One of my poet friends, Ernie O’Dell, introduced me to the phrase, “breaking open the moment,” some years ago at a Green River Writer’s Retreat. I don’t know if it came from elsewhere first, or if it’s an Ernie original, but it certainly has been an excellent exercise in my prose writing, although it was brought up in application to poetry at the workshop.
As I understand it, the point of the exercise is to really dig for the most evocative sensory details present within a scene or a poem – and not just the visual aspects of what occurs, but keeping in mind all the senses. Mention tactile sensations, scents, sounds, tastes. Don’t just put in the first or most obvious thing that comes to mind.
Your characters are on a beach? Of course there’s going to be the sound of waves and the taste of salt on the air. But what else? Is there another taste in the air, maybe a flavor of iron from the seaweed? How does wet sand smell? Are there gulls nearby – aren’t they making noise? Is there a lot of wind? Grit in the wind from all the sand? Shells underfoot – how many? Are they broken and sharp, or weathered smooth? Are other people making noise – kids playing, a boombox, conversations held loud enough to be heard over the sound of the surf and the wind? Waves crash coming in, yeah, we all know that. The water makes a different sound going back out, especially on a beach with a lot of shells – you can hear them rattle as the water pulls away, weird little suction sounds, the hiss of the sand shifting.
Just to give an example. That’s the idea behind breaking open a moment. Just keep going with it. You don’t have to include everything you come up with in your finished scene, but you can cut through the boring clichés and find some distinctive, original details to work with.
Nothing kills a reader’s attention like a plain vanilla description full of phrases they’ve read a million times. Most readers want to feel like they’re really in the book, like they’re there with the characters, and you can’t do that if you don’t give them any sense of the atmosphere, the feel and taste and smell and sound and imagery of the scene. Do you want to watch a movie where every scene takes place in front of a whitewashed backdrop? Where there’s no ambient sound? No extras, even in scenes that should have extras, or where all the extras are the same height, race, weight, hair color, and all dressed the same? Unless that’s some kind of commentary or we’re dealing with a new kind of zombie in this movie, that just sounds like a total lack of atmosphere to me.
Put your reader there, inside the story world. Give them things to latch onto that will spark their imaginations – readers will fill a lot in for themselves if you provide a few really stellar, evocative details to get them started.
“Break open the moment” also means to break it open for your character, using those sensory details. She opened the letter. All her senses were suddenly heightened: she felt the weave of the thick paper he used and saw every whorl and trail-away of the India ink that had flowed from his fountain pen–had he used the rosewood one or the platinum one? For long moments, she was trapped in the intricacies of his careful penmanship. Then the ink crashed to the paper and she read the words.
Hmmm…. Wonder what he had to say, and what she thinks of it, and how she feels about it, and whether she sort of expected it.