You know in Back to the Future, how every opportunity to return Marty to 1985 is thwarted until the last possible minute? Like, the Delorean not starting, and the chord getting unplugged, and the movie just keeps you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t let you go until you finally see those flaming tire marks lead into a bright blue flash.
And then, similarly, in Toy Story, when every hope of Woody and Buzz returning to Andy is completely dashed, with RV’s batteries running out and that ridiculous car putting out the flame on Woody’s match (I’ve always had a strong dislike for whoever’s driving that car). But that moment between the match going out and Woody using Buzz’s space helmet as a magnifier, as devastating as it is, is just so much fun! Right? Because, you know, that somehow everything just has to work out, but – how?
I’ve researched this particular kind of climactic moment that doesn’t seem to get used enough. I’ve asked people in the drama field what this particular arch in the story is called. And I’ve never gotten an answer.
If you watch the commentary for Monsters, University. (I cannot stress how important it is for every writer or story lover to watch these valuable features), you’ll hear them talking about this type of moment. When the door closes on Mike and Sulley, locking them in the human world, the commentators refer to this as a “Match out” moment – referring to Woody’s match going out.
That brilliant moment when all hope not only seems lost, but is lost.
The Delorean could have simply just worked. The match could have lit the fuse to Buzz’s rocket. Mike and Sulley could have just walked back through the door without Dean Hardscrabble unplugging it.
But that’s just too easy.
Authors, writers, don’t make it easy for your protagonists! Set every obstacle you can possibly think of between them and that happy ending we all know is coming. In fact – make it completely impossible for them to get there. And then find a way!
Go into overtime as a storyteller and work out how your protagonist can accomplish the impossible. Make it a “match out” moment.
If you’ve read The Man in the Box, you’ll recognize several such moments in the third act. It fuels the story, gives it that extra umph, and most of all, it shows the reader that you care about their experience.
You care enough to go that extra mile, to push your character that much further, and to entertain your audience for just a few more moments before handing them that happy ending.
Writers, get good at that “match out” moment. It could be the moment a reader falls in love with your work.
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