What is the Realisation Scene?
One way to approach writing from a structural perspective, is to understand the function of a number of must-have scenes in your story. One such scene is the Realisation Scene. In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger defines this important scene as ‘the moment when a character and/or the audience gets it’ – the ah-ha moment. It spins the story in a different direction and is, therefore, also a turning point in the tale.
The Sixth Sense, The Fugitive, and The Green Mile
In The Sixth Sense, for example, this scene occurs when Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and the audience realise that he is dead. This changes the direction of the story in a major way. In The Fugitive, the Realisation Scene occurs when Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) perceives that Charlie Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) is behind his wife’s murder and the attempt to frame him for it. And in The Green Mile this scene occurs when Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) realises that John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) has a God-given power to heal.
“The realisation scene is the most powerful twist in a story.”
After the Realisation Scene plays out, things cannot continue as they were. New plans have to be hatched and adjustments made in the light of new information. As in all well thought out structural turns, the effects is felt both at the level of plot, and on the level of character, causing the latter to grow or wilt depending on his or her strengths and weaknesses.
Occasionally, however, this moment of illumination is not immediately evident, something that Seger sees as a weakness. In Mulholland Drive, for example, Seger suggests that the audience needs an ah-ha moment, right before the Betty/Diane character kills herself, in order to grant the audience clarity. Whether this is true or not for a multiform film such as Mulholland Drive (Lynch would probably argue that he purposely chose obfuscation to deepen the sense of the unknowable), the fact remains that the Realisation Scene, in most conventional stories, is useful in helping to organise the plot around a central moment of illumination that changes the way the audience and the protagonist view the way forward, and as such, is a invaluable addition to the writer’s tool kit.
The Realisation Scene comprises of an ah-ha moment in which the audience and the protagonist understand the true nature of the problem. This is a game changer and alters the way the protagonist pursues the goal from that moment on.
Good post. I personally don’t like realisation scenes unless done in an amazing way. I’ve picked up on quite a few but never actually know what they are called. I’ve been calling them “scenes of luminance” (meaning, a scene that sheds light). The more blatant something is, the less people have to think. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. For audiences who want to think for themselves (i.e. – Simon and myself, among others) it can be frustrating to know who is who and what is what at the midpoint. A lot of others tend to like that escapism element of cinema, so too much thought could be a bad thing. Probably the best example of a realisation scene I have seen in recent months was from Ben Affleck’s directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone” when Casey Affleck discovers the corrupt plot involving police officers and kidnapping. I won’t say exactly what happens just in case some people haven’t seen it. But, I will say, it adds to a tragic but fitting end.
P.S.: I honestly don’t see anything wrong with Mulholland Drive because, in the cover of the DVD, it gives you direct clues to work out the gist of the story for yourself. That said, Lynch is infamous for his puzzling surrealist horror films. Of course, he doesn’t make horror in the traditional sense of the word. But I have heard him regarded as a horror filmmaker nonetheless and, being that he is ONE of my absolute favourite directors, I just had to point out my views on certain things.
Thanks, Russ. I tend to agree with your comment about Mulholland Drive. Multiform films (the subject of my PhD studies and a category of narrative I might write a bolg on later) dance to a different tune, and in any case, Lynch goes out of his way to obfuscate, as we’ve said earlier. I do think that the realisation scene doesn’t have to make the rest of the story facile; a skilled writer can and should still mislead and surprise us in other ways, after this scene. Great comments, Russ.
The examples in the article seemed that the character doing the realizing did so from their own doing. But in the Matrix example, our reluctant hero Neo mostly has outside help for the inception, and the path leading up to it.
Just seeing what your thoughts are on the difference because in my story, the main character arc resembles Neo’s in many, many ways (unintentionally, but it’s there).
Thanks for the comment and question Mark. I don’t think it matters that much dramatically if the character comes to the understanding on his/her own, or is prompted by external forces. After all, he/she still has to embrace that knowledge and act on it, and that, I think, is where it sometimes becomes a moral, or ethical choice – the stuff of drama!
Very illuminating ;), would you say a movie MUST have this moment ? something that really comes to mind for me is, how blatant this moment needs to be ? if it was done well it would be all the little pieces coming together at this one ah-ha moment. I guess the whole audience is meant to “get it” at this point and some stories some audience members can work it out before then? and others it’s kind of hidden and then there is a sometimes patronising tell all scene at the end (scooby doo, dark city).
at least that’s some thoughts.
Yes, indeed, Simon. The moment needn’t be that blatant or overstated; it can occur at any pont in the story. In The Matrix, for example, it occurs at the end of the first act when Neo (and we) learn from Morpheus that the wold as the characters mostly know it is an illusion.