Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This column focuses on character arcs, from the elements that create or enhance a character’s inner journey, to techniques that writers can employ to strengthen character arcs in their own work. Today we continue our journey through the stages of the character arc with File No. 11, which focuses on the Moment of Truth (or the Climax).
Every previous stage of character evolution, from the Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1) to the Aftermath / Act III, First Half (Stage 8), has led to this one. The protagonist must now take the truth he has accepted in place of his false belief and apply it to his final confrontation with the antagonistic force(s). The trick is, he can’t merely show what he’s learned through dialogue or thoughts. Instead, he must demonstrate it through action so that other characters and the reader can see he has changed for the better. This scene (or sequence of scenes) is the Moment of Truth, the climax of the protagonist’s arc.
This second-to-last stage in the Journey Through the Character Arc is our focus for Character Evolution File No. 11. We’ll examine how the Moment of Truth attempts to rock the protagonist’s faith in his new truth, and how this stage’s outcome doesn’t always give the protagonist everything he wants. We’ll also revisit our two example characters and learn how they take the final steps toward commitment to their newfound truths.
As always, you can refer to the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart to see how each arc stage aligns with the three-act story structure. Download your copy now from the Worksheets for Writers page.
The Basics of the Moment of Truth
The Moment of Truth comes approximately halfway through Act III. (Think of it as the third quarter of Act III, from roughly 90% through 95%). Whether it comprises of one scene / chapter or a series of scenes, this stage is where everything finally comes together. It’s where you deliver on the story’s promises and show why the protagonist’s journey was worth all the pain and heartache.
From an external view, the Moment of Truth presents the final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic force(s). This “battle” doesn’t have to be physical or violent. However, it has the highest stakes of any event in the story and should have a sense of inevitability. In most cases, the protagonist attempts to carry out the plan of attack he developed during his Aftermath and watches it go awry. Nevertheless, he refuses to give up, makes one last push with a Plan B, and (in a traditional positive arc) succeeds, thus achieving his story goal and defeating the antagonistic force(s).
That Plan B ties in with the most crucial element of the internal plot. The Moment of Truth proves that the protagonist has changed for the better by embracing the truth that undermines his false belief. He takes what he has learned and puts it into practice. This action therefore symbolizes the truth he has come to believe, and demonstrates his long-term commitment to that truth.
How does the Moment of Truth accomplish all of this? It uses the following elements, typically in this order:
- Plan A Execution: The protagonist takes the Plan of Action he developed during his Aftermath and uses it against the antagonistic force(s). This plan may include assistance (e.g., supporting characters, objects, skills) from his previous arc stages.
- Assault on the Truth: As the protagonist executes Plan A, the antagonistic force(s) batters the protagonist’s new truth with physical and psychological reminders of the false belief.
- Temporary Failure: The protagonist’s Plan A falls apart and increases the stakes again. Perhaps a useful tool (weapon, technology, etc.) is lost, stolen, or malfunctioning. Maybe the antagonistic force(s) throws a “curveball” that the protagonist didn’t anticipate. Or, maybe he makes an ill-timed mistake.
- Glimpse of Defeat: Two split-second thoughts will cross the protagonist’s mind after the Temporary Failure. He first experiences a brief “all is lost” moment, where he doubts himself and imagines what might happen if he loses.
- Last-Second Motivation: The Glimpse of Defeat leads to one of two routes:
- Happy Ending: The protagonist still believes in himself and his story goal and tries again, but with a new idea.
- “Change of Heart”: The protagonist realizes his original story goal is no longer reachable, but sees a route to a similar goal. The results of this new goal might be less desirable than the original’s, but the protagonist knows what matters most to him now and is willing to fight for it.
- Truth in Action: The protagonist performs an action (or a series of actions) that a) is intended to help him defeat the antagonistic force(s) and reach his story goal (either original or new), and b) symbolizes his commitment to the truth. Like Plan A, this Plan B may include assistance that appeared earlier in the story.
- Plan B Success: The degree of success will depend on the type of Last-Second Motivation:
- Happy Ending: Victory! Using his Truth in Action, the protagonist beats the antagonistic force(s), achieves his story goal, and brings the conflict to a definitive close.
- Change of Heart: The Truth in Action allows the protagonist to reach his new goal. This won’t be a outright win, since the outcome isn’t as favorable as the original goal’s would have been, but it ends the main conflict while satisfying the protagonist’s most valued desire at that time.
