Last Saturday, my boyfriend and I went to a wedding. During the ceremony, a little girl, maybe three years old, sitting directly behind us repeatedly asked her accompanying adult a very pointed question. “Are they married now?” the girl kept wanting to know. “Are they married now?” She was obsessed with the exact moment when the couple standing up in front of everyone moved from being not-married to married. The exact instant. When does it take place, the momentous change in these two people’s lives?
Okay, so I’m projecting a bit here. Those were probably not the tiny child’s exact thoughts. More likely, she was asking because she was anxious for the boring, sitting still part of the wedding to be over so she could get on with the more fun dancing and cake-eating parts. But her inquiry got me thinking about the significance of big moments. Life can change in an instant, as the saying goes. But in what instant, exactly, does the change occur? It is the instant a man puts a ring on his fiancé’s finger? The second a snowplow crashed into the driver’s side of a car? The moment the boss tells his employee she’s fired? Or does the moment of change associated with these events actually take place days/weeks/months/years before or after them? i.e. the afternoon the future bride decided she loved her boyfriend, the minute the snowplow driver dozed off, the day the fired employee decided to go to grad school to postpone getting another shitty job.
The thing is, I have a sneaking suspicion that people don’t actually change much at all in big moments. Big moments, in their bigness, actually deflect change. We are so busy just trying to get through them, be they something as exciting as a wedding, or terrifying as a car crash, that they defy the kind of reflection necessary for change. They are just big loud things that happen. Change as a result of them, or leading up to them, comes elsewhere, often at unexpected times.
This is something interesting to consider in fiction writing. Change is driving force in almost any work of fiction; in fact, it’s usually what’s at the center of the story, what the action is pushing the characters toward. Readers want to see characters change (or conspicuously fail to change). And so the challenge to the writer is how to get them there.
A big, pivotal, climactic scene of action is often tempting. The orgy! The earthquake! The drug bust! The execution by firing squad! It gives a story a clear raison d’etre – after this happens, everything will be different in the characters’ lives. But as a writer, I’ve always found myself drawn toward constructing quieter stories. My fiction has an embarrassing lack of death, explosions, and car cashes. Sometimes there’s sex, but it’s usually not that exciting of sex. Instead, my characters move through their day-to-day lives, disrupted only by something that seems minor, or simply odd, but then grows larger, scratching at them in ways that force change or revelation (or so I hope…doesn’t always work).
I hadn’t previously thought much about why this is. Why do I shy away from the big moments in favor of smaller, everyday stuff? I want to give myself credit and say it’s because this is how life actually works, right? Nobody falls in love at the altar. So what can writing the wedding scene into a story really tell me about my characters? Best to leave it out. Look someplace else for the pivotal instant of change instead.
And yet, there’s still the undeniable appeal of the big moment.
Eventually, the little girl sitting behind us got her affirmative answer. Somewhere around the I-do’s and the kiss, she asked again, “Are they married now?” and her adult said, “Yes.” A minute or two later, the girl announced, in a self-satisfied voice, “I saw them get married.”
We all always want that pay off . We want to see everything come together, or fall apart, in some huge, spectacular way. We want to be there when it happens. This is case in real life and in fiction. So why deny readers the pleasure?
It is more than possible to have big, huge, roaring climactic action in a story, as well as smaller, stickier, reflective moments where real change takes place. It doesn’t have to be all one or the other. There are plenty of writers out there who do both really well. Alice Munro seems like a nice example. She’s totally willing to kill off characters in horribly graphic ways, and she’s also willing to let them write letters and go for Sunday drives and live out years and years where nothing traumatic, or ever all that out of the ordinary, happens.
So then, I wonder if there’s a different reason I shy away from big moment in my fiction. Not because I think they are inconsequential to what really matters in a story. More likely, I’m just afraid to write big moments because, as in real life, they feel like there’s way too much at stake. Think about a wedding. I always hear people say they want their special day to be perfect. Who wouldn’t? But that puts a lot of pressure on the event. No one ever says they want Tuesday to be perfect. In stories, maybe I worry too much about not being able to get the big moment just right. Safer to write instead about Tuesday, where there are few expectations.
I’m interested to know where other writers fall on the issue of big moments. Do you always include them in your stories? Do you consider them a necessity? Or do you shy away from them? Why?