One Thing Authors Shouldn’t Leave Out of A Story’s “Big Moment”

Just because a character is acting quickly, or must REact, doesn't mean she doesn't have a real motivation for the choice she makes.

Just because a character is acting quickly, or must REact, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a real motivation for the choice she makes.

Today’s post is about the big moments in fiction–the action-packed, “everything is changing because of what is happening” moments–and about one thing in particular that authors shouldn’t leave out when writing such a vital passage.

What inspired this post was reflecting on why I am not, in general, a huge fan of the Harry Potter films (especially the 3rd and 4th) when I love Rowling’s books as much as I do and they have impacted my life and writing as much as they have.

The answer, I realized, is particularly clear in the case of the fourth film, based upon the fourth HP book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” (No spoiler alert necessary, I promise, though I assume that by now, most people who have any intention of reading the HP series have done so.)

THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT

I was incredibly, horribly–perhaps almost inexpressibly–let down by the fourth HP movie. It wasn’t JUST that the first half hour was so jumpy that it made little sense. My major problem was that the screenwriters, editors, and producers tried to pack SO MUCH of the story into the film that they had to condense everything.

They condensed the “Big Moment” at the end as well. And while they kept the plot largely intact, the plot hardly affected me it should have or as I expected it to. The reason?

They condensed the “Big Moment” by cutting almost all sense of emotion, of emotional implication. Now, I understand that it is much, much more difficult in film to delve into thoughts and feelings, to demonstrate fear and doubt and consolation and courage. It is harder to show what precisely is motivating a character when he has to make a big decision a very small amount of time.

Still, the “Big Moment” of book 4 is literally the halfway point of the entire series. It is a BIG moment in every sense of the phrase. It’s a moment that changes the course of the rest of the series, perhaps of Harry’s life. Without giving spoilers, you could say it epitomizes the idea of a life-shattering event.

That means it is an emotional moment. And the movie, for me, did NOT portray that aspect of the plot. In contrast, Rowling’s narrator gets inside Harry’s head.

  • We can see Harry find courage in the midst of a very real threat. We see his mental steps, follow his thought process, through the course of very exciting and engaging events that nonetheless do not swallow human issues that are in some sense larger: Who is Harry at heart? What is courage? How will Harry respond when everything he claims to be is tested? Why does any of this matter?
  • Rowling gives the emotional aftermath of the “big moment”–as characters (and especially Harry) react and begin to move forward–adequate and developed treatment. This drives home how big a moment the big moment was. Rowling puts the big moment in perspective by showing its immediate, tumultuous effects. However, the movie completely glosses over any emotional trauma. This left me unsure about how much what had happened REALLY did matter.
  • Rowling’s narrator does not rush the pace of the end of “Goblet of Fire.” And that feels somber and rightly respectful. It gives the reader as well as the characters a chance to digest the big events. The movie just blows through everything, because…. well, this movie is already almost three hours long, DANG IT! We need to wrap things up!

Now, before any fans of the HP movies have a visceral reaction, or any writers want to respond in confusion or disagreement to what I’m saying, let me make a few more points.

  • I’m not saying that a big moment has to stop, or pause, or even considerably “slow” its pacing in order to inject emotional or subjective content. I’m not even saying that there needs to be a 50/50 balance between action and thought/emotion.
  • My major point in this post is this: a moment in fiction big enough to constitute becoming a “big moment” will necessarily have an emotional impact on your characters. And that needs to be recognized. Maybe that recognition isn’t feasible in the midst of action. Maybe adrenaline is pumping and there is honestly no time to think or plan. Your characters realistically need to REACT. Nothing more. But after the fact, they will face their emotions.
  • I do understand that SOMETHING had to be cut to make “Goblet of Fire” into a movie. Unfortunately, what I feel the moviemakers ended up sacrificing was the story’s heart. All of its heart. They kept the plot without any of its commentary on the human condition. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Maybe you don’t feel the movie removed the heart of the story, and that’s certainly a valid opinion. I respect it; I just feel differently. At least we can find common ground in saying that, theoretically, it’s never a good idea for a film to cut the heart of the story it’s based upon.

So, how do you try to keep emotion–highlighting things like courage, fear, doubt, pride, anger, humility– present in some kind of balance with plot and action in the midst of a big moment? Is this something you are able to do instinctively? Do you find yourself toning some things down or drawing other things out during editing?

Which side you prefer to weigh heavier in your balance: the emotional aspects or the action aspects?

And if you’ve seen the movie “Goblet of Fire,” do you agree or disagree with my assessment of how it handles the big moment?

RELATED POSTS:

Is your “big moment” big enough to satisfy readers?

On dispersing “high tension” scenes throughout your novel

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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27 responses to “One Thing Authors Shouldn’t Leave Out of A Story’s “Big Moment”

  1. This is probably stating the obvious, but I try to make it work by intertwining the emotion and the action, showing how the character’s emotions drive her actions and show up in immediate response to events. Doing that a little at a time feels more natural to me and helps avoid big reflective passages slowing down fast paced action.