- Emotional State: The protagonist’s emotions and thoughts are vital to closing the Moment of Truth properly. Consider what he’s feeling and thinking in response to what he has accomplished.
In essence, the Moment of Truth is the payoff for all the planning from the past eight arc stages. You gave the protagonist a false belief and opposite truth, then forced him to struggle between both until he had to choose one over the other (the truth) in order to reach his story goal. Now, it’s time for the heart of the story shine. Let the protagonist show the antagonistic force(s) – and, most importantly, the reader – how the truth has changed him. If all the right puzzle pieces are in place, his journey will not only hold the reader’s interest, but endear the character to the reader for a lifetime.
A Quick Word about Climactic Plot Twists and Their Impact on Character Evolution
Some writers may be tempted to twist the climax to avoid a traditional ending. The Change of Heart ending is one example; it doesn’t give the protagonist everything he had hoped for but allows him to successfully show how he’s grown. Other stories, however, end with false victories or outright failures, or give the goal’s fulfillment to a supporting character instead of the protagonist. That’s fine if you want to deviate from the norm. But if you plan to write a positive arc, these plot twists may seem devoid of logic and can impact the reader’s satisfaction with the story.
Consider this: If, during a positive arc, the protagonist fails despite his best efforts, the questions he’ll likely pose during his Emergence / Resolution (Stage 10) are, “Why did I bother trying? What good is everything I learned if I still lost?” He might feel cheated and discouraged, which is how a Harsh Reality negative arc usually ends. (See File No. 2 for details.) And if your readers are invested in the story up to this point, they might feel the same way.
It comes down to your intentions for the story. Perhaps your character might benefit more from a steadfast arc or one of the negative arcs. However, if you envision the protagonist changing for the better, allow him to achieve at least part of his story goal. This will ensure that the lesson sinks in for the protagonist, confirm his commitment to the change he’s undergone, and make your readers cheer for him or (if you choose a Change of Heart scenario) sympathize with him over his partial victory.
How the Moment of Truth Demonstrates the Protagonist’s Commitment to (What Else?) the Truth
The Aftermath for our case-study character (a young female criminal on the run) ended with the police capturing her benefactor. This sets up a Moment of Truth where the fugitive must demonstrate her commitment to the truth (“I can trust others”) in order to achieve her story goal (avoiding police capture). This scene sequence will also attack the fugitive’s new truth by reminding her of her old false belief (“I can’t trust anyone”).
First, let’s ensure that we understand what the fugitive needs to accomplish now:
- The Plan of Action that the fugitive developed at the end of her Aftermath (rescuing her benefactor from the police so they can flee together) will be her Moment of Truth’s Plan A.
- The fugitive’s Moment of Truth needs to show several instances of trust (including help from other characters) and distrust, with the fugitive exhibiting trust at its highest form in the end.
- Since the fugitive is undergoing a positive arc, her Moment of Truth will end with some degree of success, thus justifying her commitment to her new truth.
How this Moment of Truth ends will depend on the type of ending that best fits the fugitive’s arc. A Happy Ending would allow the fugitive and her benefactor a complete escape, but it wouldn’t logically wrap up the main conflict, since the police would continue pursuing them. So, how would a Change of Heart offer less desirable results for the fugitive while allowing her to show her growth since her Trigger? Here’s a possibility:
- Plan A Execution: The fugitive, with help from local acquaintances whom she trusts, infiltrate the local jail / police headquarters to rescue the benefactor, with the intention that she and her benefactor will flee town afterward. She manages to reach him before the Temporary Failure occurs.
- Assault on the Truth: Perhaps there’s a shoot-out, a wrong turn taken, or some acquaintances voice their reluctance to risk arrest. The fugitive presses on, but she understands her acquaintances’ fears and thanks them for their help. Perhaps she exempts those characters from her Plan A execution, so they won’t be in harm’s way. The fugitive also learns that despite further interrogations, her benefactor has refused to cooperate with police in order to keep her safe.
- Temporary Failure: Plan A goes awry when the police surround the fugitive and her benefactor just before (or immediately after) they leave the building.
- Glimpse of Defeat: The fugitive realizes she won’t achieve her story goal now. There’s no talking her way of it or escaping without killing an office. She’ll finally be arrested – and so will her benefactor.
- Last-Second Motivation: That last bit of her Glimmer hurts the fugitive most. She doesn’t want to bring her benefactor down with her; and as she recalls the story’s past events and the things she’s learned, she knows she’s capable of making better choices than she has before. Her desire to save her friend is stronger than her selfishness, and it motivates her to act according to her new truth.
