The ‘decisive moment’ in storytelling

Images à la Sauvette (Images on the Run) was published in France in 1952. Later English language editions were titled The Decisive Moment. The preface to the publication, a collection of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, describes the ‘decisive moment’ as a moment when the elements of photography (film speed, exposure, focus, etc) combine with a favourable event occurring in front of the lens – the result is a photograph that ‘works’ in every sense. By luck, and the skill the photographer, a point in time is captured: one that defines the fullest artistic expression of its potential. Instead of being a mere image, the elements work together to tell a photographic story.

The photograph Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France, 1932, for example, personifies anticipation. An unexciting image comes to life as a man leaps across a puddle. Frozen in time, forever in mid-air, the viewer imagines his foot landing in the water with a splash, but it never happens. Instead, because this is a still image, he is permanently stuck there, stuck in space, always about to land, but never landing. In that ‘decisive moment’ everything comes together to tell the story of that moment. A truly photographic moment.

In storytelling the writer chooses when the story begins and ends. He or she chooses the decisive moment. Why is it decisive? Because it is the moment when everything combines to express the story at its fullest significance. This usually means the moment that changes how the characters view the world.

Traditionally stories cover what happened (1) before the event, (2) during the event, and (3) after the event. The hero is set a challenge (the prelude / exposition). He fights the monster (the battle / climax). Finally, he is celebrated as a noble and wise hero and marries the princess (the aftermath / denouement). For dramatic purposes, a story can focus on one of those three elements. It can explore the run up to the battle with the monster, the battle itself, or the aftermath. Paradoxically a story about an event might not include any characters who were there when it happened. For example, the aftermath of an apocalyptic event is entirely focused on the effects of the event — its by-product.

So, stories can attempt to cover the whole event, whatever that is perceived to be (stories are themselves the selected highlights). Or — a section of the event. If one part is covered in detail other parts may be glossed over, hinted at, or ignored completely. For clarity and dramatic ends, writers choose to focus on a particular aspect of a larger sequence of events. These sub-sections of the main story are decisive because they reflect scenarios where a central character experiences a life changing moment.

The run up to the event — the prelude / the exposition — provides a space to explore how things were before a tragedy or celebrated event occurred. Who were the people who made this happen? What caused it? The story can delve into the normality of a world that existed before it was shattered. It can live within the apparent ordinariness that produced an incredible success. Whatever the angle, this is very much an origins and beginnings story – how world was before the attack on Pearl harbour or before 9/11 changed things forever.

A story can take place right bang in middle of an event (‘the battle’ / the climax). It does not seek to rationalise what came before or after. This is often where war films begin, at the heart of the action. Instead of rationalising the event, this kind of story chronicles a character’s endurance, or failing — the exploration never reaching beyond the ‘now’ of existence. Here, in the flux of the moment, there is no time to reflect.

Lastly, the aftermath story. This is where the event has already happened. It’s a rumination story that makes sense of the past. It could be an end of an era story (post-colonial, the end of a character’s life, or a relationship). Citizen Kane examines a newspaper mogul’s life. The rumination may never resolve the unanswered questions. They may remain an enigma. In The Third Man Holly Martins attempts to understand who Harry Lime really was. But, to do this, he must also understand himself, and realise who he is.

The writer chooses which moment to focus on, and expand in detail. The prelude. The flux. The aftermath. And, most importantly, how that decisive sub-story affects the characters who are caught up within it. All of this comes in context of the overarching main event. In the prelude story, if it has a historical basis, we know what the future holds (unlike the characters). In the action-packed climax story there is no time for making sense of what happens. We are locked in the moment. We may or may not know what happens in the wider context. In an aftermath story like Stand by Me, we look back on what happened with the main character — rationalising and making sense of what took place.

In crafting these sub-stories or decisive moments, they are themselves reimagined as exposition, climax, and denouement. And standalone films (complete stories) are expanded on into sequels (what came after) and prequels (what came before). While the traditional narrative works as a linear sequence, many contemporary stories like The Thin Red Line or Memento jump about in time, deliberately confusing the boundaries between the flux, the action, the ever-present ‘now’ — and memories of the past, to create a kind of experiential 4th dimension.