Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing the Magic Moment

The first time the Magic Moment became clear to me wasn't a book: it was an opera. Les Miserables, in the original Sydney production, which was very closely based on the original London production. Since a Magic Moment is a lot easier to describe by example than definition (it tends to be one of those "you know it when you see it" things), allow me to describe it as it occurred.

This was quite early in the Sydney season, so most of the audience were seeing it for the first time. For those who aren't familiar with Les Miserables, one of the pivotal sequences is the barricades battle: Parisian students throw furniture and whatever else comes to hand into the street to create a defensive barricade of sorts. Their mini-revolution is a dismal failure: the students are killed almost to the last man (and woman). After his friend Marius is shot, the iconic leader Enjolras takes the red flag and climbs to the top of the barricade, where he waves the flag in defiance until he is shot multiple times and falls forward, over the barricade and out of sight of the audience. It's important to note that Enjolras is wearing a scarlet and gold waistcoat over a white shirt - he's one of the few splashes of color in the musical.

One of the key staging devices used in Les Miserables is a rotating section of stage. Soon after the Enjolras falls, the stage rotates, slowly and majestically. Here is the Magic Moment. The dead are scattered in front of the barricade and draped over it. Enjolras is in the center, head down, facing the audience, with his arms splayed out rather like an inverse crucifixion. The bright waistcoat and white shirt against the backdrop of his red flag pulls your eyes to him: he is absolutely the focus of attention. The audience gasped. In that one moment, the waste and pointlessness of the whole attempt at revolution came into brilliant clarity, with fiery, charismatic Enjolras as the symbol and centerpiece of the devastation.

That is my first memory of a Magic Moment, where something immensely moving and profound hits with the force of a sledgehammer and nothing is ever quite the same again.

There aren't many of them, and I've certainly never been able to write one deliberately. I think I may have managed one in Impaler, but I'm not sure. Even Pratchett only has one or two. The moment in Thud! when the terrible tragedy of Koom Valley becomes clear. The secret of the Grandfathers in Nation. They're that rare - and that precious. They also only ever have the full impact once: the first time you hit them.

Here's my attempt at a definition: a scene or image in a narrative work (i.e. opera, musical, book, play) where a number of plot and character threads connect to illustrate a deeper sense of meaning than expected.

Pretty lame, yes? But when one hits you, you know all about it. It's personal, too - because what goes into that illustration of deeper meaning is also all your experience up to that moment (which is why they only ever hit once - after that you know it's coming and the power of the moment is lost).

Here's some of the things I've identified in creating a Magic Moment:

- foreshadowing in buckets, but subtle. In Thud!, for instance, there are hints all along that Koom Valley is a lot more than we know, but Pratchett sets up an expectation that the truth will still be something more or less expected.
- strong interaction between character and plot. I've never seen a Magic Moment where the characters weren't central to the plot as it unfolded. The Koom Valley revelation in Thud! would not be the same without Vimes being present and being who and what he is.
- one or more characters is fundamentally transformed by the event. Again, in Thud!, Vimes is transformed into... well, himself. He sheds the various layers of social expectation, and in that moment is more quintessentially Vimes than we have ever seen him - and he understands and accepts that this is who he is.

I suspect there are more requirements - for a Magic Moment in a book to work, a single word that doesn't quite ring true will kill it. But when it does work... well. In all the examples I've given, I was left shaken, deeply moved, and with the books I couldn't hold them properly. My hands shook too much.

What are some of the Magic Moments you've found?


MataPam said...

There's one in John Ringo's Hell's Faire. After the battle for Fredricksburg, I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a couple of days before I could go on.

Brendan said...

I keep a text file to put all WOW moments I come across in my reading.

Some are sweet: I am sorry your death is what makes autumn so pretty. - Character talking to a fallen leaf from Count Your Sheep: Adrian Ramos

Some are the perfect punch-line: He used...sarcasm. - Cray Brothers skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus

Some are deep: Omniscience needs not probe and question.  Its only flaw lies in not recognising its own provisionality. - The Battle of Evernight: Celia Dart-Thornton

Some are beautifully written or evocative: Manfred cried and cried, as though tears alone might wash away all the dark sins of the world.  - Waiting for the End of the World: Lee Harding
and: I decided the oceans had been formed from tears. - Bridge of Birds: Barry Hughart

Every one though, made me stop for a moment when I read it and just savour its brilliance, appropriateness, and unexpectedness.

Jim McCoy said...

The one that comes to mind for me is in Test of the Twins by Weis and Hickman. It's right at the end and it turned the whole series on its head... and made me think.

I don't know if I could ever do something like that with a character and make it believable, but they did it.