- Truth In Action: The fugitive negotiates with the police. She asks them to arrest her and let her benefactor go, voicing her desire to accept responsibility for her crimes – and claiming she had threatened to kill her benefactor if he refused to to help her. Readers will know the latter is a lie, but the lie is meant to save a friend and not herself, demonstrating her trust in their relationship and willingness to sacrifice herself for others.
- Plan B Success: The benefactor goes along with the fugitive’s lie, and the police eventually let the benefactor go based on the corroborated story and formally arrest the fugitive.
- Emotional State: The fugitive might be terrified, nervous to the point of nausea, or in a strange state of calm. Either way, she’ll know she’s done the right thing and won’t regret turning herself in.
The Change of Heart outcome isn’t entirely happy for our heroine. But in the end, she proves her trustworthiness to the people who matter to her, and shows how much she values her friendship with her benefactor by putting his needs ahead of her own. It’s an act she never would have fathomed of performing before her arc began, and a perfect climax in terms of character evolution. So, when developing your character’s Moment of Truth, allow him to be brave and achieve whatever he wants most at that moment on his own merit. And most importantly, allow yourself to think outside the box if your story calls for it.
How Does the Moment of Truth Parallel the Climax?
Here’s how the Moment of Truth and the Climax parallel one another:
- Both occur toward the end of Act III.
- Both show the protagonist confronting the main conflict and/or antagonistic force(s) head-on.
- In a typical positive arc, both show the protagonist winning over the antagonistic force(s) and reaching his story goal.
- Both bring the main conflict to a close while demonstrating the heart of the story and offering surprises that readers might not have foreseen.
An Example of a Character’s Moment of Truth Using Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
As we follow Aragorn’s journey through the positive arc, we’ll refer to the Moment of Truth basics we discussed earlier to illuminate how they play out in a story. Also, please note that these Aragorn sections will reference both the books and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. The focus will be on film-Aragorn, who endures a more noticeable internal struggle than book-Aragorn, but the discussion will include appropriate references to the books as needed.
During his Aftermath, Aragorn took his most definitive steps toward claiming the throne of Gondor. Now, with the ultimate battle for the War of the Ring looming, he finally achieves his story goal (helping Frodo Baggins destroy the One Ring) by embracing his new truth and becoming a leader.
The climax of the Lord of the Rings shows the trilogy’s two most crucial events happening concurrently. Frodo and Sam cross Mordor and finally reach Mount Doom, while their allies follow the plan Aragorn devised during the Great Debate scene (see File No. 10). With a Host of the West comprised of Gondor’s and Rohan’s armies, Aragorn marches on the Black Gate and rallies his men with one of the film trilogy’s most unforgettable speeches. If any one scene in The Return of the King represents Aragorn’s Truth in Action, this is it.
Since Aragorn isn’t carrying out the most pivotal storyline (that belongs to Frodo Baggins), much of the climax is out of his hands. That, however, doesn’t stop the antagonistic force(s) from testing his new truth. His duel with a an Olog-hai (war troll) during the Battle of the Black Gate nearly kills him, and perhaps would have spelled his plan’s failure. The Extended Edition of The Return of the King shows two more “truth” attacks: the Mouth of Sauron’s attempted deceit over Frodo’s death, and Sauron’s vision of a dying Arwen when Aragorn masters the palantír.
Aragorn’s response to each assault is the same: He refuses to give up, even in the face of certain death. Thus, he demonstrates the confidence and courage required of a leader. And while the outcome depends on Frodo and Sam destroying the One Ring, it wouldn’t have worked in their favor had Aragorn not put his plan into motion. So, for celebration’s sake, let’s watch the scene in The Return of the King when Frodo – and in his own way, Aragorn – defeat Sauron for good.
While the Return of the King book shares the same ending, the final build-up to it differs. During their march to the Black Gate, the Host of the West is tailed by the Ringwraiths and ambushed by a small army of Orcs (168*), yet Aragorn urges them to continue on. The Mouth of Sauron scene plays out differently, too. Aragorn lets Gandalf deal with the creature in the book (171 – 175*), but in the Extended Edition film he beheads the Mouth, with his only explanation being, “I don’t believe him.” His action isn’t canonical in Tolkien’s story-realm, yet it’s true to his film arc in that it symbolizes his refusal to be intimidated by Sauron – and, consequently, his steadfastness to his role as a leader.
