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.
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.