According to Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse), writers should “fall in love with moments, not moves.” Moves are easy enough to identify. They are the big plot points, often involving actions that propel the story forward. Or payoffs for high concepts. Moves are more subtle. Again from Whedon “some extremely relatable thing that everyone has gone through… that’s your moment.” (Both quotes from Showrunners by Tara Bennett.)
When I read this, I think I immediately connected it to my blog series on Pivotal Scenes, probably because away from this blog I had used those questions to mine personal moments in my own life. All of these present a high bar for emotional content, and many make me feel vulnerable. And I think the moments in movies that deal authentically with breakups and realizing a power or a flaw and terrible dangers or losses and wonder all live just beneath the story moments Whedon wants to protect, to hold onto with both hands.
I think it also links to dealing honestly with the deep themes of your stories. Stand by Me (adapted from Stephen King’s The Body) takes an unflinching look at how our real identities fit in with our social identities. Gordie can never be his brother, but he doesn’t have to live the disappointment of his parents and the neighbors. Chris does not have to be a no-good Chambers boy like the others in his family. He is allowed to open his heart and use his mind.
Both King’s characters share moments of pain that feel real and daring. Neither of them can voice their greatest betrayals (Gordie’s being emotionally abandoned by his parents, Chris’s being used by a teacher he trusts). I have to believe King found moments like these in his own heart.
That’s the job. Not the whole job. Stories need the big events and the structure and everything that creates contexts for moments. But finding these moments in your own heart, and having the courage to write them, is how moment that matter end up in your own stories.
How do you find moments?
The muse offers them from time to time. When you show up often enough to tell stories, you’ll hear a whisper. And the trick will be to capture what you hear without making it save (or making yourself safe). A poorly formed moment can be fixed in a rewrite. One that is reshaped by the editor in your head before it is fully captured is likely to have its value carved out and disposed of before it hits the paper.
A diary or journal entry, cooled by time, may provide the kernel of a moment. Its truth can inspire. The wisdom of experience can reveal its essence. And the right character in the right story can allow its full expression. The same can be true for old memories that come rushing back. Sometimes they may be prompted by a smell or an evocative image or pattern. Often, for me, they come back when I’m trying to explain something or provide an example that clarifies a problem or opportunity. This can be an explanation for myself, but it is more likely to be for someone else. The one constant with these memories that become moments is that they come back to me meaning something different and new in some important way. They arrive with insights.
Moments are also prompted by articulating and exploring themes in works I’ve drafted. Getting a handle on what a story is about leads to realizations, discoveries of possibilities within the work so far, and illumination of wrong turns that can be righted. Looking more closely and making fixes, especially over time, leads me to moments. Often, I wake up with them after having put in a lot of work the day before. And, once again, I have to have the courage to welcome them. It’s very easy to cheat or dismiss moments. Because it feels more reasonable. And safer.
At this point, personalizing answers to the questions from my pivotal scenes post has been the biggest recent source for me of moments. There is no How to Write Fast post that I’ve returned to more often. I’m not sure how long my luck will hold, but that particular slot machine keeps paying off. I’m not putting quarters in. Its currency is blood and tears most of the time. Laughter, joy, and wonder can also makes those cylinders come up jackpot, but that currency is harder for me to come by.