Hooray! Now, let’s analyze Aragorn’s Moment of Truth using the basics we discussed earlier. Also, would you say Aragorn achieves a true Happy Ending or a Change of Heart?
- Timing: Aragorn’s Moment of Truth comes during The Return of the King, starting at 2 hours 29 minutes and ending at 2 hours 52 minutes (91 to 95%, or 4% of the film trilogy). The original scenes appear on Pages 165 through 243* of the Return of the King book (85 to 92%, or 7% of the book trilogy).
- Plan A Execution: Aragorn puts his Plan of Action from his Aftermath into motion, resulting in the Battle of the Black Gate.
- Assault on the Truth: The Olog-hai duel, the Mouth of Sauron scene, and the additional book material are meant to distress, frighten, or cause Aragorn to retreat, but they all fail.
- Temporary Failure: Aragorn’s duel with the Olog-hai (watch again here) is the closest fit to a Temporary Failure, since it’s clearly not going Aragorn’s way.
- Glimpse of Defeat: Neither the book nor the film offer a true Glimpse of Defeat from Aragorn’s perspective. We can only assume he might have a split-second image of dying at the hands of the Olog-hai and Sauron winning.
- Last-Second Motivation: Despite any setbacks, Aragorn maintains a “go down with the ship” attitude. He’s adamant about standing up to Sauron and seeing his plan through to the end, no matter the cost to him.
- Truth In Action: Though it comes before the Assault, Temporary Failure, and Motivation, Aragorn’s speech symbolizes his acceptance of and commitment to his role as a leader.
- Plan B Succeeds: Aragorn is one case where a character doesn’t resort to a Plan B. (This is because the plot’s true climax comes in Frodo and Sam’s storyline, not Aragorn’s.) He and his army stick with their plan and fight the Orcs until Mordor collapses – a sign that the One Ring has been destroyed.
- Emotional State: Aragorn appears to experience a frenzy of emotions at this stage’s end. He’s likely proud of Frodo and Sam, relieved that the Olog-hai is gone, and awed by the sight of Mordor’s destruction. However, his most obvious emotions are gratitude over Sauron’s defeat and grief over the apparent loss of Frodo and Sam. (The latter is only temporary, as we’ll see in File No. 12.)
A Second Example of a Character’s Moment of Truth Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Unlike her Aftermath, Tris’s Moment of Truth in Divergent takes several chapters to unfold (timing = 85 to 98%, lasting for 13%**). While she thinks she may have already achieved her story goal (finding her place in society) by being formally accepted into Dauntless, this stage will show her finally realizing what that goal means by compelling her to embrace her truth (“I am strong” / “I am where I belong”) and her role as a Divergent.
Tris never finds time to tell Tobias her suspicions about Dauntless and Erudite’s war plans. Hours after her official initiation into her new faction, she wakes to find her instincts were correct: Every Dauntless member, except for the leaders, is under the serum’s control, and “directed” to arm themselves and attack Abnegation. Tris, however, is awake; and based on past experience, she knows her Divergence renders the serum ineffective. Only then does Tris form and begin executing her Plan A: Locate Tobias and rescue her parents, while trying to blend in with the mind-controlled soldiers in order to hide her Divergence.
Plan A works for a short time. Tris finds Tobias quickly (420**) and discovers that he too is awake (and therefore Divergent, like her). She also maintains composure as she watches Christina, Will, Tori, and other Dauntless friends shooting innocent victims (422**). But soon Tris and Tobias are apprehended by Dauntless leader Eric and brought to Erudite’s Jeanine Matthews (both antagonistic forces). Tobias and Tris are then separated, he for an additional serum experiment and she for execution (432**). But before Erudite can drown Tris, she’s rescued by her mother – and given a second chance to reach her story goal.
During this brief reunion with her mother, Tris gains crucial insight into her desire to belong. Her mother admits she was a Dauntless-born Divergent, urged by her own mother to switch factions for her safety. She also says she had wanted Tris to make her own faction choice, and that the Divergent “‘can’t be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled.'” (442**) This last advice helps Tris realize that if the factions can’t control her, she doesn’t belong in any of them – and she doesn’t need to:
… As of yesterday, I technically became Dauntless, but I don’t feel like one. And I am not Abnegation, either.
