My high school creative writing teacher once noted in the margin of an assignment that I had “memorialized a moment” in the story I submitted. I remember being surprised by his comment. I hadn’t intended to memorialize anything; but after I re-read what I had written, I agreed with his assessment. I had, indeed, preserved a memory. And while the piece did that well – I still remember the moment 26 years later – my teacher’s point was that the story did nothing other than serve as a way to never forget what had happened one rainy afternoon at a park. The story wasn’t anything anyone else would want to read because it lacked a plot, character development, conflict and a resolution. Since then, I’ve come a long way with my writing. But, as my critique group helped me realize recently, I apparently still like memorializing moments – even if they are moments experienced by fictional characters I create in my imagination.
In the scene I presented to the group, my main character is desperate to find a misplaced keepsake. She’s trembling in her frantic search for the sentimental item, fearing it’s lost forever. After another character arrives to help her look for it, she drifts out of her present situation and begins reminiscing about the day she received the item as a gift. In the pages that follow, the readers not only experience that day with the character’s younger self, but they travel with the character to key moments throughout her life that help them understand why the item means so much to her. Then, the readers return with the character to her present situation to realize the gravity of having lost the memento.
I asked my critique group to let me know whether the transitions into and out of the memory were too abrupt, as I worried they might be. Their collective answer? Yes, they were. The character, they explained, is angry and upset before she starts strolling down memory lane. So she wouldn’t so readily recall a fond moment during such a charged emotional state. Bigger problems, they said, were how much time the character spends in the memories and how much detailed information the readers receive about the missing object.
To improve the scene, they made varied suggestions:
- Spend more time in the present than the past
- Trickle in details about the lost keepsake a snippet at a time over the course of the story
- Have the main character remember those details at more appropriate, quieter times in the story
Since our meeting, I’ve digested their thoughts and recommendations. I’ve also read a couple of novels that did an excellent job of shifting between the character’s present circumstances and memories. Well placed verb tense changes clearly signaled transitions between past and present in both books. The authors of both stories focused on a single memory at a time and didn’t linger too long in the past. Sometimes they used scent or sound triggers to launch a flashback. Other times, they simply had the character reflect on the past at a pivotal moment.
Now I’m reworking my scene to incorporate all the advice I’ve acquired. My main character’s beloved item plays an integral part in the story’s resolution. So I’m figuring out how to keep its rich history and details in the story without throwing it at my readers all at once. If I do it right, no one will be able to accuse me of memorializing a moment. Instead, my readers will have a better understanding of my character’s motives and keep turning the pages to see what happens next.