In the preface to the book of that title, Henri Cartier-Bresson accompanied his photographs with commentary, including “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” Unintentionally, of course, this idea applies not only to camera work, but to the engine that drives fiction.
Tip: “Decisive Moments” structure your novel and the scenes (or summaries) composing its plot.
It starts with noticing. Whether with camera, computer, or pen, you need first to identify significance, then be certain that you capture it. After all, as he observed, “Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Ready yourself to seize flashes of inspiration, whether they wake you at dawn, strike when you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, or disrupt concentration on rush hour traffic.
~ Don’t, needless to say, endanger yourself with sleep deprivation, eyes on your iPhone, or both.
~ Do make sure you have a means to record even the most slender wisp of idea. Otherwise, how will you ever know how big it might have become?
Cartier-Bresson felt strongly about the impact of a single moment, saying, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
~Don’t view this premise as unrelated to fiction.
~ Do harness the construct of the “decisive moment” to structure your novel and choose what you present in “live time” and what you summarize.
In fiction, those “decisive moments” are the pressure points that create character arc. The protagonist’s customary response, whether waiting, rationalizing, or denying, is now impossible. However painfully or foolishly, the character must act—and immediately. Just as photographers portray the external world, the novelist must accept that readers want to view the most intense moments through action and imagery. The best pressure points are photographable. This prevents the clutter of excessive rumination, review, or reconstruction.
Once you recognize your novel’s events in terms of “decisive” or “significant,” you’re on track to decide what should unfold, detail by detail. The rest? Collapse it into a swift abbreviation of what readers need to know but have no need to watch.
The Cartier-Bresson phrase “proper expression” is already ambiguous, and more so when applied to prose. Yet in either fiction or photography, “proper expression” means that the portrayal says it all—no caption needed. If you’ve found the “decisive moments” of your protagonist’s journey, never deflate them by explaining what they mean.
Haven’t found the “decisive moments” yet? How matter how many words, drafts, or themes you’ve amassed, it’s back to the storyboard. The best novels, no matter how historical or literary, always build from the moments when there’s no turning back. And it’s most fun for readers when these pivots, or turning points, are barely visible until the plot ends and readers grasp the how and why.
Here’s to “decisive moments.”