A life is made of moments.
It is stitched together from the things you remember most vividly — the peaks and the valleys, the turning points, the places where you paused, or hurried, or changed direction.
In fiction, these are the things that will linger in a reader’s mind after the story is over.
And this is when a visual medium definitely has a edge on the written word. A moment in a movie can hinge on a gesture, an exchange of meaningful glances without a word being spoken. It can be the tiniest change of expression.
In an episode of the TV show “The Mentalist”, one of the characters was a young man who was ‘slow’, developmentally disabled. The character presentation was utterly perfect – the open and trusting expression on the boy’s face, the way everyone spoke to him with an edge of pitying kindness and his apparent grateful acceptance of that attitude… right until the moment when everything changed. The boy whom we had thought of as simple-minded was sitting in a chair in an interrogation room, having his bluff called and something indescribable changed. His eyes hardened and sharpened, somehow, and you realized with an electric jolt that he had been stringing everyone along in an expert con, that this was no simpleton but instead a very cold and calculating mind capable of incredible things.
There are several such scenes shared between Londo Mollari and G’Kar in the Babylon 5 TV series. At one point, Londo offers to share a drink to a peaceful future between their once-warring worlds… and G’Kar, holding Londo’s eyes and in absolute silence, lifts the glass that Londo has filled as if to toast and then slowly, deliberately, pours it back into the bottle untasted. “I see,” Londo says stiffly. And so do we: there can be no forgiveness. What lies between these two is too big, too powerful to dismiss with a toast. We understand all of this, viscerally, through a fragment of a scene which lasts less than a minute of shared screen time.
Sometimes the entire emotional landscape of a character – frustration, hatred, love, triumph, envy, pity, sorrow, exultation, surrender, regret, fury, even a lapse into full and chaotic madness – can be distilled into a single gesture, a single glance. What you can convey in less than thirty seconds of film time… would take you a chapter of words to convey properly in a book.
This is the thing with the written word. It requires more mental engagement. A visual moment is seen, and shared, and immediately understood. A written moment needs more set-up, and develops more slowly in your head; it is probably never quite the same for any two readers of the same given scene because what is built up in each reader’s head is different and utterly beyond any writer’s control.
It is not to say that the written moments are the lesser. They can be more enduring because of the simple fact that the readers paint them with their own imagination, their own mental scenery, and etch it into permanence in their mind.
But a book needs time, and effort, and attention to do this. You can look at a scene on a screen and you can respond immediately, viscerally, because you are responding to what your senses are handing you, to what you can see and hear. But you have to give a book far more than that. You need to get deeply enmeshed, you need to reach in and wrap the words around you like so many tangled Christmas lights. A good book, one with good moments, becomes a lifelong friend and one to which you will return again and again because of that moment that it shared with you.
There are dozens of books with “moments” I remember, where the plot revolves around those moments, where the characters are built and wrapped around those moments. Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” has a lot of such moments. In one, one of the characters defiantly screams out the forbidden and decreed-by-magic forgotten name of the country which he loves. It is a hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck moment, that, and if you haven’t read that book I suggest you hie off and get yourself a copy now).
In my own latest novel, “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, there are a number of these moments. One which has been singled out by readers occurs during the segment to do with John, my young doctor, while he is on rotation in the children’s cancer ward.[singlepic id=35 w=320 h=240 float=right] In the beginning, he copes – by putting up a defense of basic professionalism, and trying to treat the kids as patients, and their syndromes as disease, and himself as The Doctor with all the answers. The ‘moment’ comes when he realizes how utterly beyond his control everything really is – and everything rearranges in his head. The patient becomes a little dying boy; the disease becomes a fire-breathing monster against which he is helpless. And it breaks him. He is two very different people in the instant before this ‘moment’ hits him, and immediately afterwards. And there is no reconciling those two people. In the blink of an eye he has crossed from one world into another and he can’t go back. He simply sees everything in a different light.
Writers have to invest far more into that moment because all they have with which to evoke that visual and sensory response from you, are the words on the page. A writer doesn’t have the luxury of showing a viewer the transformation in a character’s personality just because the viewer is watching that character’s eyes change from “good natured, slightly simple” to “cold calculating potential serial killer.” A writer has to describe this to you, the reader, and then you have to visualize it – there is an extra step in there, and you BOTH have to work harder for it, writer and reader alike.
As a writer, I am sometimes profoundly envious of the way that a movie scene of less than a minute, can convey a feeling, an attitude, that is an instant gratification – something that it would take me pages and pages to properly present and explore in a book. But also as a writer I am also grateful that the medium of the written word allows me a more enduring connection with a reader’s mind… because what I present in those pages is not so much the destination as a map and then I allow the reader to create their own destination which will color and enrich their own experience of the things that I wrote.
A writer allows readers to create their own moments.