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Writing Elusive Inner Moments


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Some of the most important moments in our lives could not have been captured on video.  They happened inside.  Those moments define us even more, perhaps, than life’s observable milestones: graduations, marriages, births, trophies, moving, funerals.

I’m talking about the moments that define who we are and whom we are becoming: realizations, revelations, decisions, turning points.  When we relish our triumphs or recognize our follies we, for a moment, pin ourselves to a cork board.  When for a split second we see ourselves objectively, as others must, our experience of our own being is stone solid.  We know at those moments exactly who we are.

When we affirm a conviction we become even more ourselves.  On the other hand, when we change our minds we become someone different.  The self is not static.  It’s dynamic, meaning changing.  Our inner shifts are steps in an journey without end: our search for meaning and purpose, our quest for ourselves.

Call it the human condition but whatever it is, we humans feel a strong need to capture, mark and name those critical moments in our experience.  We journal.  We think in questions and expect that there will be answers.  We hunt for words to express that for which there are no precise terms.

Moments of profound self-awareness are different for everyone, too.  That is as true for fictional characters as it is for our corporal selves.  To bring a character alive on the page, then, requires finding words to capture immaterial inner states.  When something big happens wholly inside, how do you get that across?

Approaches to the Invisible and Inchoate

Despite the difficulty, writers have for centuries found ways to pin down the wispy fog of self-realization.  That is especially evident when an effective story brings a character to what is often called the mirror moment, middle moment or dark moment.  It is not exactly the moment of all-is-lost—that’s a step late in a plot—but rather the time when a character is sunk in despair, hollow inside, lost in the dark with no lantern or map.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (2014) is a dreamy, magical novel set in a nowhere place in a nowhere time (although there are lightbulbs).  Denfeld’s protagonist is known only as “the lady”, who investigates prisoners on death row.  As the novel opens the lady visits a prisoner called York, who wants to die.  Finding the lady kind and non-judgmental, York opens up to her:

York talks and talks until his words sound like poetry even to him.  He tells her why he has volunteered to die.  “It isn’t just that it is torture,” he says, “being locked in a cage.  It’s never being allowed to touch anyone or go outside or breathe fresh air.  I’d like to feel the sun again just once.”

Her eyes show a sudden distance.  What he said is true, but it isn’t true enough.

“Okay.  I’m tired of being meaningless,” he admits.  “I’m done, okay?”

He talks about the confused mess inside of him.  He says everyone thinks sociopaths are super-smart criminals, but he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does.  Except there is like a switch in him, and when the switch flips, he cannot stop.

“If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says.  “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense.  But it doesn’t.  It never does.”

The lady nods.  She understands.

With each secret that he tells her, her eyes get darker and more satisfied…The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious.  Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marveling at all the beauty and pain in the world.

A couple of things to note about York’s moment of bleak despair: First, it doesn’t come in the middle.  It’s only a few pages into the novel.  Second, he is given a mirror into which to look, which is the lady.  Third, what he sees in that mirror isn’t what’s squatting inside him, it’s what isn’t there.  No meaning.  No sense.  He doesn’t understand why he has killed.

The lady in Denfeld’s novel is, like the author, a death penalty investigator.  The lady delves into York’s life and, naturally, her own.  Over the course of the novel, the lady comes to understand York, learns the horror inflicted on him and his mother, and discovers meaning in what, for him, is his meaninglessness.

The mirror moment, in Denfeld’s novel serves as motivation.  The lady seeks to fill an empty void.  There is in that opening darkness a sense that there has to be light around somewhere, somehow.  The very fact that early on York can express his hopelessness—that he is conscious of his condition—allows us to hope that the lady can succeed.

Thus, the “dark” moment is not only about darkness but about knowing that there is nevertheless light, even if that light isn’t present right now.  A lost character isn’t completely lost, it’s just that such a character just doesn’t yet see a path forward and maybe despairs of ever finding one.  But knowing what should be there is, in a way, an affirmation that what’s lacking nevertheless is able to be found.

Empty isn’t empty, then, it’s rather just the feeling that comes with waiting—waiting when you don’t even know what you’re waiting for.

Another approach to the dark moment can be through analogy.  Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel Missing Person (1978—translated Daniel Weissbort) is a detective-with-lost-memory novel about Guy Roland, who lost his past during the war.  He doesn’t know why.  Having inherited a detective agency from his retired boss, Hutte, Guy follows the few slender and ambiguous clues to his identity in the agency’s files.

