A Lesson from Maass
Moments in Time
Immersing ourselves in another world is one of the pleasures of reading a well-written novel. How can you capture the world of the story and the lives of its characters in just the right way? It's a matter of selecting individual moments to freeze for the reader.
One author uses the details at hand along with the drunken rush of kissing imagery to suggest a moment suspended in time. She does not describe emotions, be evokes them by saying what they are not: not loneliness, not sorrow, not worrying, not anger, not missing the departed. Kissing is the opposite of that. We see exactly what she means. This frozen moment is warm because it captures the out-of-time feeling of kissing.
An extremely fine distinction between one place and another is drawn by another author. He describes one area where people "owned" and another where people "rented". He does not even need to define what they owned or rented. We know. Why does the author even bother to delineate the difference between the two places? Because it becomes a difference in attitudes. The difference between justice as a badge and justice as a baseball bat.
Another author uses a brief pause in a train journey during wartime Poland and provides a piece of incidental detail to freeze a unique moment. It is only a few days into the occupation of Poland by the Nazis, yet already the people have begun to adjust to the new reality. They are newly flexible. Their experience has not yet hardened with long oppression. They are defeated, yet it is the early days. The author further evokes the atmosphere as the character stops for a coffee on a cafe terrace. It is the ordinariness of the autumn day that is described, but it is the unordinariness of the situation that is evoked. Before rationing, before restrictions in one's occupation, before the walling off of the ghetto, before the deportations to the concentration camps. The author gives us a snapshot of the minute, the mood, the public shrug of acceptance, the remoteness of far-off politics, the sunny stillness in the cafes and plazas.
Another author gives us a moment of American social history and relates it to what is happening to a character during one childhood summer. It goes to show that elegant prose isn't the key to success. A great story is, and capturing a story's social context is one way to give it a sense of resonance. Ripples that spread outward and lend a story a sense of larger significance.
Whether it is suspending a single moment and isolating its emotional details from all other moments, or whether it is capturing the shifts in the public mood from one week to the next, or whether it is picking up the social nuances that make one place different from the place next door to it, freezing a moment in time is a highly effective way to heighten the reality of the story. How do you delineate these in your current manuscript? Can you identify six passages in which you go beyond simple scene setting to capture the flavor of a moment in time, the feeling of an historical era of the uniqueness of a place like no other? If not, is there any reason not to put that stuff in?
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