I guess I am what I’ve always been. Not Dauntless, not Abnegation, not factionless. Divergent. (453-454**)
Plan B arises after Tris’s mother is killed by Dauntless gunfire (443**) and Tris shoots her friend Will (446**). By the time she finds her father and her brother Caleb and tells them everything she knows, she realizes what needs to be done to save Abnegation. She then executes her Plan B: She goes to Dauntless’s headquarters with the help of people she trusts, and wakes up the soldiers by destroying the computers controlling them (452 – 453**). This plan brings her face to face Tobias, who’s under Jeanine’s control via the experimental serum. But as we’ll see shortly, Tris finds a way to succeed.
Whew! We’ve covered a lot in a short time, but let’s wrap up Tris’s section by addressing her Moment of Truth basics. And like with Aragorn, would you consider her climax a Happy Ending or a Change of Heart?
- Assault on the Truth: Tris’s truth is buffeted throughout the attack on Abnegation. She’s taunted by Eric and Peter about “being weak,” but she shoots and injures them both. Her parents are killed by Dauntless soldiers, but she acknowledges that their deaths were brave in intent (451**). Also, as foreshadowed during her Dark Night of the Soul / End of Act II (Stage 7), Tris confronts several fears from her final simulation in real life. For example, the Erudite attempt to drown her in a water tank (436 – 439**).
- Temporary Failure: Tris experiences three temporary failures (capture by Dauntless-Erudite, a near-execution via drowning, and the loss of her mother) before she formulates her Plan B.
- Glimpse of Defeat: Tris almost gives up twice during this stage. First, she chooses not to fight against her possible drowning, instead staying calm as an intended show of bravery (437***). Later, she considers letting the Dauntless soldiers kill her after her mother dies (444**).
- Last-Second Motivation: Past advice from Tobias and her mother remind Tris to be brave (444**) and inspire her to push onward.
- Truth In Action: Throughout this stage, Tris shares what she’s learned about the parallels between courage and selflessness with other characters. However, her Truth in Action comes on Pages 475 and 476**, when she recalls her final tests’s self-sacrifice simulation (shooting herself instead of her family) and one scene from Tobias’s fear landscape (shooting someone he cares about). She then gives the mind-controlled Tobias her gun and lets him aim at her head.
- Plan B Succeeds: Tobias never pulls the trigger. Instead, Tris’s Truth in Action wakes him from the new serum’s control. He then helps Tris destroy the computer program running the mind-control on the Dauntless soldiers, ending the siege against Abnegation.
- Emotional State: Even though her Plan B works, Tris is nauseated over the attack’s personal costs for her (481**). Yet she gives herself a moment to mourn before fleeing Dauntless for good.
Questions to Ask When Crafting Your Protagonist’s Moment of Truth
Here’s a list of questions for developing your protagonist’s Moment of Truth. The answers will help you ensure that you cover the stage’s basics and discover the best course of action(s) to demonstrate your character’s growth and achievement. Feel free to refer to past Journey Through the Character Arc questionnaires, too, so that all of your story’s threads tie together.
- Where does the Moment of Truth begin in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count? How long does it last?
- Briefly describe the protagonist’s Plan A, as well as any facts of the final confrontation between him and the antagonistic force(s). Who is involved? Where and when does it take place? What assistance (supporting characters, objects, skills, etc.) from previous stages is available to him at this time?
- How does the antagonistic force(s) assault the protagonist’s belief in the truth? How the protagonist overcome each attack?
- How does the protagonist’s Plan A fail?
- What split-second thoughts of defeat does the protagonist experience immediately following this? How does it force him to briefly envision what might happen if he loses?
- How does this glimpse of defeat motivate the protagonist to continue? Does he still see a clear route to his original story goal? Or, does he realize that goal is now impossible and change his focus to an alternate goal?
- What action(s) does the protagonist take next to demonstrate his commitment to his new truth? Does he still use any assistance from his previous arc stages?
- What happens as an immediate result of the protagonist’s truth in action? Does he achieve a Happy Ending (fulfillment of original story goal, with most desirable results) or a Change of Heart (fulfillment of alternate goal, with possibly less than desirable results)?
- How does the protagonist feel when the Moment of Truth ends? What other significant thoughts does he share with the reader?
What are some memorable Moments of Truth / Climaxes from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Moment of Truth? How does it show him/her reaching his/her goal and beating the antagonistic force(s) by demonstrating a commitment to his/her new truth?
Please come back in August / September for File No. 12, where we’ll cover the Emergence, or the Resolution.
*Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 2001 paperback edition by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
**Reference: Veronica Roth’s Divergent, 2011 paperback printing by Katherine Tegen Books