Every time we embark on a story, we are diving into moments—a series of moments, actually—that take place in the lives of our characters.
We may not know what’s happening in their lives any more than they do, but we join them in the unknowing and must be willing to follow them wherever they take us in the hope their path will lead us into a story.
Each moment of their lives can give us another clue to who they are and who they want to be, as well as clues to who they may be running from or trying to escape.
If we dive deep enough into these moments, we can discover the secrets that our characters are holding close to their hearts, their dreams, their hopes, and their fears.
We can learn how these secrets help them form their decisions, and how these decisions lead them to take the steps that they take in their lives.
We may make lists and outlines and plot notes, but, like our characters, we don’t always have a clue about where to go or what happens next.
We have to learn to immerse ourselves in the moments of their lives and be willing to sit and wait and listen, and then to follow them wherever they may take us, even if, as Vonnegut suggests, it’s just to get a glass of water.
It takes a special skill—let’s call it improvisation at its highest—to succeed in moving fully into each moment, to move through another person’s world and respond to events in that world as they occur in the moment.
What is your character feeling now? And now? These are questions that Carolyn Coman suggests that we ask as we follow our characters. (She offered these questions in a lecture on the craft of writing that she gave at Vermont College of Fine Arts more than fifteen years ago, but I still remember them.)
In each moment, we need to remember to ask these questions.
And we need to understand how these feelings compel our characters to act.
We can spend days writing down images that come into our mind as our characters move haphazardly through their lives and as we try to keep up with their ever-shifting desires and fears and hopes.
It isn’t necessary to record every moment of our characters’ lives, only the moments that propel the story forward, moments linked in a chain of cause-and-effect that bring us from the start of the story to its conclusion.
Between the beginning and the end are the moments that exist in our characters’ lives. In order to write about them, we need to become part of each moment—feeling what our characters want, understanding how our characters think—so that we can record their stories with honesty and truth.
For more on improvisation in writing and staying in the moment, visit: