Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Defining Moment

defining moment--a point in a story where one or more characters becomes committed to a course of action that will bully those characters and the story arc they carry to a conclusion; a tipping point resulting in accelerated story inertia; a dramatic point of no return where one or more characters can no longer resist the conditions and forces that set the story in motion.

A story may have more than one defining moment. Romeo and Juliet has at least two, the scene in which the two first meet and the sleep-potion-taking scene. The former is truly defining; thirty-six hours later, both characters are dead. Had they not met and been attracted, both may well have had greater life expectancy. The latter is a device as defining moment, its consequences causing one of the two partners to believe the other dead. Many action-driven narratives, notably Westerns, force a character into the corner of having to take sides in an argument. ("You're either with us or against us.") In the memorable "I coulda been a contender" scene from On the Waterfront, one brother, Terry, realizes his brother, Charlie, was the architect of his being "a punch-drunk palooka" instead of a serious contender for success as a prize fighter. Terry's awareness becomes a defining moment when Charlie, charged with insuring that Terry does not testify against the longshoreman's union before a Congressional committee, becomes overwhelmed by guilt and remorse to the point of not being able to carry out his assignment, a dereliction that leads directly to his death.

Defining moments may come at any point in the narrative. They may be such innocent presences as an anniversary or birth date, the more accelerated trope of a ticking clock, or the rising tension of a deadline come due. When they appear, their effect on the reader will be of an enormous boulder, poised on the lip of an escarpment, ready to roll, then slowly tumbling forth. Their effects on characters will be to enhance, modify, speed up, or in some other manner effect their behavior.

Can a story exist without a single defining moment? Any "No" spoken in reference to fiction is just as likely to provoke from some writer a dramatic riposte which in itself is a defining moment, thus the best answer to the question is "Probably not," with this reminder hovering: A close examination of the more oblique modern stories, vignettes, and sketches will reveal the artifacts of defining moments. Even Chekhov, likely candidate for fatherhood of the modern short story, for all he discarded the moral finality of his narratives, will reveal defining moments (see "The Lady with the Dog.")

As a practical matter for the writer, defining moments may be regarded as platforms for the necessary presence of evoked emotions. An effective defining moment or set of them will have the effect no writer can find fault with--characters and situations who remain in memory long after the story has been read.

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