The Defining Moment

Life is based on a small number of defining moments, pivotal moments that once faced can change the entire path you take.

The same can be said of stories. Plotting is about identifying what those key moments are. It’s about taking a character to the edge and making them look at their life. What will they decide? So one of those moments might be when, as I talked about a couple of weeks ago, want turns to need. Now the cause is a noble one and the character will be victorious if they change their pursuit.

See if you can identify, either in a favourite novel, short story or play, or in your own writing, those key moments. How well-defined are they?Of course the main one should the climactic one.

I remember when I first watched the movie, Sliding Doors, and I loved this because it enabled the audience to imagine the outcome of defining moments in both directions. We don’t tend to do this in our storytelling and in life maybe we sometimes revisit decisions and wonder or wish it could have gone the other way. I think we tend to do this if things don’t go as planned. But that is life, this luxury we might imagine in a story is not something we can do in real life. Anyone read Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life? She does this well; she resets the story each time to just before that moment and takes it in another direction. We see the same characters live many different scenarios. Look at Groundhog Day… that was about revisiting those moments with the aim of getting it perfect.  I have recently been working on a new short story that does ask this question and our filmmaker character sees his own life, or more so that of his friend who seemed to screw his life up, but later is telling his story on film, like as a series of moments and imagines what life might have been if the other path was taken. Since he always loved the girl his friend married it also asks questions about his own life. He sees it almost as a way of creating the perfect story and imagines a happy ending when it never quite happened like that in reality.

I like playing with concepts like this. I have written a couple of time-travel stories over the years that beg the same kinds of questions: but what if? One of my favourite novels is, in fact, Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveller’s Wife although she handles it in a different way; and Stephen King’s mammoth Kennedy novel, 11.22.63 that asks what if you change one thing, will it affect the outcome enough? In this case, it was whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin and therefore if killing him close enough to the assassination that no one else would do it, would it change history? If, on the other hand, it was all a conspiracy would this single act make any difference? Add to that a time-traveller who is a teacher, a decent upstanding citizen who has never even held a gun before, and you see how his conscience, which reflects our own, needs to know for sure he is right. Like Kate Atkinson in Life after Life, it’s the ‘Hitler moment’. If you could kill him before he does what he does, would you?

I absolutely love concepts like these because I think they tap right into the heart of who we are and what we want and what if?

Any others you can think of?

Stephen King




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