The Defining Moment: How Writers And Actors Build Characters by Christopher Riley and Kathy Riley (book review).

What scriptwriters/authors/teachers Christopher and Kathy Riley do with their book ‘The Defining Moment: How Writers And Actors Build Characters’ is what writer/producer Coleman Luck taught them long ago. They needed to find the defining moments in the story which give their characters life-changing scenes and they use some examples from films to do so. In the last chapter they do point out how useful it is for the actors to know what makes their characters motivated in a particular direction which makes more sense of why they make up histories for them when none is provided.

A useful bit of knowledge for scriptwriters. However, the stories also have defining moments as to what the characters do. From a British point of view, we would call it life-changing moments when the options move the plot along. Thinking on that further, I really must give some of my characters more bad choices.

Oddly, it is with ‘The Godfather’ and Michael Corleone in the restaurant scene that I raise a few question marks. Yes, this is the final action that Michael got his ‘bones’ with the family, by killing people but really the change was in the planning stage back in the Corleone kitchen. There, Michael gave his plan, Sonny laughed it off but finally offered the protection but Clemenza and Tessio’s alliance was switching to him and was easier after Sonny’s death.

The double hand washing in the restaurant was more the equivalent of taking a deep breath before committing the act and a sign of nervousness, which is why he didn’t quite carry out the action to plan, dropping the gun as he left the restaurant than at the table. Mind you, I also think calling Sollozzo a Mafia boss is wrong. He was backed by Barzini but essentially an illegal drug importer. I suspect I would be looked at oddly if I ever attended their class and asking these questions.

My concentration on ‘The Godfather’ is more me being familiar with it than ‘Forrest Gump’. I do think there is a need to recognise a defining moment. Although the Reilys point to Kay asking Michael whether he killed anyone at the end of the film and he says no and she sees him being called ‘Don Corleone’ at the end is her defining moment knowing her husband lied to her, the result of which we saw in the sequel.

Knowing your own defining moments is something the Reilys discuss over a chapter that I imagine can cause problems, mostly because you also have to ask what made you decide to become a writer. For some it’s a natural state but whether you can be honest about your own motivation and aims and use it to endow characters is a trickier business.

When I wrote ‘Harbinger’ over 22 years ago, in first person, my lead character was a depressive female in denial, none of which are my natural attributes but I recognised what they were and play acted them which is as close to ‘method’ from this side of writing. I think that was a defining moment in my own writing, especially as SFC accepted it straight off, so there is a need to recognise them in your own lives and whether you made the right or wrong decisions. Understanding what affects you is useful to recognise the emotions.

They quote Sidney Showers eight character motivations as to what drives them. Equally, I could retort, school pupils aren’t taught how to write stories at schools. Naturals stand out but school teachers, at most, are more concerned with whether pupils can string a sentence together and get the grammar right and even that is questionable these days. In some respects, I wish I’d been given better observation skills at school but by trying to being a good pupil you risked being frowned on delaying lessons by asking too many questions because it slows the lessons down.

I do think this book is required reading for all types of storytelling although think it needs to be extended beyond the lead character but any where their lives will be changed, In the short form, that I write, the plot is defined by the changing moment that will allow things to move on. With world-building stories, I would think it pays to see what happens next than plan too far ahead with the stories. It allows some flexibility to change and the options of what comes next. Read and learn.

GF Willmetts

March 2022

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions, 2022. 201 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $29.95 (US -15 March 2022), £22.63 (UK -01 April 2022). ISBN: 978-1-61593-337-2)

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