There is also a death at the end of Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows that made me almost cry and I'm not the weepy type.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The end of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The Koom Valley Sequence. A couple of last sentences in Giovanni Guareschi stories.

I can't make them happen at will and the only one I've committed, to my knowledge, is the last line of Thirst. At least, I watched my fingers type it, have no idea where it came from, and it hit me like an anvil between the eyes.

Chris L said...

There were whole sections of John Irving's, A Prayer for Owen Meany that shut me down.

Also the final sequence of The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons - even though I'd guessed a small portion of it. The way he brought all the strands of Hyperion and Endymion together was awesome.

And several of Neil Gaiman's shorter Sandman pieces snuk up and ambushed me from behind.

Synova said...

I think that the one pay-off moment that I really liked (I know there are many, but this is the one I remember specifically) is in The Vor Game and the single line when either Gregor or Miles is talking to Cavillo and says, "Did you think we were amateurs?"

The thing is that describing it doesn't really work because it encapsulates the whole and you can't describe the whole without taking away everything that made the build up to that line work.

Part of what made it work is that both young men really are callow youths and treated as such by their minders. The book was about both of them rebelling under the restrictions of their youth.

But the *line* was about the harsh reality of their childhoods. It wasn't rebellion or boast but actuality. Neither of them were amateurs when it came to maneuver or intrigue. They understood the "game" in the marrow of their bones.

"Did you think we were amateurs?"

I stopped cold when I read it, and stared.

Kate Paulk said...


They do hit you that way. And it's a sign of how personal they are that I've read that book but didn't see that particular sequence that way.

Kate Paulk said...


I've generally found that when you take the final line from one of these moments and quote it out of context, you just don't get the impact: everything leading up to them as well as everything in your life goes into one.

Kate Paulk said...


I know both the sections you're referring to, and yes, they both have a powerful impact.

Kate Paulk said...


Yeah. It's bloody difficult to make them happen consciously. Sometimes when you're in the zone and the subconscious is running things it will happen the way Thirst did to you.

I suspect even the great masters don't control that - they just set everything up and hope they'll get the magic.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

Yes, when you get a bunch of disparate threads suddenly twist and become a coherent whole, it's powerful. And it can sneak up on you and hit you.

Kate Paulk said...


Exactly. The line on its own is meaningless: you need the context of the book and the characters' lives for it to hit you.

When that happens, it hurts, but it's the best kind of pain, because it's profound and - craft-wise at least - beautiful as well.

Stephen Simmons said...

Johnny Rico meeting his father in uniform, on some anonymous stopover-space-station. There is so MUCH emotion invested in him abandoning his family, and being ashamed of his father's opinions, and it all becomes suddenly *right* ... his father becoming the Roughnecks' top sergeant is a dim echo, but this is the real moment for me.

Eowyn, as "Dernhelm": "But I am no man!" All of her earlier ranting and griping and moaning, everything Aragorn says about her, it all builds toward that moment, and it comes together in a brilliant gestalt with that line.

And a profoundly negative one, for me: The death of the Giants in Donaldson's Covenant series. We had all the isolated data-points we needed to build that possbility, which was painfully clear in retrospect. But it hit me like a freight train.

And no, I don't think I'll ever have the talent to do that, at least not consciously.

Brendan said...

Kate, and also what gets to me, isn't necesarilly going to hit others the same way. With me Thud's larger revelations didn't mean anything after reading of Sam's struggle with himelf alone in the dark.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


yeah on Johnny Ricco or for that matter when he gets Pete in Door Into Summer (not Johnny, DB Davies.)

And Brendan, I THINK htat's the part Kate meant! The struggle in the dark. I mean "Where is my cow" will never mean the same to me again.

Kate, one way to have that impact again -- hearing it, instead of reading it. It all comes back.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate - completely off-topic ... Laura admitted tonight that she realized she has slowed down to only a couple pages a day in "Impaler", because she's near the end and she doesn't want the book to be *over* ...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Loved your description of that magic moment, Kate.

Kate Paulk said...


Yes, exactly - although I have to admit I don't really remember the Donaldson now. I read the series umpty umph years ago when I was an angsty teen, but after I had the breakdown, I could never read them again.

Kate Paulk said...


I think, as Sarah said, we're probably talking about the same part of the book - but obviously the strongest memories aren't the same for each of us.

Kate Paulk said...


"Where's my cow" is now a phrase that gives me goosebumps. I'm sure PTerry meant to do that to people. Somehow.

Kate Paulk said...


I love the compliment inherent in that! If Impaler sells well enough, there will be sequels. Mind you, I might have to discover a time machine or viable cloning to find the time to write them. But they will happen.

Kate Paulk said...


Thanks! I suspect that finding out you've successfully done that for your readers would be one of the big "warm fuzzy" moments for a writer.