  2. “emotional impact on your characters. And that needs to be recognized” –

    great example, even without my having seen the movie; have seen too many other movies do this to books and even with original screenplays

    big example for me was Janet Evanovich’s first book (One for the Money) as a movie, so rushed, would have benefited tremendously with more of the development in the book

    thanks so much Victoria :-)

    • I have heard good things about the Stephanie Plum books but I’ve never read them. I think you make a valid point here in that no genre is immune from this emotional loss and the loss of a character’s interior development when a book moves to the screen.

      • And has often been mentioned in other comments here, there’s a sense of things being rushed just to fit a time frame.

        I’ve read articles explaining how the studios have precise information regarding time frames the largest number of potential audience will “tolerate” – but my wife and I both tremendously enjoy productions like those on PBS and BBCAmerica, that fit their own time frames, and number of episodes, to express what the works needs to be quality.

        Quality, in this sense, for me, means the expression of a work that satisfies on all levels.

        My point, I guess :-) is movies can be better!

  3. I use tension and a build up to the big event. Kind of like even if you know what’s about to happen, you get a distinct feeling that it’s really going to hurt. My characters rarely shrug stuff off. Those that do tend to have a breakdown later or find themselves distanced for a bit until they talk about the event.

    As for HP 4, I think it fell into a trap that many book to film conversions go through. You have to compact everything and some stuff gets cleaned up too easily. Other things happen rather suddenly such as the ‘big moment’ of HP 4. I didn’t really have a solid reaction to it and thought the reaction of the characters was a little odd. Hard to explain without going into details and spoilers here.

    • oh my gosh, Charles, YES. YES about tension and tone and mood and their importance in preparing and bracing readers. And YES to what you say about HP4. I felt the exact same way. The reactions of the characters were just odd and everything felt like it came out of nowhere.

  4. In my books, it’s always the emotional impact, because my characters’ choices dictate the plot. I write love stories. That makes it more important than ever to show the the “big moment” in human terms and how the consequences of my characters’ actions affect their lives.

    In regard to the Potter movies, I was disappointed too. Rowlings’ books packed way more punch. As so often happens, films just can’t live up to the emotional complexity of novels.

    • I think you make a great point here: the mediums of film and the page are just too different. The physicality of the screen creates a barrier against the presentation thought and emotion that the page, quite simply, can penetrate. Film cannot.

  5. I appreciate seeing the characters’ varied reactions to big moments. Each one will interpret it a bit differently, and when I see the fallout through others’ eyes, the book feels deeper, more well-rounded, more satisfying.

    For that reason, I really disliked the “Fablehaven” series my kids picked up, and I read the entire series, waiting to find its heart. There’s plenty of action–constantly, even–but the characters are as flat as cardboard, and we never feel anything along with them. They just function as vehicles of the action.

    Without heart, a story just doesn’t “live.” (And I’ve seen the movie version of HP4 too many times to be able to compare it to the book anymore, which I read years ago. Guess I need to pull it out again!)

    • I think the varied reactions are so important! It gives a full picture and gives the big moment its due. Taking the time to present varied emotional reactions is taking the time to show that YES, this was a big event and it does matter.

  6. As I’m clearly the only person in the known galaxy not to have read Harry Potter, I have little to contribute on that score. For my own writing I like to surprise myself and hopefully the reader with outbursts of all emotions. All have their time, but if they bore me then out they go, and if my (characters’) handling of those trials seem contrived then they end up being cut or completely rewritten

  7. I have felt, after watching HP movies 3-8, that so much of the emotion and big moments have been omitted, perhaps in favor of time. Now, perhaps it was because I had already experienced such a high from reading the books and did not have the same feeling when watching the films. JK remains my favorite modern writer for her ability to get me to that high during her big moments.

    • Maybe that IS a part of it, but I do think it’s largely cuts for time. I really do.

    • It worked just the opposite for me – since I already knew the emotion behind everything from having read the books numerous times, I didn’t notice that the movies left it out, because I felt it right along with the scenes that brought them to mind. I have always felt, though, that anybody who didn’t read the books and watched the movies would not get a very good account of Harry Potter’s world and life. Because they wouldn’t understand what was behind everything. So I guess I agree with the movie’s treatments being less than, way less than, the books, but in my case, I brought the emotion with me to the theatre.

  8. Late to the party here, but I always felt like GoF was the worst of the films. The first half-hour feels, yes, like a series of snapshots, and they rushed the end so much that I feel like anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the story would sit there as the credits rolled and think: “… what just happened?”
    And all this reminds me that I need to work on the ‘big moment’ of my novel…

  9. Hi Victoria, I agree with you that GoF was weak, but I was also disappointed with the movie version of the final book. My favourite scene of the entire series (featuring a minor character who completes a character arc in an awesome and triumphant way, I hope you know which one I mean) was altered, and it was a scene that had tremendous emotional impact for me. So I guess I’m saying it’s not just the emotional lives of the characters that are at risk in these situations, but also the emotional reactions of the audience. I dislike it when I invest in characters emotionally and then the end is a letdown. This happens more in books than in films, I think (because if the film doesn’t have enough emotion, it’s often the case all the way through). This is a case where a film is based on a beloved book – I wonder how people who watched the movie but haven’t read the books feel?

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