Moments n fiction and in life
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.
There are moments in fiction, too, in both writing and the visual arts, and they will linger in a reader’s or viewer’s mind after the story is over.
This is where a visual medium definitely has the edge. Sometimes the entire emotional landscape of a character – frustration, hatred, love, 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 few seconds of film time might take you a chapter to convey properly in a book.
In an episode of the TV series “The Mentalist” a few years ago, one of the characters was a young man who was ‘slow’. The character presentation was utterly perfect – the open and trusting expression on his face, the way everyone spoke to him with an edge of pitying kindness and his 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 when his bluff was called and something indescribable happened. 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, calculating and dangerous mind.
A visual moment is seen and immediately understood. A written moment needs more setup, and develops more slowly, it is never quite the same for any two readers 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 experience. They can be more enduring because 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 react 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 such moments in all of my novels. In “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” there is one which has been singled out by many readers. It occurs when John, my young doctor, is on rotation in the children’s cancer ward. In the beginning, he copes by treating the kids simply as patients with a disease and he is The Doctor with all the answers.
The moment comes when he realizes how utterly beyond his control it all really is – and everything instantly changes. The patient becomes a little dying boy; the disease becomes a monster against which he is helpless. And that breaks him. Before that moment he was one person, after it he was another 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.
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 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 a few seconds 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.
A fan’s gift
A fellow in England, Matthew, an “All round bookish boy”, has taken his interest in one of my novels to extraordinary lengths on Twitter and YouTube as his poster demonstrates. I’m delighted and impressed. Perhaps some of you might want to join in.