Have you ever wondered why some stories are great and others just mediocre? It’s not just the way the author tells the story, her use of voice, fantastic prose or the book’s deep characterization or realist setting. All those things are important to story, and definitely add to the joy of reading. But are they what lies at the core of making your story great?
W.D. Wetherell says… “A story isn’t about a moment in time, a story is about the moment in time.”
When we craft our books it’s important to choose the right moment in our characters’ lives to create a story for our readers. We must choose the moment in time, not a moment in time, to not only to start our stories, but to begin our character and story arcs.
So what makes the moment in a story? The moment is a defining moment in the character’s life. A moment when everything is about to change for our hero or heroine. It’s the moment when life, or love, or existence as they know it will never be the same.
Let’s consider the story of Cinderella. Cinderella, in most of its forms, begins something like this:
Once upon a time… there lived a beautiful, happy young girl. Then her mother died, and her father married a widow with two daughters, and everything changed. The girl’s stepmother didn’t like her and showered her daughters with everything money could buy. But, for her stepdaughter there was nothing at all. She had to work hard all day. In the evening, when all her work was finished, she was allowed to sit for a while by the fire, near the cinders. That is how she got her nickname … Cinderella.
For Cinderella the defining moment was the death of her mother and her father’s subsequent marriage to another woman. If the story of Cinderella began with pages and pages of her happy existence with her mother and father and never went any further, would readers want to know more? True, all those things could add up to a sweet, happy story about a lovely girl who had a wonderful life. But they weren’t the defining moment around which Cinderella’s story was formed. Without the wicked step-family, a father who didn’t care about how Cinderella was treated (or who died in some versions), and all her adversity, there isn’t anything to make readers empathize with Cinderella in the same way they do when she’s a motherless girl placed under the thumb of a cruel stepmother.
So how can you find your story’s defining moment? The moment that W.D. Wetherell’s quote references?
When thinking about your story ask yourself:
- Am I starting in the place where the trouble starts? Cinderella’s trouble starts the minute mom dies. Sure she has back story. All characters do, but we only need a line or two at the story’s beginning to show our characters’ former lives.
- Are the moments that make up the story powerful enough to carry the reader through the book? For Cinderella, life might have gone along okay if dad hadn’t remarried, or if the new wife had been nice, or if she hadn’t had children. Instead, she got a double whammy with an entire wicked step-family. If your character’s defining moment problems don’t set her back on her fanny, create some that will.
- Once you have the moment, amp it up and keep the trouble coming. Create dilemmas related to the moment that will propel the story forward. It’s not bad enough that Cinderella has to work all the time. But when she gets a chance to escape for a night at the prince’s ball, she gets hit from all sides to keep her downtrodden. Her family keeps her too busy to go to the ball. She has no ball gown. When Cinderella has completed all the tasks asked of her, she still doesn’t get permission. Even when the fairy godmother comes to the rescue there are conditions, which Cinderella nearly doesn’t fulfill.
- When you think the reward for dealing with the defining moment is in your character’s hands, snatch it away before you let her really have it. The prince is in love with Cinderella, but her family denies there is another daughter in the house when he comes searching for the foot that fits the shoe. Believing them, he starts to leave without her. All seems to be lost at that moment for Cinderella.
- Finally, make the reward for all the suffering your character has had to endure fit the punishments. Cinderella spent years in the cinders, cleaning and scrubbing, and being at the beck and call of her wicked family, and then she must hide her identity from her true love, the prince. It’s only fitting that her reward is a happily-ever-after. She gets her prince and the palace and a bevy of servants to do her bidding. The only additional reward for Cinderella (or just punishment for Cinderella’s wicked family), in my opinion, would have been to banish the wicked step-mother to the Tower and make the wicked step-sisters serve as ladies maids to the queen … forever.
- But we know that Cinderella was pure of heart and would never do such a thing. Besides, those sisters would probably have been more trouble than help.
The next time you think about your story, ask yourself if it’s about a moment in time, or the moment in time that will change your character’s life forever.
What’s the defining moment in your WIP character’s life that spawned your story?