The Girl in the Moon

When you and I as writers are looking to deliver a Big Moment, we often think it has to come in a rock-em-sock-em, five-star, dyn-o-mite scene in which characters are passionately declaiming at one another, if not firing guns, crashing cars, and blowing up the planet.

But often it’s the quiet scenes that produce the most powerful impact.

Let’s continue last week’s examination of Private Moments.

If you recall, here’s what we said about this type of scene:

A private moment, in a movie or a book, is a scene where a character (usually the lead, but not always) is alone with his or her thoughts. It’s a contemplative moment. It’s in a minor key. Almost always there’s no dialogue. Everything is communicated by facial expression, body language, or action. Often this is extremely subtle.

We cited, last week, a scene with Robert DeNiro from the movie True Confessions

Here’s another from one of my all-time faves, Paper Moon.

Tatum O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal have a disagreement in “Paper Moon”

Paper Moon (1973) is about a father and daughter, Moses Pray and Addie Loggins, played by real-life father and daughter, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Moses is a flim-flam man, selling Bibles door-to-door in Depression-era Kansas. He agrees, for totally self-serving reasons, to deliver recently-orphaned Addie (who suspects Moses is her biological dad, even though he denies this vehemently) to her aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri—a trip, in Moses’ jalopy, that will take a couple of weeks at the least.

Along the way, Addie proves to be an unexpectedly clever and resourceful partner in Moses’ scams. The pair start to have fun together. They begin to bond. In the audience, it’s clear to us that Addie is Moses’ daughter—though he repeatedly and vigorously seeks to avoid acknowledging this. What would a man in his line of work do with a nine-year-old girl? 

At one point in the story, Addie gets her photo taken at a booth in a state fair. She has to sit in a paper model of a sliver moon. She tries to get Moses to sit with her but he’s off chasing an exotic dancer, Miss Trixie Delight (Madelyn Kahn).

In the film’s penultimate scene, Moses delivers Addie to her aunt in St. Joe. He drives off in the sputtering, backfiring farm truck he has acquired, fleeing the law. Though Addie’s aunt is a decent, kind person, it’s clear that Addie will be miserable with her and that life would be much more fun if she could only somehow stay with Moses.

Here’s the Private Moment:

Moses has driven a mile or so down the deserted, two-lane country road. Something makes him pull over and stop. He lights a cigarette and sits pensively behind the wheel. Then he notices something on the seat beside him. An envelope. He picks it up and opens it. Inside is the photo that Addie had taken at the state fair. Clearly Addie has left this on the seat as a farewell token for Moses. The photo is of herself “sitting in the moon.”

Moses regards the photo. He doesn’t say anything. His expression alters only slightly. Clearly however he is thinking, “Have I made a mistake leaving Addie with her aunt? She is my daughter. I know it in my bones, no matter how vehemently I’ve denied it.”

I won’t ruin the end of the film for you. (There’s still a twist or two to come.)

The point is the power of the emotion produced in the audience by this spare, no-dialogue scene that relies for its potency on one simple prop—the photo of the girl in the moon.

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89 Comments

  1. Richard Max Foxx on February 10, 2021 at 6:53 am

    That was a wonderful piece. I have never seen PAPER MOON but you can bet I will track it down. Thank you.

    • Maddie on February 11, 2021 at 1:03 am

      Did you manage to find it?

  2. Nancy M Gardner on February 10, 2021 at 6:54 am

    Excellent discussion. Thank you.

  3. Ms. Moretti on February 10, 2021 at 7:11 am

    Private moments are where a lot of life is decided on. I will have to look up this scene. Since it’s a movie, I bet the music really had to be spot-on for this moment as well. Thank you for this!

  4. Sam Luna on February 10, 2021 at 7:12 am

    Oh man, I vividly remember watching this movie as a kid on TV with my Dad on a Sunday afternoon. Madeline Kahn was one of his favorites. Great movie memory, thanks for writing about it.

  5. Simon Yeend on February 10, 2021 at 7:29 am

    Great film. Great moment. That realisation of: “I’ve made a mistake leaving her there.” And, of course, it’s all been seeded earlier, with Addie having her photo taken in the booth.

  6. Gerry Lantz on February 10, 2021 at 7:31 am

    Wonderful film. Wonderful moment. Wonderful memory. (BTW, Ryan O’Neill never got his just due for his fine performance in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, just sayin’.)

  7. David Levin on February 10, 2021 at 7:32 am

    That the O’Neals are actual father, daughter makes it more poignant.

  8. Ciara Mary Clarke on February 10, 2021 at 7:37 am

    Yes, it’s these quiet moments that impact our thoughts and emotions the most. Thanks Steven.

  9. Joe Jansen on February 10, 2021 at 8:14 am

    Father-daughter scenes wreck me.

