The Power of a Private Moment

Why is a Private Moment so powerful in a book or movie?

It shouldn’t be, right? There’s no dialogue. Practically no action. Nothing really changes on the screen or the page.

Yet somehow we, as readers or audience, are moved by these scenes. We’re moved, often, more than by any other scene in the book or movie. 


The answer, I suspect, is that Deep Change (in our real lives as well as in fiction) happens not in clamorous, action-filled moments but in quiet, pensive beats when the human heart, at the finish of a protracted, often unconscious, process of evolution concludes and cements its transformation.

Consider the Private Moments we’ve examined in the past two posts—one with Robert DeNiro in True Confessions, the other with Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon.

Ryan O’Neal as Moses Pray has his private moment in “Paper Moon”

DeNiro as Monsignor Desmond Spellacy realizes that the course of life he has followed—that of being the wheeler-dealer right-hand man of his diocese’s powerful cardinal—is ultimately empty and even corrupt. If he doesn’t change, he will lose his soul.

Ryan O’Neal as Moses Pray realizes in his Private Moment that he truly has come to care for, and even love, the orphaned girl—Addie Loggins, played by his real-life daughter Tatum O’Neal—with whom he has shared adventures on the road over the preceding several weeks. 

In both moments, the character changes radically.

In both, he comes to a life-altering decision.

Both moments are point-of-no-return. From both, there will be no going back.

Both moments represent the culmination of dozens of prior scenes, if not the entire narrative of the drama.

Hemingway famously wrote (in Death in the Afternoon):

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water

A Private Moment is an iceberg moment. Though literally nothing is happening on the surface (other than, perhaps, a subtle alteration in the character’s expression or posture), what’s going on beneath the waves is monumental.

The interesting thing about Private Moments in the writing of a book or a movie is that they often seem to come as afterthoughts. We haven’t planned them. We don’t have them in our outlines. But something in the process gives us pause. We draw up and say to ourselves, “Something’s missing. There’s a hole in the narrative. The story needs something.“ 

What it needs is a depiction of the actual moment when the character changes. 

And that moment is often quiet, reflective, and internal.

It’s almost always a Private Moment.


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  1. Peter Brockwell on February 24, 2021 at 3:13 am

    Really interesting Steve, thank you. This seems to me like it’s the POV character reacting to the entire preceding story, perhaps with emotion and/or internal dialogue, but not action or external dialogue. It’s a moment for the character to switch from the left brain to the right brain, and parallel process everything that has happened. To ask questions, and, lacking certainty, perhaps to consider taking a leap of faith.

    Apart from stories, this is probably the sort of (self) examination with humility that require in our societies and present political straits. Again, literature holding up a much-needed mirror.

  2. Robyn Weinbaum on February 24, 2021 at 7:12 am

    THIS! thank you for expressing this so beautifully. i am printing this post and pinning it to my wall.

  3. Tulse Luper on February 24, 2021 at 7:14 am

    In the Blake Snyder/Save the Cat paradigm, the “Dark Night of the Soul” beat is often a private moment where the character commits to the real, necessary change he/she needs before moving into the last act.

  4. Mary Doyle on February 24, 2021 at 7:42 am

    Thanks for this series! I went back and rewatched True Confessions with new eyes for that Private Moment.

  5. Sam Luna on February 24, 2021 at 8:02 am

    It’s tough “earning” that Private Moment. I find in early drafts the second act has it but the run-up is insufficient to make it play. The audience has to feel the weight of everything behind it. Thanks for writing about this!

  6. Harrison Greene on February 24, 2021 at 8:53 am

    Private Moment recharge agents for our soul.

  7. Michael Staires on February 24, 2021 at 9:13 am

    A question for Steven or for someone in the “Pressfield” tribe…
    I’m almost finished reading Gates of Fire. Which book in the trilogy comes next?

    • Joe on February 24, 2021 at 6:40 pm

      I’ll step up, Michael. While there are no trilogies in Steve’s body of work, he’s written plenty of great novels to pick from next. You’re seeing chatter around his newest, “A Man at Arms,” coming out next week. I’ve read it, and it’s top-shelf (a review here:

      “The Afghan Campaign” is awesome. I’d recorded a short clip from the audiobook version narrated by John Lee, where the main character Matthias, an infantryman in Alexander’s army, has worked his way up to cavalryman. Here Matthias is describing his horse, Chione (ky-OWN-nee), or “Snow”:

      Telamon appears in “The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great,” and that’s an excellent one, too.

