DL Fowler's Blog

A Story’s Moment of Grace

Stories often begin to lose steam near the middle. The Lead character has worked through, around, and over obstacles for almost half the story, having made little progress. We start to worry that readers will grow impatient. We become tempted to add extra scenes solely to ratchet up tension. Big mistake. There’s another way to energize the middles of your stories.

Nothing is more critical to the success of a story than the Moment of Grace. During the Moment of Grace, the Lead’s physical and psychological journeys merge, lifting the sagging storyline.merge

A well-crafted Moment of Grace begins near the middle of a story and contains three parts. The offer of grace comes when the Lead confronts the personal consequences of the “or else.” She must own the moral premise as fundamental to her character, or else she will not be able to achieve the goal of her physical journey. The offer of grace is followed by a time of bargaining or weighing the cost of applying the moral premise on a personal level. Finally, the Lead either rejects or accepts the offer of grace. If she engages the moral premise as something intensely personal to her, her progress toward the story’s physical goal accelerates. Rejecting grace will speed her story toward the “or else” (dire consequences).

In his NYT bestselling legal thriller, My Sister’s Grave[1], Robert Dugoni crafts a strong Moment of Grace sequence that he underscores with weather and color. The moral premise of his story is truth liberates, and lies ensnare. His plot in a nutshell: truth can be complicated.

Detective Tracy Crosswhite wants the truth about her sister’s twenty-year-old murder, and she pursues it with her whole being. Old friends and neighbors have hidden the truth from her for two decades. Now, she runs after the truth so hard she plows over cherished memories and people she loves. However, she doesn’t realize the consequences of truth can be highly personal.

The offer of grace:

Temperatures drop as winter sets in. Tracy approaches DeAngelo Fin, a retired lawyer who twenty years earlier defended the man convicted of killing her sister. Fin is in his garden preparing the soil for winter. Tracy asks him to testify at a hearing that might free his former client from prison. Fin ignores her question as he lays a black plastic sheet over the ground and explains the importance of getting on top of weeds before winter. Tracy recalls that her father used to do the same. The black plastic and the memory of her deceased father foreshadow key discoveries she will make later.

Tracy tells Fin, “There’s no one left to hurt.” Fin replies, “There is.” His answer tips off readers to the prospect that Tracy may pay a severe personal price in exchange for the truth.

Negotiating the personal cost of internalizing the moral premise:

As Tracy wrestles with Fin’s warning, the weather grows frigid, and residents of the cozy town of her childhood shun her. They are intent on blocking her from jeopardizing their secret.

Accepting the offer of grace:

Tracy is left with only one ally, an old high school friend. When an unknown assailant fires a warning shot through her friend’s living room window, Tracy realizes the truth might demand a greater personal sacrifice than she had imagined. Nevertheless, she and her friend continue to seek out the identity of her sister’s real killer.

Weather and color accentuate Tracy’s psychological struggle, the way music underscores mood in movies. As troublesome new details emerge during courtroom scenes, characters watch snow pile up, covering the lawn outside. The white carpet symbolizes purity and truth. Snow falls faster, covering the streets and sidewalks while more revelations raise the price of truth. The judge rushes to finish the hearing before a blizzard hits. His haste may jeopardize her pursuit of the truth.

When the proceedings conclude, the judge’s decision catapults Tracy into a deadly confrontation with a psychopathic killer who is key to uncovering the last pieces of truth. Fully realizing that Fin was right, there is someone left to hurt –- herself, Tracy decides she’s willing to risk her life for the truth. Her determination wins over new supporters and sets up the climax of her journey.

At this point, rather than using snow and frigid temperatures as symbols or to reinforce mood, Dugoni employs the storm as an obstacle Tracy and her allies must overcome for justice to prevail. Dugoni’s story follows the pattern of classical Greek Comedies. The story’s end validates both halves of the moral premise –- truth frees, but lies ensnare. And, yes, sometimes truth is complicated.

The arc of classical Greek Tragedies is similar, however the endings of those stories prove only the negative side of the moral premise, or they leave the premise unresolved. A contemporary example of the classical Greek Tragedy is the historical novel Hagridden[2] by Samuel Snoek-Brown.

Hagridden’s moral premise is: division leads to destruction, but unity leads to strength. Snoek-Brown’s main characters are “old woman” and “young woman,” a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duo who take desperate measures to stay alive in a Louisiana bayou during the waning days of the American Civil War. The women make a successful team. The old woman’s wisdom matches perfectly with the young woman’s physical dexterity.

When Buford, a Confederate Army deserter, returns alone from the war with news that the girl’s husband is dead, the two women start bickering. Midway through the story, both women receive offers of grace. They must choose either unity or division. Each rejects unity, and they begin to double down on wrong choices. The young woman deserts the older, and both plunge into downward spirals. The first half of the moral premise is demonstrated to be true at a personal level.

The greatest challenge in writing tragic stories is crafting endings that are logical and that don’t break the empathy readers have developed for the characters. Snoek-Brown pulls it off.

Can you think of stories in which the stakes turn intensely personal for the main character? Does that shift begin to occur about midway through the story? Would you have stayed with the story if that hadn’t occurred? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment.

[1] Robert Dugoni. My Sister’s Grave (Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2014).

[2] Samuel Snoek-Brown, Hagridden, (Columbus, OH: Columbus Press, 2014).

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  1. […] enlightenment accelerates during the Moment of Grace, preparing her for the fourth movement — empowerment. In the fourth movement, the Lead’s […]

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  2. The Whole Story | DL Fowler's Blog said, on October 26, 2017 at 3:22 PM

    […] A Story’s Moment of Grace […]

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