    From “The Patriot”: https://youtu.be/ZQzBHnXdPY4

  10. Kenneth N Proudfoot on February 10, 2021 at 9:05 am

    That moment in “Paper Moon” is actually the one I remembered more than any other scene in this funny, poignant, b&w film. It’s real. Truthful. And ultimately moving. Thanks for reminding us of the power in these quiet scenes.

  11. Mitch Bossart on February 10, 2021 at 10:15 am

    Thanks, Steve. I am working on a similar, solitary scene that is pivotal. And I was struggling with the lack of “explosions”
    🙂

  12. Don Lougheed on February 10, 2021 at 11:51 am

    Your right about private moments some of the deepest decisions are made there

  13. Kent on February 10, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    I also have still NEVER seen this classic. I was really disappointed that TCM had it on last summer and I missed it by an hour. Peter Bagdonovich was a master story teller.

  14. werrrt hams on February 10, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    great

  15. Dee Vaal on February 10, 2021 at 4:01 pm

    Last week’s example left me a bit lackadaisical. But this scene is the quintessential example.

  16. Renita on February 10, 2021 at 6:48 pm

    Thank you, Steve, for always coming up with something important. Noticing what happens in the space between events … Perfect. That’s what I resonate with.

  17. Sue Collins on February 10, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    I am very curious to see Paper Moon now. Thanks for sharing this insight about Private Moments

  18. Kyle J Baker on February 10, 2021 at 7:42 pm

    For me, it’s always been a scene in the first act of ROCKY: He’s just come home to his lonely apartment, and he looks at a boyhood photo of himself taped to his mirror. In the reflection, grown-up Rocky’s battered face regards the photograph with bitterness. We know he is thinking about how he has wasted his life, that the fresh-faced child with talent and a bright athletic future is an out-of-shape penniless failure who works for a gangster.

    That single shot destroys me every time.

    • Joe on February 12, 2021 at 3:41 am

      Good example.

  19. YL on February 10, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    Awesome. Just by reading this is sufficient to make me tear.

  20. Joe Jansen on February 11, 2021 at 4:19 am

    Oh! GREAT example of a Private Moment: in the final scene of “Cast Away.” Chuck (Tom Hanks) is literally and figuratively “standing at a crossroads.” Just watch his face…

    https://youtu.be/afiuJ2tsoVA

    As long as we’re on it, Cast Away contains great examples of other story-structure elements we’ve talked about in here. It makes good use of the “In and the Out”: the opening and final scenes both contain the image of Bettina’s “angel wings,” but Chuck has changed. He’s now unconcerned with “time” (his calendar, digital stopwatches, he even returns the pocket watch to Kelly) and instead is more concerned with “space” (at a crossroads with a map).

    And those angel wings embodying the theme of “salvation,” and appearing recurrently throughout the story as an agent of Chuck’s salvation:

    ** Angel wings on the one FedEx box that Chuck DOESN’T rip open in search of potential tools, saving that one box, brushing the angel wings with his fingers, and protecting it as a statement of his hope and faith that he will survive.

    ** Angel wings that Chuck drew on the plastic outhouse walls he fashioned into a combo shelter and sail.

    ** His note, written on the porch where he finally makes his delivery: “This package saved my life.”

    ** And angels wings, of course, on the tailgate of Bettina’s truck.

    And a final comment about her, Bettina. I love how she exited her truck to give this stranger directions. Look at her body language. I admit to having a crush on Lari White, the country singer/songwriter who portrayed Bettina. A couple months ago, I watched the film again, and did a web search to see what Lari White was up to these days. I was sorry to read that she had died young, at age 52, of cancer, in 2018.

    • maps on January 17, 2022 at 2:17 am

      A lot of life’s decisions are made in private moments. That scene looks interesting. The music for this scene must have been perfect too, since it’s a movie. Thanks for sharing!

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  22. Michael Esser on February 14, 2021 at 12:08 pm

    Or consider movie that actually starts with a private moment, Apocalypse Now by the great Francis Copolla. Martin Sheen as Captain Willard all alone in a room, with a ceiling fan as a prop. The ceiling fan becomes the rotors of a helicopter as he remembers scenes of the current war, but it also hacks Sheen’s reality, his “thruth” concerning what this war is all about, what honor is and what the army stands for to pieces. It shreds his self-image, just as the upcoming trip and his meeting with Colonel Kurtz will do. It’s the entire movie condensates in one scene.

    • Joe on February 17, 2021 at 4:22 am

      Great example, Michael.

  23. Jürgen Strack on February 16, 2021 at 4:32 am

    Steve’s ‘private moments’ (no pun intended) made me realise exactly what the best private moment is in the book I’m writing so thanks so much for that.

    I saw the movie as a wee boy growing up in Germany and to this day remember the vehemence with which the two of them argued. It scarred me for life; in a good way that is. Sorry about going on, I was just having a private moment. J

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