of a scene, in the Turning Point Progressive Complication, in the terminology of Shawn’s Story Grid method? It’s the moment of reaching a complication that you can’t muscle or trick your way past. Things have to change, and this, again using the SG model, happens with either revelation or action. The epiphany is a revelation that may or may not lead to action.
30 mins ago I took delivery her in the UK of a signed copy of Steve’s new novel ‘Govt Cheese’. Wow beautifully and lovingly packaged. I’m guessing Diana? And looks like maybe her John Hancock on the invoice. Thank you Big D! Looks wonderful and I can’t wait to read it. James Altucher blurbs that he weeped in the middle. (Hopefully not directly in the centre of a physical copy.)
This is a really interesting topic, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to say about it. I’m especially interested in the idea of an Epiphanal Moment being a response to an All is Lost Moment. Is it possible for an Epiphanal Moment to come before an All is Lost Moment, or is it always a response to a crisis that has already happened? Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!
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To use the nomenclature of Shawn’s Story Grid technique, may we consider this epiphanal moment to be the turning point of a scene, fitting into the Turning Point Progressive Complication category? That is the point at which you realize that you can no longer cheat or use brute force to get around a challenge. Things have to shift, and according to the SG model, this may happen in one of two ways: either via revelation or through action. An epiphany is a sudden flash of insight that may or may not prompt immediate action.
Re-watching or re-reading some of our favorite films or novels and searching for the All is Lost Moment and the Epiphanal Moment might be enlightening for you and me.
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