Most storytellers know about the big moments are are expected by readers. The climax. The black moment. The inciting incident. And, if you write in a genre, you know about common tropes and how, say, a romance writer looks forward to the “meet cute” and the “first kiss” (or its equivalent).
For those who plot, these moments are mapped out early on. And that makes perfect sense. Why write a story where you’ll grasp for a big moment and come up short? (Unless, of course, you are a daredevil pantser.) Articles, chapters, and whole books may be dedicated to taking on big moments, but smaller moments are often what sticks in a reader’s memory. So, with this post, I’ll review a few worth keeping in mind.
The Crack - What happens when a noble character makes a compromise? Apparently for the greater good, but really for a selfish reason? A high school student neglects a lifelong friend when there’s a spot open in the popular crowd. A banker makes an unsupported loan to someone who may be able to provide a personal favor later on. A boss hires the cuter, less qualified person for the job.
The character may have a great rationalization, but this moment sets up a shift in values that won’t end well. A careful reader notices such a moment and becomes intrigued — as long as the writer gives this small moment the same attention as a big one.
The Soft Heart - I love it when villains have moments of empathy. They step away from cardboard outlines, become more real, and grab my psyche with an unanswered “what if?”
The Revelation - “[Luke,] I am your father.” That one can’t be missed. (Just misquoted.) But lots of seemingly smaller revelations can become memorable. In Gone With the Wind, the conversation between Scarlett and her father is indelible for me. “That’s it. We must ask Mrs. O’Hara.” At that point, she knows he’s gone mad and will be no help to her.
Feet of Clay - Atticus Finch, unsullied hero, right? But if he were perfect, To Kill a Mockingbird would not have a story. He does not take proper care of his children, and this is clear when he goes to tell the bad news to Tom’s widow. He brings his son Jem along, and the boy is terrified by a drunk, homicidal Mr. Ewell. Maybe Atticus isn’t the perfect single parent. Maybe that’s why both his kids are put in mortal danger later on.
These are just a few small moments the best writers use to deepen stories and make them unforgettable. You can find your own by listings stories you love and thinking about the scenes that have become important to you — as reference points for your life, as ones you look forward to re-experiencing, or as ones you tell others about (often word-for-word). It’s worthwhile looking to see why they are vivid. How stakes rise in those scenes. How the actions and decisions and shifts in perspective bring characters to life.
With close inspection, you can appreciate them more and discover new ways to make your own work more memorable.