Writing Advice of the Week: Small Moments Make Big Stories

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Are the big moments in your story big enough?

So, there’s a Big Event. Your characters are about to navigate treacherous terrain, and all the feels are flying about. Invite the reader to take part in the Big Emotion by giving them a moment in which to process what has happened and how they truly feel about it so they can connect and empathize with your character.

And small actions allow the reader to feel the bigness of the emotion.

In No Country For Old Men, Llewelyn Moss knows he’s done something stupid and is likely to pay a huge consequence for which he has no words. But author Cormac McCarthy doesn’t tell the reader that. Instead, he gives Llewelyn a moment to sit down and process his feelings, thus allowing the reader to do the same:

[Llewelyn] sat on a gravel beach with the empty bag folded in his lap and watched the sun set. Watched the land turn blue and cold. An osprey went down the lake. Then there was just the darkness.

By focusing on the minutiae, McCarthy shows, rather than tells, so the reader can feel, rather than merely witness, what is happening.

In this way, McCarthy’s novel imitates the reality of human emotional processing. Because when something humungous comes our way, we sit; we ponder; we weigh options; we decide. Allowing your characters to do the same allows your human reader to emotionally connect to your story in meaningful ways.

Prompted by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly

Characters are people, too, and humans are masters of conflict avoidance, especially when we’re in conflict with ourselves. It isn’t often that we come right out and say what we’re thinking. Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re really thinking or feeling. Instead, we hedge. We use filler words and phrases. We lie. And sometimes, we do all that without even knowing we’re doing it — like the ole “it isn’t really about the laundry” summary of a tense domestic spat.

Emotional subterfuge applies to fiction in the same way it applies to real life. If your characters are too honest with each other and themselves, at least at first, they won’t read like real people. Worse, they can come off as two-dimensional caricatures. And while exaggeration may work well in slapstick comedy, it doesn’t always work for character- or voice-driven stories. So when those character emotions are through the roof, allow your character to focus on a small detail. A dirty sock on the floor mere inches from the laundry basket can read a lot like a middle finger if placed well.

For more content about character emotion, check out the articles What Happens When Characters Lose Control Of Their Emotions? (MyStoryDoctor) and Your Character’s Crucial Inner Conflict (Live Write Thrive).

When allowing your characters to focus on the small, don’t forget the importance of setting because the settings you use within your story must either drive the plot or the character forward. If you’ve a character drawn to a particular place, for example, there are likely small details, even memories, that character has that nobody else has. Consider what four different people in an off-grid forest cabin would notice during a long weekend stay:

  • One person may notice dusty cobwebs and a fat spider in the corner.
  • One may notice pileated woodpeckers and cedar waxwings in the trees.
  • Another person reminisces about the spot where granddad’s chair used to be.
  • Another can’t get over how faded and tattered the handmade curtains have become.

When it comes to setting descriptions, who notices something and why they notice that thing are important. Small details allow the reader to see the inner workings of your characters without slapping them upside the head with lots of monotonous telling. However, you don’t need to provide a ton of details — if you choose the right small details with big impacts for your characters.

For more on settings and scene-building, check out the video, How To Describe Setting In A Novel (Write with Claire Fraise), or the article, The Art Of Scene Crafting: A Guide To Amplifying Narrative Impact (The Write Conversation).

At the root of the advice to focus on the small lies the idea that the complexity of storytelling is found in simplicity. It isn’t easy to trust yourself to unfurl words in ways that create emotional magic for readers. Those small and simple details pack a big punch, but trusting yourself enough to choose the small details and moments that will elevate your story is another hurdle entirely.

Stephen King said in his memoir, On Writing: “I’m convinced fear is at the root of most bad writing . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.” So don’t shy away from the small things you know your character needs to notice, say, or do for maximum impact. That small thing may just be the one that allows your story to live and thrive in the hearts of your readers.

What’s one small detail your favorite character, either in a book you wrote or one you read, notices that tells the reader everything they need to know? Share it below for inspiration.

Happy writing!

<3 Fal

Want More?

Ask and you shall receive, lovely humans. Here are all the other pieces of advice Maria collected this week. Peruse, choose, and use at will. And remember: Sharing is caring.

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Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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