From Edith Wharton’s slim and provocative guide, The Writing of Fiction:
“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 casement of fiction, it’s vistas on infinity. They are also the most personal element in any narrative, the authors most direct contribution; and nothing gives such immediate proof of the quality of his imagination – and therefore the richness of his temperament – as his choice of such episodes….
“At the conclusion of 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, as in the poignant passage at the end of ‘L’Education Sentimentale’ where Mme. Arnoux comes to see Frederic Moreau after long years of separation …. She asks him to take her for a walk, and wanders with him through the Paris streets. She is the only woman he has ever loved and he knows it now. The intervening years have vanished, and they walk on, ‘absorbed in each other, hearing nothing as if they were walking in the country on a bed of dead leaves.’ Then they return to the young man’s rooms, and Mme Arnoux, sitting down, takes off her hat.
“’The lamp, placed on a console, lit up her white hair. The sight was like a blow on his chest…she watched the clock, and he continued to walk u and down, smoking. Neither could find anything to say to the other. In all separations there comes a moment when the beloved is no longer with us.’ This is all; but every page that has gone before is lit up by the tragic gleam of Mme. Arnoux’white hair….
“The illuminating incident is not only proof of the novelist’s imaginative sensibility; it is also the best means of giving presentness, immediacy, to his tale. Far more than on dialogue does the effect of immediacy depend on the apt use of the illuminating incident; and the more threads of significance are gathered up into each one, the more pages of explanatory narrative are spared to writer and reader.”
The “illuminating incident” – what a powerful concept for creating meaning in fiction – and how artfully Wharton presents it! Here, in a short but compelling discussion, she’s described a tool that beloved novelists use and then shed light on it with an illuminating example. What wonderful writing!
This whole concept of using illuminating incidents – moments when everything in a story shifts into place — and we see as readers everything in a different light is such a useful one. Consider a story that truly touched you and the scenes with special impact – what a useful exercise as we all write on!
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