Making a Moment Count

Bring up the music, cue the lights, zoom in the camera – when movie directors want to make a moment bigger, they can bring a lot of tools to bear. Writers only have words, but that doesn’t mean they can’t invest a moment with similar power. Orchestrating the score is part of crafting a novel: making some moments bigger and others smaller, changing pace, holding a note, building to a crescendo, and quieting down. Making a moment count isn’t simply a question of content. Writers can also use the rich harmonics of storytelling.

1. Rhythm and Beat

Every word in a sentence has its own beat. Every sentence in a paragraph imparts rhythm. Every paragraph in a chapter, every chapter in a book. Writers hear this instinctively. The words we choose and how we order them create a kind of music. For example, when the action in your book speeds up, you want your sentences to reflect this by getting shorter and quicker. When the action slows, you want your sentences to stretch. Storytelling is at base an oral tradition. Research shows that as we read, we speak the words aloud in our head. (In the Brain, Silent Reading is the Same as Talking to Yourself.) Rhythm is an integral part of how writers coax others to listen and believe. To make a moment count, pay attention to the rhythms building up to it, and try to push them to open up and expand. But letting the pace slow doesn’t mean you have to lose tension. If it helps, think of the tension driving the scene as a note you’re sustaining in the midst of an increased complexity of sound.

2. Time and Details

Longer sentences not only slow the pace, they sink us in time. They reflect that our characters are caught in a moment and time seems to suspend. Details stand out that they wouldn’t have noticed before. Racing down a hall, your protagonist wouldn’t notice the sweat on his lover’s face, but hiding in a dark corner, dead silent, two inches away from each other, he’d notice the way a droplet pools over her lip that she doesn’t dare wipe away. In this way, a moment can enlarge even in the middle of action. A world within a world seems to blossom. In terms of music, details make me think of Mozart: all those wonderfully precise notes.

3. Depth

Depth is essential to making a moment bigger. For a moment to matter, it must hold stakes for your characters. Your readers need to know that, but this doesn’t have to be a “tell.” You can include details or images that evoke something we know about from earlier in the novel. You can use revealing gestures that give a character’s feelings away. You can add metaphor, either one that carries power on its own or that expands on a previous metaphor – preloaded with meaning. Or you can summon up a vivid memory tied to the senses or captured in a fragment of scene. In other words, to make a moment count, consider deepening to intensify, rather than increasing the action – an emphasis on the vertical as opposed to the horizontal. Let us hear the deep bassoon, the double bass.

4. Restraint

I know this may seem counter-intuitive, but restraint can be more powerful – and sympathetic – than extreme drama. Hyperbole and histrionics can turn readers off. Rather than forcing a moment to be bigger with sobbing characters or lots of pushy adjectives and adverbs, try to build your way up with strong verbs and specific nouns. If this seems difficult, don’t worry when you write your first draft, but later try removing most of the adjectives and adverbs to see what you have left and rebuild from there. The simple, strong melody at the heart of your scene is often the most moving.

More than anything else, remember to listen as you write. Listen and trust your ear.

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via a Creative Commons License.


  1. One of your very best, Ellen. One that needs to be read over and over, not for understanding, but to memorize. Loved it!!

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