Illuminating incidents are not found anywhere on the classic plot diagram and are often neglected altogether when discussing fiction. Once I found the term, coined in Edith Wharton’s 1925 collection The Writing of Fiction, I found myself amazed that it isn’t spoken of more often.
Wharton explains it this way:
“At every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casements of fiction, its vistas on infinity. They are also the most personal element in any narrative, the author’s most direct contribution; and nothing gives such immediate proof of his imagination—and therefore of the richness of his temperament—as his choice of such episodes.”
Illuminating moments are often deeply internal. They are, in a way, the anti-climax. The climax is big and exciting and will change the course of events. The illuminating incident is often quiet and subtle but will reveal a hidden truth.
So, reach for your notebook and the copy of your manuscript.
The illuminating incident goes hand in hand with discovering why your novel matters.
Ask yourself this:
What human experience am I grappling with? What does my character come to understand at the end of the novel? And if my character does not have any grand epiphany, what will my readers understand instead?
Consider the scenes that will come between your climax and your ending.
What will be your illuminating incident? How will it feel?
I’d like to give you one more quotation from Wharton on this subject:
“At the conclusion of a novel the illuminating incident need only send its ray backward; but it should send a long enough shaft to meet the light cast forward from the first page.”
Once again, think of inevitability. Think of a light that turns on, revealing what was always there in your story but not quite visible before.