We read stories for experiences. Some pieces of fiction deliver through an accumulation of images and dramatic action. But, occasionally, there are moments that connect with us. Hallmark used to do (and maybe still does) advertising that touched heartstrings by creating what seemed to be authentic moments in very brief commercials.
These could prompt genuine memories, similar experiences, and, when done most effectively, deep empathy for what we all, as humans, goes through. I actively work to achieve this in my writing – often in nonfiction as well as fiction. So, first let me define what I call a "moment." Then I'll discuss some ways such moments might be created. Finally, I'll talk about some things to consider when using moments in your work.
Moment — a brief, authentic, crystallized experience conveyed to others in a work of art.
A moment may occur in other than prose works. In fact, I was inspired to write this piece after having read a poem by a friend that brought back an experience I had in a museum. And I strongly suspect that the van Gogh featured was a moment captured and shared by the artist — one which touched both me and my poet friend. Music often conveys moments in its own way (and I think it can do so by prompting memories, even when the intention of the composer and the work's artistry is questionable). Photographs, scenes in movies, and an expressive sequence in dance — any of these can create moments for us.
By authentic, I don't mean factual. Art often tells the truth by re-composing, recontextualizing, adding to, or taking away from real experiences. Oh, and sometimes artists just make things up.
So, as a storyteller, how do you create moments?
Memories – There's a lot of power to drawing on your own experiences, the ones that really matter to you. The ones that provided insights and shaped you or that are connected to turning points, changing the direction of your life. These memories, I suspect, are just below the surface for much of our lives. One of the great things about being a writer is having a great reason to note them when they pop to the surface.
One caution about using memories is the challenge of taking a fresh experience and turning it into art. When the memories haven't had a chance to age, it's difficult to tell which elements matter and can be communicated to others.
Listening — As characters become more fully alive, they are more likely to transform scenes into moments. For me, this happens when I let the story deviate from the outline. When a character does something unexpected, it seems like it's often a challenge I don't want him or her to face (or that I don't want to face). I get pulled into the moment, but only if I allow that to happen. I have to cede some control, and I always have reasons not to.
Listening to characters comes up more easily and naturally for me during rewriting. This might be a jump away from the established plot, but it's more likely to be experiencing a deeper connection with a scene that is too sparse. When I come across a scene that is important and I don't feel fully immersed in it, that's an indicator. I need to slow down. I need to let the character live in that moment — which often creates a fiction moment that is organic and highly effective.
Art — Just as my friend created a poetic moment from van Gogh's painting, stories can be enhanced by referring to the works of others. This doesn't have to be so explicit it mentions the work you experienced. In fact, usually, capturing the response itself within a different context works best. Think of how sense memory works in acting. The point there is not to bring your memories to the audience, but to bring your authentic response to the experience of playwright's work evokes.
One way I actively work to improve scenes is to look for inspiration in the works of other writers. I have a catalog in my head of emotional moments in short stories and novels. When I want to create a similar moments in my stories, I read and analyze one of these reference scenes. I don't reproduce them directly. I worked to understand what the writer did. (Often, I'll look at three or four references when creating a moment that is important or difficult.) Once I see what the possibilities are, I can use my own approaches more effectively.
The main warning I have on creating moments is to make sure they serve the story. It's tempting to put in a moment that is powerful, but belongs in a different story. It's easy to give the character a moment that isn't right for him or for her. And there are moments that can disrupt the balance and the flow of the story. It's extremely difficult to cut a well realized moment, but if it doesn't fit, it needs to go.
Creating the right moments for your story may not be easy or feel natural. For me, it often requires a deliberate effort. And things don't always work out, even after I've invested time and imagination. Still, I resist the temptation to abandon my attempts to include moments in my stories. Why? Much of the delight I take from reading stories comes from the moments other writers have included. If they can take the trouble to do that, so can I.