My daughter’s teacher gave her an assignment: to list ten defining moments in her life and the circumstances surrounding them.
A defining moment is one that causes a radical re-evaluation of one’s life, a fundamental shift in perspective. The person who emerges from a defining moment is not the same as the one who went into it.
The assignment asked 10 questions:
- 1. Where were you?
2. How old were you and what did you look like?
3. Who was with you? Who should have been there?
4. What made this moment significant?
5. What emotions did you experience? What changes of emotion?
6. What would you change about the moment?
7. What was your physical, emotional state?
8. If you could have spoken to someone, who would it be and what would you say?
9. What did you say to yourself?
10. What did you most need at that moment?
After working on the assignment with my daughter, it came to me later that this is good jumping-off point for fiction.
Stories aim for those defining moments. They’re similar to what James Joyce called his epiphanies, but maybe not quite the same. Or maybe they’re intersecting sets.
My story, “Call Your Mother,” contains an interesting conversation, but no defining moment. Neither character is transformed through the process. That must be a snippet of a larger story, which I don’t know how to tell yet.
On the other hand, “Walking on Jupiter” is about a defining moment. It describes how the mother re-evaluates her relationship with her daughter. It gives a glimpse of the new person the mother has become, but we can only hope that it’s not the last person the mother will be.
I thought at first that perhaps every scene in a novel must be a defining moment. I don’t think that’s true now. There should be some defining moments in the course of the novel. I haven’t thought it through yet.
But maybe every short story needs one to be truly effective. I haven’t thought that through yet either.