The Little Moments
There is a running joke in the writing community: write down that idea before it's gone. A single moment of inspiration can be something so powerful, yet so fleeting.
I totally get it. I was driving off to work an overnight shift, turning around on the dead-end street we live on to see kids chasing fireflies. Suddenly a story idea lit up brighter than the butts of the bugs those kids were hunting. What do I do? Just stop in the middle of the street and get my notes app out?
It's odd how one tiny moment can mean so much. The ideas that something so simple and innocuous can lead to are pretty incredible. Life is full of those little moments. In fact, I would argue that life is a long string of those moments where we can choose which way the road goes from there. The most important ones can so easily fly under the radar.
Writing a believable story sometimes requires me to sit back and try to understand what is the cause and effect for the choices the characters make. We love our big epic stories, don't we? I mean I write about Lord of the Rings almost every week so am a part of that. Real life, most of the time, isn't defined by Helm's Deep or the slaying of Smaug. Sometimes it is defined by half realizing you picked up something metal that turned out to be, you know, the most powerful ring ever. It's the tiny instant that changes everything.
Time for me to get mushy to explain.
I worked in Whittier, California, as a retail manager. It was something necessary coming off a few, uh, let's say (ironically) mismanaged years of my life. I vividly remember my boss going over the closing crew I was in charge of. I transferred in, so I needed to get to know everyone. One person was missing. She was probably late, now that I think about it, but my boss told me, don't worry, you will love Jamie.
Cut to a little time later, Jamie was asking me to hang out and go get milkshakes like it was the 50's. At that moment I knew damn good and well that I shouldn't because I was the supervisor and she was the associate, and I should follow the rules I guess. If milkshakes could be the stuff of destiny, then I suppose that's exactly what they were. Now that I'm married to Jamie, I'm pretty glad I said yes to them. One tiny moment forever changing both of our lives.
Of course, that wasn't the only small second where a choice or action made all the difference. That's life. Where would I be if all those little moments went in different directions or never happened at all? So in life as in storytelling.
Characters in a story should have those little moments too. It's highlighting a split second because we all know that in our own lives those little things, even if it's in hindsight, can mean so much. Because it is never about those actual moments, is it? There's something that leads up to it, or something that comes after, something that makes it special. Those milkshakes could have been just that, milkshakes. But they were so much more looking back. I knew then too. They were something special.
A character needs to feel that too. It makes them feel more real. The ability to realize when something significant happens makes the world immersive. I talked about the difficulty of making a character feel like they had a life off the page. The little moment can make those lives pop, and suddenly, the world is a little more tangible.
It can make a story all lead up to a little moment. After the rising tensions and climax play out, if done right, there doesn't need to be some sweeping resolution that takes entire chapters. It can just be one simple shot. It's the family sitting down to dinner after connecting again. It's the friends inviting the character over after he thought he ruined everything with them.
After the stress of dating long distance for a year, moving to Tennessee, taking the chance to find something real, Jamie and I got engaged. A big moment. The highs and lows of figuring out how to live out here, what to do, how to incorporate our creative lives all blend into the story. There's wedding planning and traveling, friends and families, expectations, disappointment, elation, and complete contentment.
Then we get back to our home after getting married, and life returns. We have friends over for dinner, and everyone sits around a meal to enjoy a night of food and cheer. I looked at the full table of laughter and shared memories. And suddenly I was in it. The little moment where time stopped. There was a time I felt pretty alone two thousand miles away from California. Friends I still miss spending more time with. A familiarity that was lost in the chance I took here.
Moving here wasn't selfless though. Now Jamie is my wife, after a lot of terrible decisions before she came along. A lot of hurt and pain that seems like another lifetime now. All because she came into my life in one little moment. Now with friends I never would have had, eating a table I would never have seen, in a house where kids chase fireflies out front. It was a little moment with so much behind it. A little moment with home behind it.
I better write that down.