Last week, we discussed the Payload Moment—the moment that lifts or deepens a given scene or character. This week, I promised to discuss how to do this.
But first…a confession.
In Gone With The Wind, the little slave girl Prissey declares boldly that she has helped women give birth many times. But when the moment of truth comes and the baby's arrival is eminent. she cries out, in one of the movie's most famous lines: “Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies!”
This is my moment of truth…and, Folks: I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthing payload moments!
Or, rather, I have no idea how to teach someone else to do it. But, like Prissey, faced with the immediacy of Miss Melly’s baby coming, I will run, grab some hot water and towels, and see what I can improvise.
To write a payload moment, you gather the threads of the scene together in your mind, juxtaposition them so that they are taught as a tightrope, and then torque ‘em a bit, until something pops up, and that is your payload moment.
And if you can understand what I meant from that description, you did not need to read this article to begin with.
Okay, more seriously now: writing, like art, is all about contrast. Adding shading to a circle makes it look like a sphere. Adding contrast to a written scene makes it feel three-dimensional, or "real". Contrast in character makes the character come alive. Contrast in a scene makes the scene move.
I have talked before about how two things must be going on in any scene. Otherwise, the scene is static. It might be funny, or romantic, or scary, but, unless there are two separate issues going on during the scene, there is something stolid and undynamic about it—Your tightrope is limp. No one’s walking on it three inches above the floor, much less at thirty feet.
The tension between two issues—whatever they might be: plot and character development, two plot issues, character tension and humor, romance and terrot, the list goes on and on—is what produces the contrast that makes the scene come alive.
But a scene coming alive and finding its Payload Moment are two different animals. A living scene is enjoyable and interesting to read, but that is not enough to make it necessary to the story. The Payload Moment is the moment when the scene becomes utterly necessary, when something changes, so that the story is different afterwards from what it was before.
Finding the Payload Moment is to writing what finding the punch line is to humor. The punch line in a three-line joke is the moment when the contrast set up in the first and second line comes together in an unexpected way. It is the unexpectedness that makes it funny (even if you think—Oh, I should have seen that one coming!)
The Payload Moment is that instant when the ideas in a scene come together in an unexpected way. (That torqueing I mentioned above.) It takes something we already know and shows us another side of it. Often, it brings out something that "we should have seen coming" but that we did not expect.
Let us take a closer look at the scene from One Piece that I mentioned last week.
The pirate Buggy the Clown has trapped our hero, Monkey de Luffy, on top of a platform. Luffy had climbed the platform because—22 years before—Gol d. Roger, the King of the Pirates, was executed there. Luffy wanted to see the place where his hero died. Buggy—being a pirate—decides to kill Luffy with his cutlass. He raises it to cut off Luffy’s head…and is struck by lightning
This did not come entirely out of the blue (sky). Several people had stopped to comment on the weird weather.
For those who do not know this story—or who have been turned off by how astonishingly, freakily weird everything looks—Luffy is a boy who has declared that he will be King of the Pirates. (This even though he is less pirate-like than you are. And I write that with some confidence, even though I do not know who will be reading this.) Luffy has eaten a Devil Fruit, so his body is made of rubber. This is very useful against many things…but it does not protect him from sword blades.
The lightning bolt that saves him is not the Payload Moment. Or rather, it could have been the Payload Moment, since it was properly set up, had the scene ended there. However, it would have been a lesser moment than what follows.
The Payload Moment comes when the Navy man, Captain Smoker, who is looking across the square at the event, sees Luffy the moment before the lightning bolt—the moment before Luffy is to die. As you can see from the picture, Luffy is smiling…just the way Gol d. Roger smiled when he was executed…a sight Smoker remembers from when he was a child. Smoker, who had been relying on one pirate to rid him of another (He is not aware that Luffy is a good guy, only that there is a bounty on his head.) is shocked. He pauses to wonder if the heavens, destiny itself, is on the side of this young man.
Now…we the viewers know that destiny is on Luffy’s side. He is the main hero. He is utterly brave. He has the hugest heart ever, and he is nigh invulnerable–except to sword blades. We have also seen him do impossible things and be surprisingly lucky. But nothing before this indicated that the universe Luffy lives in thought destiny was on his side. Drawing the implications of this into the story increases the scope…it hints that Luffy might be destined for something more important than just one boy carrying out his dream, something that will affect his entire world.
Discovering that the heavens have an interest in your character is a big Payload Moment, but payload moments don’t have to be so big. They can be small things, a sudden reevaluation of a character, where we see her motivations in a new light.
It can be a plot twist…Garlot’s not dead!
It can be a romantic realization, when a sudden zing leads the heroine to recognize her true love.
Or it can be melodramatic. “But it is my fault!“
In each case, however, it has to be something that illuminates either the character, the plot, the background, or—as in our scene with Luffy—the greater universe.
When you sit down to write, what you have to ask yourself is: what can I put in this scene that will take what I have already established and build on it. What action, revelation, or interpretation will make the reader go “ah!” or “oh, of course!” or even “oh, no!”
What makes me so bursting with desire to tell someone this idea that I have to either write the scene right this second, or go call my best buddy and tell him the idea? (Go for one! If you do two, you might lose the "must write this" drive.)
That is your Payload Moment.
If you prevail, your manuscript will gain depth and dimension. It will gain life. And, like Prissey, at the end, you will be able to smile with pleasure at the dynamic thing you just helped to birth.