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When Everything Changes – Capturing Profound Character Moments


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A few weeks ago, coinciding with the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic, several newspapers published accounts on the early days of the crisis as drawn from the lives of everyday Americans. Essentially the reports were a contemporary take on a person-on-the-street story focused on a singular question – What was the moment you realized your world had changed as a result of Covid-19?

I approached the articles with a tinge of curiosity and, not surprisingly, with a writer’s eye. I knew my own experience, of course. In the months since, I have recounted to friends the surreal visit to see my Mom in Florida, which happened to coincide with the week everything began to shut down, including ultimately her assisted living facility. I recall feeling lucky to be in her company during those last days of seeming normalcy, even while waking to the fact that we had no idea when it might be safe to return. Only later did my partner and I acknowledge our shared yet unspoken fear at the time, that perhaps we had already been exposed and might have unknowingly brought illness with us (fortunately we had not). Saying our goodbyes was especially hard, one of those times you see the fragility of life, deeply and starkly.

Reading the recent articles reawakened those feelings. The anecdotes recounted were often simple – an exhausted nurse sitting in her car, knowing the long shift she had just completed was merely a precursor of what was to come; a worried parent in their new “remote office,” fretting over how they could possibly manage their children’s online schooling when they could barely master a Zoom meeting; a grocery clerk receiving a mask and safety briefing from their store manager for the first time. But the emotions they shared were complex and compelling, genuine expressions of the anxiety we all felt to one degree or another this past year.

All of which has left me pondering how moments of profound change for characters are captured in stories. When do those scenes work, elevating the narrative? And perhaps just as important, what causes them sometimes to fall short? Admittedly I have only begun to scratch the surface of what could be a lengthy course of study. But I have a few opening thoughts, which may stir your own instincts. So, let’s dive right in, shall we?

Stories Need Pivotal Moments 

It may seem an obvious point, but a good entry to understanding what makes a scene of profound change work is acknowledging the need for such scenes from the start. As Lisa Cron explains in her amazing book of craft Wired for Story, humans are drawn to stories because our evolution as a species springs from our ability to imagine a future and then to build it. Stories provide a means to explore possibilities and to learn from mistakes without actually having to make them in real life. In short, stories teach us how to change, how to grow.

For this reason, when we pick up a book or sit down to watch a production, we engage the parts of our brain that hunger for stories. From the first page or opening scene we begin to gather information, seeking clues and patterns, trying to understand motives of the characters. If given good reason (i.e., a worthy hook), we quickly bond with the protagonist, slipping into their lives and adopting their problems as our own, at least mentally.

But to keep us engaged, we need moments when the protagonist, faulted though they may be, takes stock of their situation. Or, if not the reflective sort, the protagonist must at times be forced to face an ugly reality they’d much rather ignore. For as the journey hardens, lessons from those moments will prove key to unlocking the true objective in ways the protagonist of page one might not even be able to fathom.

If your work in progress appears to lack such moments, or the opportunities for them, you may well need to revisit your premise. Perhaps you have been holding back on the underlying emotional journey of your protagonist, or perhaps you need to dig a bit deeper into that aspect. A good story, as we all know, is more than a sum of its plot points. It has to provide an emotional journey in order to fully engage the reader.

Subtlety and Surprise

If you have fleshed out a complete emotional arc for your protagonist, what next? How do you handle those plot points when the bottom falls out, or when a friend or foe turns the mirror upon the protagonist, forcing a reckoning?

In my experience, scenes of character discovery are more successful if they build slowly. Conflicts telegraphed chapters in advance can quickly grow tedious and often disappoint when they ultimately arrive. Offer only hints if a character is heading for a breakdown. As with our own lives, your characters won’t know their breaking point until they are in it, and in it deep. In retrospect, one of the most satisfying scenes for me from my first novel was when the mother of my protagonist shatters a family heirloom following a tense Thanksgiving dinner. She quickly convinces herself the act was an accident, as it was so seemingly out of character. Yet it was genuine frustration that had been building since her first appearance in the story, a buckling beneath the weight she carried not only for my deeply troubled protagonist but for her entire family. The moment was far from the end of her arc. But it represented a clear turning point, a recognition that things simply couldn’t continue the way they had been.

That is the type of surprise that sticks with a reader. Literary agency president Donald Maass speaks to this type of reveal, when a character acts outside their nature, in his breakout novel lectures and publications. Moments of discovery for your characters can also prove enlightening to readers, expanding their understanding of the forces at play, externally and internally, and raising the stakes of the story.

Draw Deep from within the Character

I used the word “capturing” in the post title rather than “crafting” on purpose, for moments of profound change or discovery for your characters are most compelling when firmly rooted in the experiences you have given them. It is important to have faith in the lives you give them, to the point that you can stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes in scenes of deepest emotion. In the example cited above, the breaking point for my character – Elisabeth – was the realization that time was slipping away to heal her damaged family and knowing that if she failed she might find herself alone, with neither sons nor husband left to comfort her.

Her experience was a million miles from mine, yet I did know her. By the time I drafted this particularly scene, I had spent hours upon hours imagining her life, her childhood, and the many years of her marriage. I had felt the loss of her parents, her pride in her sons, and her complicated relationship with a husband she loved deeply. I knew it was vital for this particular scene that it not become a caricature of what it “might” feel like for a woman in her position. And I knew the only hope I had at avoiding that outcome was to allow myself to embody her and allow the words to come from those feelings.

Of course, as writers we can never know for certain if we have succeeded in conveying our intentions to readers. But I do know that upon revisiting the chapter some years later, I was struck at how true it still felt. The words really didn’t seem like my voice, though I know that I wrote them. If I could achieve that sense in every chapter I craft, I would be a very satisfied writer indeed.

The bottom line is this – Trust your instincts when it comes to the moments that matter most for your characters … and trust your characters as well.

Those are my observations, and ideas that have worked for me. How do you approach profound moments in your stories? Do you ever find yourself writing from within your characters? Or do you find it better to maintain a perspective from the outside? Do you have other suggestions for approaching the turning points, or breaking points, your characters experience? Please share. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

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About John J Kelley

John J Kelley crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow, about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.

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