From Writer Unboxed:
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.
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed