That Unique Moment – Making a Story Special

That unique moment — we all know what it is when we come across it in a book or a movie, an opera. We recognise it the moment we see it.

smell evokes memoryAlthough feel it would probably be a better word. And sometimes we don’t even realise what it was until we’re describing the story to someone else.

Lots of people try to analyse it. But essentially, it’s visceral. More like a fleeting scent or a snatch of music than anything we can explain.

Unique Moment of Discovery

RNALSE chapter Unique Moment?Last week I gave a talk to the London and South East Chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. And, as nearly always happens when I do that, I came away with far more ideas than I took.

And one was: what IS it that makes a story unique?

I’d said in my talk that never feel there’s no room for your book. Look at these RoNA short-listed books authored by members of the chapter. They’re all unique. So is yours.

Not because of the story but because of the way they and you tell it.

London Chapter short listed authors

Unique Moment and the Reader

sparklers in the hands of a loving couple

Many things make a book special — voice, characters, tone.

But That Unique Moment, when reader and writer meet in No Man’s Land, that’s crucial.

The writer’s work is already done. Will it surprise the reader? Move her? Catch her imagination? And then … will she feel that spark?

The Creative Reader

All the Writer can do is his best — and then hope. Whether it catches or not is down to the Reader. And not all readers will recall and love — or even notice — the same things. Maybe even the writer didn’t notice either. There’s a lot of subconscious energy in any story.

looking out the attic windowSome of my readerly unique moments:

Raoul’s shoulder dislodging a jasmine blossom “that loosed a shower of tiny stars”;

Sarah Lennox, hungry, cold and alone, looking out of her attic window and seeing Ram Dass smiling at her — and his monkey;

a young academic “ambushed” by an aerial photograph of an attack in the First World War that, although he had seen others like it before, “had for some unfathomable reason altogether destroyed his peace of mind.”

Yes! I think. That could be me. And I am lost.

The Silent Unique Moment

short listed authorNow, at the London Chapter on Saturday, we were talking a lot about dialogue and how you can use it to structure plot.

Indeed, one of those brilliant Short-Listers, Janet Gover, has taken the idea and run with it into her own consideration of unique moments.

Here it is at the wonderful Take Five Authors Blog.

She is talking a lot about movies and so was I last Saturday, particularly Sabrina. Only I found that, in the main Unique Moment I recalled, there was no dialogue at all.

The Sabrina Conundrum

The 1954 version, with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn was loved at the time and is now a classic. The 1995 remake with Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear bombed, in spite of great production values and (in my view) a wittier script, more rounded and believable characters, a sharper story line and 2 delicate love-story sub-plots to die for.


As I said in my talk, I think they were lucky in 1954. Billy Wilder wanted Cary Grant for Linus. If he’d got him, the movie would not have had the emotional punch, the quirky humour, the restrained power, that Humphrey Bogart, playing against type, gave it. The weaknesses of the love story would have stood out on stalks. And Hepburn, of course, was luminous.

It is still not a satisfactory romantic comedy — teenage Sabrina is so wretchedly in love with the playboy that she tries to kill herself by turning on all the car engines in the closed garage. Bogart rescues her but never seems to notice, then or later, that it was deliberate. Her transformation from ugly duckling to stunner is neither tracked nor explained — though a septuagenarian French Baron who tells her what women in love do makes me seriously uneasy.

But… but … but … People flocked to it in droves. Just like they stayed away from the remake.

Sabrina Mark I

Yes, there is one particular tiny moment when, in spite of the chilly premise and the dark backstory, the whole emotional colour changes, at least for me.

BOGIE AND HEPBRUN LAUGHINGSabrina went away a waif and now she’s all grown up. Indeed, she’s gorgeous. And at the grand family’s party, she’s supposed to be meeting the playboy brother secretly for champagne and flirting.

Linus comes instead. She’s disappointed but she teases him and laughs at herself. (One of the few places where the 1954 script is superior.)

They dance. And then Linus says she’d expect his absent brother to kiss her, wouldn’t she? “Mmmm,” she says dreamily.  So he does.

Bogart dancing with Hepburn - SabrinaAnd her reaction, filmed over his shoulder is — magic. Surprise. Bewilderment. Wonder. And serious. Very, very serious. Not falling in love. Not yet. But the possibility — unexpected and not quite believed — is there. And no, this photograph isn’t it. Watch the movie!

Sabrina Mark II Moments

Linus at his deskSo, so many, lots of them laugh-out-loud moments, too. Linus is powerful, cynical, witty and focused. He’s also kind in a lethally unsentimental way. He’s a workaholic, he’s fond of his family, he knows his priority, which he sees as almost a duty, and it is profit.

His mother is a hoot, second only to Linus’s secretary Miss McCardle, who explains kindly what his proposed theatre outing with Sabrina will be like: “The most difficult tickets will be for a Broadway musical. That means that the actors periodically will dance about and burst into song.”

Elizabeth and David - SabrinaIn this version, charming David is not only a dish, he’s delightful with it. His fiancée is real and believable and genuinely sympathetic. His description of their first encounter is a classic of romantic stereotyping and he knows it: “She was healing children, I was in a tuxedo…” Their bumpy love story is touching.

Gem after gem.

But alas, all that just shows up the holes in the love story between Linus and Sabrina. As the Redemption of Linus Larrabee, this movie can’t be faulted. You see the internal conflict in Linus building from his first solo trip with Sabrina to the point where his conscience first and then his tenderness for her finally get the better of him.

BUT you don’t see Sabrina fall in love. Or even halfway there.

When he kisses her (the remake follows that part of the original script very closely) she slaps his face. And then seems scared.

Just wrong. In so many ways.

Finding the Sparkle

morning fog on a riverFor some time now Joanna and I have been discussing how to add sparkle to a not-quite-good-enough ms. (We’ve a workshop on it.)

Thinking about these unique moments has shown me how right we are. So I’m going back to my Work In Progress with a Great Big Note to Self on the Wall. “Nurture the Moment”.

And lose the wrong ones!



5 thoughts on “That Unique Moment – Making a Story Special

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    As Harrison Ford is my all-time number one pin-up, of course I absolutely loved Sabrina II. Also thought the girl (forget her name) had a vulnerable and touching quality that worked really well. Also have a soft spot for John Wood who plays Sabrina’s dad. As for Sabrina I, although I love the story and Hepburn is magical, Bogart just doesn’t work for me as a lover (pace Lauren Bacall) – except in the inimitable African Queen where the combination with the other Hepburn was just beautiful.

    But your description of moments has made me want to watch both of them all over again!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Of course, so much is subjective, Liz. But I absolutely agree about John Wood. One of the great moments in Sabrina II for me is where, after her day out with Linus, Sabrina asks her father, “What was he like when he was young?’ and he snaps, “Shorter.” Makes me laugh every time.

      And wasn’t he a fabulous wicked Archbishop in Ladyhawke? Blissful.

  2. Pamela Hartshorne

    Never saw Sabrina I but loved the remake with Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford. It’s common to diss remakes, isn’t it, but personally I always find the old black and white films very stilted (apart from Singing in the Rain!) Anyway, interested to read your views. Sabrina slapping Linus’s face worked for me, I must say. It takes her longer to fall in love with him, but I think it’s more convincing. But I am so with you on that scene from Nine Coaches Waiting, and Linda dancing with the delectable Raoul on the terrace … SO romantic.

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