      “The Profession” is another favorite: a near-future thriller where military contractors have expanded beyond personal protection and convoy security, to full-scale infantry/armor/air operations.

      Lots of great novels to select from.

    • Brian Nelson on February 24, 2021 at 8:34 pm

      I’ll follow up after Joe took the plunge. Gates of Fire was the first Pressfield book I read. At the time, I didn’t know he also wrote “Legend of Bagger Vance” which I saw. In short, everything is fantastic.

      I was also fortunate enough to get an early copy of “A Man at Arms”, and it immediately shot to the top of my list. To plagiarize Joe’s review, he says, “..My favorite Pressfield book is usually the one I just read. A Man at Arms did not break the streak.” (Joe brother, I hope I quoted you accurately).

      I loved A Man at Arms. These are the fiction books of Steve’s that I’ve re-read/re-listened most often:
      1. Gates of Fire.
      2. Legend of Bagger Vance.
      3. Killing Rommel
      4. Afghan Campaign (mostly because I’ve been there–and it amazes me that we’ve fought there non-stop for millennia…)

      1. War of Art
      2. Turning Pro
      3. Artists Journey

      In a league of its own: Lion’s Gate. I read this 15 years after reading “Jews, God, and History” by Max Dimont. Being a typical American Mutt (Ancestry proved it to me..), I have often longed for an ancestry that had roots past 1900. I lived in SW Washington as a kid, next to the Columbia River. The main park in town was Sacajawea…and I was FASCINATED with the American Indian tribes as a kid. Lion’s Gate gave me the same feeling about the Jewish people and tradition. It is an un-freaking-believable story. David and Goliath at scale.
      In short, a must read.

      I have Pressfield on a read, rinse, repeat cycle. An easier way to choose your next book might be to simply throw a dart, you won’t be disappointed. Each book stands alone. Together–you will see why we all show up on Wednesdays.

      • Joe on February 25, 2021 at 6:59 am

        Also good tips. “The Lion’s Gate: Behind the Lines of the Six Day War” does offer a David-Goliath stories.

        • j on February 25, 2021 at 7:49 am

          Typos. Pfffft….

  8. Renita Wellman on February 24, 2021 at 9:22 am

    I wonder if Tom Hanks’s Cast Away movie is one big Private Moment?
    The movie is an amazing idea, in which most of it is silent. When he returns to the world of old business companions and even his true love, he has outgrown all of it.

  9. Joe Jansen on February 24, 2021 at 4:46 pm

    I’ll pick up on the Hemingway reference, and share info that Ken Burns is coming out with his next documentary, titled, “Hemingway.” It streams/airs on 5, 6, and 7 April 2021. Info here:

    And make sure to check out the “Conversations on Hemingway,” which streams twice a week for the next few weeks leading up to the full documentary. I watched the one last evening, which featured Ken talking with novelist Tim O’Brien (“The Things They Carried,” “Going After Cacciato,” and others), as well as filmmaker Lynn Novick and some other Hemingway scholars. That episode is available, as well as info on upcoming “Conversations, here:

    I’m sure SOMEBODY will be talking about private moments.

    Cheers, maties.

  10. Mitch Bossart on February 25, 2021 at 6:56 am

    Thanks, Steve.
    I actually watched Paper Moon last weekend because of your post–thanks for that. (Love Tatum O’Neil in that movie!)
    Ironically, I am struggling with a dream sequence, I am now wondering if I even need that dream. It is part of a scene that you call a private moment. The private moment may be enough.

    • Joe on February 25, 2021 at 7:32 am

      Mitch, we also watched “Paper Moon” for the first time, based on the recommendations here, and also loved it.

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  13. Jurgen+Strack on March 8, 2021 at 5:10 am

    Like Uncle Clark’s (played by Chevy Chase) Private Moment in National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation, when he realises he has gambled away all his money.
    At rock bottom, Clark tells Uncle Eddie he needs to be alone, on his own for a while.
    Eddie replies, “do you want me to come with you?”
    “Ok, Eddie”,replies Clark.

    Lol :):):)

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    I’m sure somebody will be talking about private moments.

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    I actually watched Paper Moon last weekend because of your post–thanks for that.

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    Steve, heeyy, thank you for explaining it! To me, it looks like the character is processing the previous narrative emotionally or internally with internal conversation. This is a time for the character to move between the two sides of his brain, with one side recording all that has transpired. Asking inquiries, along with considering taking a leap of faith if uncertainty exists.THC free CBD oil

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