The “What’s in it for Me?” Moment

Everyone knows about the “all is lost” moment in storytelling, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s that critical juncture, the unanswerable question, the impossible choice. It’s the lowest point of the hero’s journey, where he or she is out on a limb without any hope of deliverance, the farthest distance from achieving the goal.

Hollywood knows it well, and likes to pump up the pressure around it, sometimes to tire-blowing extremes—tacitly or explicitly notching up the audience’s capacity to suspend belief and be seduced into riding the magic carpet higher and higher, above the mundane and too close to the sun.

But what about a more elusory What’s in it for Me? moment—when the character goes all-selfish on the situation, having otherwise spent most of the story in selfless acts and courageous—and/or—foolish obedience to the mystical promise that sent him/her/they on the journey in the first place?

The What’s in it for Me? moment might piggyback on the “all is lost” moment—perhaps while standing out there at the edge of the abyss. Maybe not: “Hmmm, don’t think I want to case this joint and handcuff the dark knight.”

Perhaps instead, What’s in it for Me? dilly-dallies until there is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, with the possibility of revelation. This could be in close proximity to the climax, when the story stands to make good on its initial promise. And into that hopeful moment traipses the final resistance rearing its selfish head, rubber-banded to the past, to an old paradigm, just as the ultimate payoff is around the corner—in the future.

When I completed my novel’s fifty-sixth chapter—don’t drop your jaw—I took a break. Sometimes I get weary of being ball-and-chained to online dictionaries, thesauruses, and rhyme zones, searching for words my brain only partly envision. Sometimes I sense just the first letter, or hear a syllable, or syllables, a suffix, what it means—my search for meaning—or maybe what a word sounds like, as in charades. All in deference to decoding the restless phantoms roaming my subconscious. Even in the midst of writing this post, it took me several minutes to figure out the word denouement. It wafted, audibly, through my cerebral cortex, unhitched to even the remotest semblance of spelling.

Nevertheless, my much-needed break took place in front of the TV, where I decided to experience Field of Dreams for the umpteenth time, the same movie I’d watched on my VCR in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake—once the electricity came back on and I hoisted the TV back on its stand. When I’d gotten to the end of the film’s closing credits, I rewound the tape and hit play, immersing myself all over again.

That day feels like yesterday, the day when I—temporarily unemployed due to earth-shaking reasons—was sprawled out on the couch inside my little one-bedroom, Dickens Street apartment in Sherman Oaks, the building so old that its structure cracked and creaked amenably with the rattle and roll. The place next door didn’t fare so well.

Can you believe someone made a picture postcard of the earthquake damage in Sherman Oaks? However, they missed the red-tagged building on Moorpark where someone had spray-painted The fat lady has sung on one slab of a severed wall.

During the much-later March 2022 viewing of my favorite movie, I got something new out of it. I had my own revelation, a flash of insight. I realized that I had just written my own version of the “What’s in it for Me?” moment in chapter fifty-six—given to one of my prominent characters. Her dialog is not on-the-nose, but still, the moment was exactly what it was, the What am I getting out of this journey? moment. In other words, What’s in it for me?

Here you can watch the Field of Dreams’ What’s in it for me? moment, but if you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor and experience the story from beginning to end first.

And now the excerpt from Chapter Fifty-Six of my novel, Path of TotalityWhat’s in it for Me?:

“The falsehoods I told Colliers magazine back in 1952—well—” She slapped her leg. “Well THAT, they could believe. So if the world wants to take a gander at the white embroidered initials, they can just keep guessing what E.E. stands for.” Emma stood, a flush of color rising to her cheeks. “Don’t worry, I’m not signing my name in any book.” She turned back to Beth and said, “And they’ll never fucking know who I was, inside or out, will they?”
This was followed by a run to the closet and grabbing her coat. Beth asked, “Where are you going?”
“Taking a walk.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“No,” Emma shouted. “Where are those cigarettes?”
“In the drawer of the end table. I’m coming with you.”
“Why should you? You don’t have anything to lose, Beth. You’re going to see John. And who am I gonna see?” Emma huffed over to the end table and grabbed the cigarettes and a matchbook, then slammed the drawer with such a fury that it tipped over her precious Vladimir Kagan table lamp. It crashed to the floor. “The Grim Reaper, that’s who!”

And the denouement? [SPOILER ALERT] In Field of Dreams it’s the game of catch that Kevin Costner’s character has with his deceased father, who’d come back to life as a younger man on Iowa’s field of dreams. He was the he in If you build it, he will come.

And my denouement? The realization that my as-yet-to-be-written chapter fifty-seven will spill out the climax of the novel. I’ve been waiting for years to write that scene. My novel is almost done!


2 Responses to “The “What’s in it for Me?” Moment”

  1. Says:

    I’m anxious to read the 57th chapter. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂


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