What we’re talking about today is how to use the last few sentences to give your readers a Wow! moment.
No matter what your story is about, or in what format, Wow! moments are what readers rely on for confirmation they’re not wasting their time.
Wow! moments are contracts that assure readers you, as the author, have planned well and will provide guaranteed points of gratification along the journey. Readers will learn something new, feel something different or gain an insight.
That contract is necessary for all writing, whether for fiction or nonfiction. It’s true for poetry; memoirs; screenplays; short stories; children’s books; and novels of all kinds including literary, as opposed to just genre fiction like thrillers and romances where Wow! moments are expected.
Wow! moments can be visually big, like a car crash, or almost invisible, like a single glance from one person to another. Whatever the actual size or nature, however, all Wow! moments are emotional detonations.
Think of your favorite books, movies and poems. Almost assuredly they have Wow! moments that make you gasp aloud and that forever after make the world look different to you.
Two Varieties of Wow!
There are two varieties of a Wow! moments:
A hook is information given before the end of a segment, such as a scene, act or stanza. The primary goal is to create the kind of suspense that compels readers to continue.
A revelation is information that binds a long string of hooks to finally present a complete picture for readers, as in:
“That’s how he hid the money!”
“I knew she was two-timing him!”
While smaller revelations can occur throughout a work, the Wow! moment is typically reserved for the end of the story because it offers readers a sense of completion and satisfaction, whether because readers’ suspicions are confirmed or they experience a final epiphany.
How to Create Wow! Moments
While some of us might be out-of-the-box enough to whip up stories that move readers from one hook to the next until a final revelation, most of us are not.
Therefore, consider creating an outline for every scene. The outline consists of five questions:
What’s the character’s current emotional state?
What concrete action happens?
How does the character react?
What’s the character’s end emotional state?
What is the character forced to do?
Hal owns and operates a butcher shop. He’s got an invalid wife, lots of hospital bills and three grown kids, all of whom are married. Today he walks into his shop, aggravated by an ongoing severe skin rash that alternately itches and burns.
On his lunch hour, he goes to the doctor, who gives Hal the news: “You’re allergic to meat. You can’t be around it, much less handle it.”
Hal yells he can’t afford to retire, he's got too many hospital bills, and storms off to his shop where his skin gets so inflamed he has to strip to his boxers and shower under the kitchen spigot.
Hal’s emotional state is scared out of his wits at the prospect of financial ruin.
What is the character forced to do? Call and ask for help from his least favorite person in the entire world: his jobless, lay-about, vegan son-in-law who dreams of being a novelist.
Notice the hook is organic, meaning it directly stems from the action — Hal’s diagnosis — and the character’s reaction of terror at becoming destitute.
All of those little hooks will lead to that final revelation in the last few sentences of the story, a Wow! moment that will leave readers laughing, crying or otherwise thinking, Right on!
Examples of Wow! Moments
The Usual Suspects by Christopher McQuarrie
Verbal Kint is a pathetic, washed-up criminal with a limp who’s hauled in for questioning by U.S. Customs officials. He tells a story of the mythic crime lord Keyser Soze, who pressed Kint and his four partners into performing a multi-million-dollar heist that ended with a spectacular explosion of a ship, of which Kint is the sole survivor.
When Kint makes bail, the authorities have to release him. He limps out of the office. When he’s gone, the officer looks around and realizes Kint used common items in plain sight to make up the entire story, like “Redfoot” from a wanted poster and “Kobayashi” on the bottom of a coffee cup. A composite drawing that arrives via fax confirms it: Kint is actually Keyser Soze.
But Kint is gone!
We viewers follow Kint outside onto a busy street. We witness how his limp disappears and posture improves until signaling this man is a high-powered mover and shaker. He gets into the back of an expensive car. Just then, the agent comes out to search for Kint among the sea of pedestrians.
These are the last two lines of the screenplay:
Agent David Kujan of U.S. Customs wanders into the frame, looking around much in the way a child would when lost at the circus. He takes no notice of the car pulling out into traffic, blending in with the rest of the cars filled with people on their way back to work.
Wow! Soze literally disappears under the agent’s nose.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett is the spoiled, selfish rich kid in the Antebellum South. She pines for a married guy she can’t have and drives away Rhett Butler, the one man who’s clearly her intellectual equal.
I personally don’t like Scarlett, but the one thing I have to give her is that she’s a survivor extraordinaire. The Civil War and fall of the South occur and Scarlett makes it out alive, often by clawing from one day to the next.
But then one day Rhett tells her he’s done with her for good, and it looks like Scarlett is finally beaten. She’s survived so much, yet has lost her greatest love.
And that leads to one of the most famous last lines in literature, when Scarlett says, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Wow! Even if you don’t like Scarlett, that one sentence tells you the depth of her optimism, and belief in herself, is limitless.
For updates about Martha’s forthcoming memoir, Bliss Road (June 2023), historical novel, The Falcon, the Wolf and the Hummingbird (October 2023), or other books, news and giveaways, subscribe to MarthaEngber.com.