At a certain point, for Guy, the contradictory hints about who he might be becomes overwhelming.  Maybe the truth about himself will never be known.  For some people, it never is:

Strange people.  The kind that leave the merest blur behind them, soon vanished.  Hutte and I often used to talk about these traceless beings.  They spring up out of nothing one fine day and return there, having sparked little.  Beauty queens.  Gigolos.  Butterflies.  Most of them, even when alive, had no more substance than steam which will never condense.  Hutte, for instance, used to quote the case of a fellow he called “the beach man.”  This man had spend forty years of his life on beaches or by the sides of swimming pools, chatting pleasantly with summer visitors and rich idlers.  He is to be seen, in his bathing costume, in the corners and backgrounds of thousands of holiday snaps, among groups of happy people, but no one knew his name and why he was there.  And no one noticed when one day he vanished from the photographs.  I did not dare tell Hutte, but I felt that “the beach man” was myself.  Though it would not have surprised him if I had confessed it.  Hutte was always saying that, in the end, we were all beach men” and that “the sand”—I am quoting his own words”—keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.”

Modiano finds in the analogy of “the beach man” an apt expression of how his protagonist Guy Roland feels.  A man is present—the evidence is there in holiday photos—but is unknown.  He’s real but at the same time it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  If you’ve ever looked at old family photos, say of a wedding, and wondered who is that?—and who hasn’t wondered such a thing—then you have briefly felt the bewilderment of Modiano’s existential hero.

Writers of the pulp noir period were especially good at using atmosphere to evoke alienation, emptiness and despair.  Their method was to conjure a dread state by suggestion.  Everything in the environment points to the inner feeling but the inner feeling itself isn’t named.  In a black-and-white world full of silhouettes and shadows, we sense what’s there but not fully seen.  We feel bleak because, heck, the place we’re in is bleak.

Montreal writer John Buell used this approach in his debut novel of horror The Pyx (1959).  (There’s a gloomy and malign aspect to Montreal, I fear, witness also the work of Mavis Gallant, Emily St. John Mandel and songwriter Leonard Cohen.)  Buell’s novel alternates between present and past as a detective, Henderson, investigates the death of a call girl, Elizabeth Lucy, who fell from a high roof.  In her hands were a crucifix and a small metal pyx, the receptacle for the Communion host.

Elizabeth Lucy’s part of the novel opens near dawn as she separates from a group of men with whom she and other hired girls have spent the night partying.  Elizabeth is restless, despondent.  She isn’t ready to return to her madame’s house so instead wanders on foot:

Elizabeth Lucy felt free for the moment; their leaving early gave her a little time, and just being rid of them was good.  But a sense of unreality soured whatever joy she could have felt. She decided to walk a few blocks; and as soon as she started, she realized she was very tired.  The morning air was cool, and the sun had risen just enough to light up things in a grey rain-like color.  That early in the morning, the derelicts look for things in the streets, walking, to avoid the active attention of the police; a few cabs ride about; workmen sit on buses with lunch pails, even on that morning which was Sunday.  The men she passed looked at her; it was always more than a passing glance.  She hardly noticed them, nothing seemed worth noticing.  She felt, not cut off, but far away from what was around her; the street was just a street, the sun was just happening, the people existed like a radio you’d forgotten was on, and her walking was motion that she wanted to stop soon.

I am really happy that I am not a call girl walking to her car early on a Sunday morning, aren’t you?  Buell uses the “grey rain-like color” of the morning and the empty words “thing” and “streets” and “men” to suggest the emptiness inside Elizabeth Lucy.  It’s important to capture, early on, her psychological state in order to make plausible, later, the risky assignment she takes that leads to her death.  She doesn’t care about herself.

Buell doesn’t write that, though.  He suggests it.  We know his tragic victim’s inner state because the whole world around her reflects and amplifies it.

The Methods of Something from Nothing

To summarize, here are three possible approaches to capturing an inner state that may be important to convey yet at the same time elusive, complex or impossible to name:

  • Establish the inner state by writing not about what it is, but about what it isn’t.
  • Conjure the inner state by analogy.
  • Imply the inner state through selective details (atmosphere) and paralell language.

There are many inner moments, not just the middle one, that can be brought alive with such techniques.  Try also capturing, for your protagonist, moments such as these.

  • I know that I must do this. 
  • I am such an idiot. 
  • People like me don’t deserve chances like this.
  • Oh crap, I’m in love.
  • So-and-so isn’t worth the trouble.
  • How could I not have known?
  • She’s gone—for good.
  • Screw the “right way”…where has that gotten us? 
  • It’s all my fault.
  • I’m not who I was.
  • I can’t bear the cost…but I must.
  • Damn it, one last try!

I’m sure you can find in your WIP defining inner moments of your own.  It’s important to nail those.  They are a measure of progress as important as plot.  They are steps in an arc of change but, more importantly, they are also steps in the universal human journey.

What’s a wholly inner moment in your WIP, and how are you handling it?

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

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