Take a Moment
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. This is one of the times when a visual medium definitely has a certain edge on the written word. A moment in a movie can hinge on a gesture, an expression, an exchange of meaningful glances without a word being spoken. A good actor can take advantage of these moments, and create a character which is memorable for the sheer ability to communicate these unspoken truths – sometimes with a single word, sometimes with absolute silence and only with a steady look, or a raised eyebrow.
In visual terms, 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 shown to the viewers as being ‘slow’, developmentally disabled. It was flawlessly done, and 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 – yes, the MOMENT – when everything changed. The boy whom we had thought of as simple-minded and disabled was sitting in a chair in one of the interrogation rooms, 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 sitting before you but instead a very cold and calculating mind capable of incredible things.
There are any number of 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 two worlds… and G’Kar, holding Londo’s eyes and in absolute silence, first lifts the glass that Londo has filled with a fine liquor as if to toast and then slowly, deliberately, pours it back into the bottle untasted. “I see,” Londo says stiffly, his own expression changing in response. And so do we. There can be no forgiveness. What lies between these two is too big a thing to simply sweep under a rug 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. It is a moment, and one to remember.
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 it is something that is utterly beyond any writer’s control.
It is not to say that the written moments are the lesser. Not by a long shot. In fact, in a lot of ways they are the more enduring because of the simple fact that you paint them with your own imagination, you set them up with your own mental scenery, you put your own face onto the characters, and your own memory takes over and etches the thing into permanence inside your mind.
But the thing is this – a book needs time, and effort, and attention. You can look at a scene on a screen and you can respond immediately, viscerally, visually, because that is the way you are wired, 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 have to read paragraphs, maybe pages, which will set up the moment which is coming. You need to get deeply enmeshed, involved, 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 for me (the scene where one of the characters defiantly screams out the forbidden and decreed-by-magic forgotten name of the country which he loves? 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). So does, yes, Lord of the Rings – the books, in my case, and not the movies, and we can have THAT discussion another time. There are too many to list here, and most people who have read the book will have their own particular favourite so I won’t show bias here.
But taking the opportunity for a personal note, perhaps – 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. 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 not the dragon-slaying knight in shining armour but is helpless when it decides to swoop and gather up that which he is sworn to protect and defend. And it breaks him. He is two very different people in the instant before this particular ‘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.
It is very cinematic, in essence – and I can pretty clearly see this scene being rendered on screen… but there is a certain power in it, there on the written page, which would just get transmuted by that filmic treatment, not improved by it. Yes, I had to work harder in print to get the epiphany across, and it would probably take far shorter to show on-screen than I took to convey it in-book. But the visual can also overwhelm – and the print makes the same intellectual and emotional impact in a more subtle way.
It would, I think, be the subject of an entire treatise about which is the superior breed of conveying that impact.
The point, however, is that writers have to invest far more into that moment in the written form – 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” in real time. 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. You might call a visual form of a story something that is distilled into a more potent form, and can convey something (via close-up, via hints in the background, via a good actor’s interpretation of the action) in a direct, almost shorthand, way. If you see something visually it is easier to interpret – you are able to ‘translate’ instantly when you see characters look at another with yearning, or disgust, or gratitude, or fear. But when you are reading a sentence that says something like, “He stared at her hungrily” or “His eyes narrowed in fury” – that’s already breaking a writerly rule. It’s a form of SHOWING, not TELLING, and the strength of a written story is that it is supposed to paint a picture with words without actually simply describing what’s there.
You might say the difference between the visual versus the written may lie in speed and clarity (the visual) versus a chance to explore depths that the visual, by the very nature of its speed, cannot help but have to give a far shorter shrift to (written) – but that isn’t really it, either. Both variants are capable of stirring their observers and touching those observers in deep places. They are different, though, in the way they do these things.
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.
Allow them to create their own moments.
Do you have a favorite moment – book or screen? What do you think is the key to their differences?