We all know that turning point, the key moment, maybe it’s the climax, maybe we call it the crucial moment, or maybe we just leave it unnamed, but we all know it should be there. That pivot in your story whene a character faces a hinge in his lifeÂ and nothing will ever be the same. We implement these moments in our stories, but how often do we truly examineÂ the ingredientsÂ for this climatic recipe?
In Rust Hills’ Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, the former Esquire literary editor deconstructs this moment into minute detail. “There are great many words and terms that are used to refer to this incident or moment in the story. Four that seem especially useful are ‘crisis,’ ‘critical moment,’ ‘climax,’ and ‘crucial moment.'”
Hills explains that although these terms may seem similar, their origins reveal different meanings. These differences are instructive.
- Crisis is from the Greek krisis, which means “to separate”
- Critical is from the Greek kritikos, which means “able to judge”
- Climax is from the Greek klimax, which means “ladder”
- Crucial is from the Latin crux, meaning “cross”
In the book, Hills searches for a word or term that encompasses all those words, their subtle differences, and more.
It would reflect both a general crucial (trying, severe) period and a critical (decisive, of doubtful issue) situation on the one hand, and a particular crucial (final and supreme) and climatic (culminating, ultimate) moment on the other. It would partake of the ladder image, for there is often a series of crises before a final climax which is crucial–the idea of an “ascending action.” The ideal term would reflect the idea of separating: separating the past from the future by this incident, and indicating that the moment comprises a sort of watershed from which the river of the character’s life runs one way or the other. The ideal word would reflect the idea of judgment, too; for somewhere in the story, in the author’s tone, in the character’s motivation, in the ironies implicit in the situation–somewhere there would be a sense of the validity or appropriateness of the judgment rendered the character by the action. And the cross image is relevant too–not just in the sense of a life at a crossroads–but in the sense of a supreme trial.
Phew. That’s a bunch of stuff there and the differences are tough to absorb. It’s way too damned early in the morning and I’ll admit that I had to read that a few times to see the fine distinctions Hills makes. But those distinctions are there and worth considering in our own stories.
Hills’ philosophies definitely make me rethink all those crucial moments I wrote back in grad school where a couple sits at the kitchen table, building up to a whole lotta emotion over a bounced check, and then they put out their cigarettes and go back to bed. In hindsight, those were piss-poor examples of crucial moments and Hills’ microscopic examination provides some valuable insight into how these pivot points should operate.
Oh, and just to leave you with a bit of a teaser, I’ll give you Hills answer to the term he’s trying to discover later this week.