Hi writing warriors, and welcome back to studying and understanding James Scott Bell’s genius breakdown of a plot’s 14 signpost scenes (as discussed in his craft book Super Structure)!
If you recall from my last month’s column—featuring Signpost Scene #10, Mounting Forces—we’ve forged forward into the last act of the story. In other words, it’s all about the slow build to the ultimate climax from here.
But before a story reaches its climax, the writer needs to make sure that they keep the reader on the edge of their sheet. Hence, Signpost Scene #11…Lights Out.
Clarifying Confusion About Lights Out
When I first read Super Structure, I got caught up for a second when it came to Lights Out because it mixed with similar beats I’d studied in other writing craft books. James Scott Bell indicates that Christopher Volger (The Writer’s Journey, a phenomenal take on The Hero’s Journey) calls Lights Out death-and-rebirth. In this signpost, Bell emphasizes Volger’s indication that the hero “sheds the personality of the journey” to “build a new one that is suitable for return to the Ordinary World.”
When I first read this, I kept thinking this must mean it’s the All is Lost moment—but it couldn’t be, because we’re in the final act of the story, and All is Lost is the final beat before the “Dark Night” decision at the end of Act II.
Then I remembered something.
Lights Out is in the final act of the story, and that final act is longer than one scene (certainly longer than one beat). Lights Out is not the climax of the final showdown, but it is absolutely an important beat that builds to that cataclysmic hoo-hah!
Lights Out and Lions
Complete blankness. The point in the finale when everything seems lost.
This is where Lights Out happens.
This could be when the enemy has rallied and has all the cards in their hands, or some sort of internal dilemma leaves the main character feeling like there is no good choice—no way out. And if your main character is thinking this, your reader is too, which means you have them hooked.
To give an example, I’m pulling from one of my favorite stories of all time (and one you can all see now in live action!): The Lion King.
The Lion King’s Lights Out moment unravels on the cusp of the final showdown between the lionesses, the hyenas, and our leading uncle and nephew. Note that this is different than Simba’s All is Lost moment, which happens at the end of the second act, where Mufasa appears in the sky to remind Simba that he has “forgotten him” and that he needs to “remember who you are.”
After Simba has made his decision to return to the Pride Lands to confront Scar and take his place as king, he mounts his forces (Nala, Pumba, Timon) and uses Pumba and Timon as “live bait” to distract the hyenas. The team is successful and Simba makes his way to Scar—who appears frightened of him—until he realizes that Simba is Simba, not his father.
And then, Lights Out takes action. To achieve Simba’s goal—beat Scar—he has to confront his past, and Simba still believes he is responsible for Mufasa’s death. Adamantly demanded by Scar, Simba admits he is responsible for Mufasa’s end. Scar proclaims him a “murderer” while trapping him at the edge of a cliff, Simba slips and dangles while lightning strikes beneath him, igniting a massive fire that darkens his approaching likelihood of death…
See where I’m going with this? Lights Out the darkest part of Simba’s black and sleepless nightmares (guilt and shame and nearing death)…but it’s not necessarily the All is Lost moment (the moment at the end of Act II, which motivates a main character’s Dark Night soul decision and movement into Act III).
Rather, Lights Out is a dark, black moment escalating the stakes at the start of the final showdown.
When the tables turn—when Scar confesses to Simba who was really responsible—light returns, and to check-in on the audience at this time, viewers are similarly dangling on the edge of their seats.
Any moment now, Simba will die or dig deep–and the final showdown between lions and hyenas, good and evil, Simba and Scar will really begin.
Note: Simba’s digging deep–realizing that Scar was Mufasa’s murderer, is not the Lights Out moment but the immediate action following it. Lights Out is when Simba feels there is no way out of death, and the next moment–his realization of what Scar did–instigates action, which is not surprisingly tied into James Scott Bell’s next signpost scene (THE Q FACTOR–featured in the next article!)
Why Lights Out is Important
The greatest contribution Lights Out makes for a triumphant finale–and story at its global perspective–is catharsis. Why?
Much like the main characters themselves being “reborn” as Volger described, the reader/viewer (living through the main character) vicariously experiences an awakening that every test and trial has built up.
James Scott Bell teaches us that this moment is almost always “most effectively realized when the lights go out.”
How the main character actively awakens will be explored in the final signpost scenes, which I will teach you over the course of my next three articles.
How You Can Apply Lights Out to Your Story
For those writers who feel the need to make their story irresistibly perfect on the first go, writing the Lights Out signpost scene might feel intimidating. For the pantsers reading this post, you’re probably already taking a whack at this scene before finishing this article.
In case you haven’t, or in case you’re being too hard on yourself and need some help, remember that it’s absolutely okay to try a few (or many) Lights Out scenes until you find the right fit.
To help you with this, try some of these Lights Out brainstorming/writing suggestions:
Imagine your climatic moment and rate it a 10 on a scale of 1-10. Now work backwards to another dark moment that lingers somewhere around an 8. What’s happening in this moment? Could it be your Lights Out?
Make a list of ten things in the final act of your story that are the “worst possible scenarios” for your main character. Pick your top three and try writing them.
Think of a moment in your finale when there is a “turning point” or “broadening of awareness” in your main character—some sort of action or revelation that alters your main character’s perspective on how they can take out their villain. Spend the next five minutes describing this by writing it down, without stopping. Don’t try to write a scene, just describe what’s going on, and then take the afternoon to let this settle before tackling it out without stopping, preferably paired with your nightly cup of tea.
If you have any questions about the Lights Out scene or any of James Scott Bell’s 14 Signpost Scenes covered so far, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to email me, tweet me, or schedule a writing consultation phone call on my website: www.abigailkperry.com
Abigail K. Perry is a Fiction Writer and Teacher, Certified Story Grid Editor, Agency Relations Assistant for P.S. Literary Agency, Outliner and Editor for Relay Publishing, and Proud Member of WFWA. She earned her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University (S.I. Newhouse School of Publications) and Master’s in Secondary Education from Endicott College. Abigail created and taught three creative writing and film courses at the high school level for several years, and she continues to teach writers (how to write a story that can survive the slush pile) with her Slush Pile Survivor email list and videos. She has an awesome podcast coming out soon!
Believing there is no greater connection between people than stories, it is her life’s aspiration to write and teach stories that remind us of the purpose of civilization—to connect and empathize with our desires, fears, hopes, faiths, and dreams.
Although trained in multiple genres, Abigail specializes in stories that help people understand and respond to anxiety and change. She has worked with top educators, writers, editors, and literary agents to cultivate this craft, including VP Senior Literary Agent Carly Watters.