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, she cries out, in one of the movies 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 do.
To write a payload moment, you gather the threads of the scene together in your mind, juxtaposition them so that they are taught 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 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 in the scene, there is something stolid and undynamic about it. The tension between these two issues—whatever they might be: plot and character development, two plot issues, character tension and humor, romance and terror—is what produces the contrast that makes the scene come alive.
But a scene coming alive and finding its Payload Moment are two different things. 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 necessary, when something changes so that the story is different afterwards than it was before.
Finding the Payload Moment is to writing what 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 is comes together in an unexpected way. It is the unexpectedness of it that makes it funny (even if you think afterwards—or perhaps because—Oh, I should have seen that one coming!)
The Payload Moment is the moment when the ideas in the scene come together in an unexpected way. (That torquing thing 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 (correctly identified by intrepid reader wilddomestic. ) that I mentioned last week.
The scene was that the pirate Buggy the Clown has trapped our hero, Luffy de Monkey, on top of a platform. Luffy had climbed the platform because it was where, 22 years before, Gold Roger, the King of the Pirates, was executed. Luffy wanted to see where his hero died. Buggy—being a pirate—has a cutlass in his hand. He raises it to cut off Luffy’s head and is struck by lightning (which was actually set up. Several people had stopped to comment about 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. (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.) He 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 swords.
The lightning bolt, while amusing, 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 he is about to die. Luffy is smiling…just the way Gold 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. We have also seen him do impossible things and be surprisingly lucky. But nothing before this point indicated that the universe Luffy lived in thought destiny was on his side. Drawing the implications of this into the story increases the scope…it hints that Luffy might be up to 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, like the zings we spoke about earlier. 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 now, 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, you will be able to smile with please at the dynamic thing you just helped birth.