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Excerpt from Novel Shortcuts

Techniques for Identifying and Developing Crosshairs Moments
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The crosshairs of a story, like the crosshairs in the scope on a rifle, must be precisely aimed at your target—that most pivotal moment in your plot. The crosshairs moment, to be exact. And it’s crucial to note, especially before we get too far along, that there are different levels of crosshairs moments: the story crosshairs moment and the chapter crosshairs moments.

Your overarching story crosshairs moment falls on the biggest turning point in your story, often the action’s climax. Your individual chapter crosshairs moments, on the other hand, are the most important things that happen in each chapter. They fall on turning points as well, crucial junctures where the plot or character arc (sometimes both) changes direction or makes a leap in energy. The reason you need to make sure you know exactly where your crosshairs lie is because these are the points you’ll write toward and away from. These critical moments are what you need to showcase, the moments that create the shape of your story.


Naming crosshairs in a book you are reading can be subjective. For instance, in The Dead Zone by Stephen King, you may feel that the overarching crosshairs moment is when the protagonist, Johnny Smith, first discovers the “dead zone,” which demonstrates that his premonitions may not necessarily have to happen. This, you may believe, is the story crosshairs moment because it gives a new significance to Johnny’s gift of prophecy. It’s a discovery that will lead to the climax and conclusion of the book. But your friend might choose the moment Johnny poses the philosophical question: “If you had a time machine, would you go into the past and kill Hitler?” (Only for Johnny it’s not so theoretical.) Maybe your friend argues that this is the real story crosshairs moment because it’s when the protagonist explains the potential power of the “dead zone” to the readers—if Johnny can assassinate a politician that he can see will one day destroy the world, his gift will have a profound benefit for humankind. Subjectivity.

When it comes to your own writing, though, you need to be able to identify the main story crosshairs moment with precision because (1) it’s your story, (2) you need to build up tension to that dramatic moment, and (3) you need to let that tension ripple outward in widening circles of impact. Let your readers get wrapped up in the story and carried away. Let them debate your storytelling crosshairs, the way you and your friends may have fought over the Dead Zone moment. But you need to know where that moment is.

Let’s look at how Stephen King wrote toward and away from the crosshairs in The Dead Zone.

Building to the Story Crosshairs Moment

To make sure that your readers feel the intended impact of the crosshairs moment of your novel, you need to make sure you have prepared them. The readers need to have made the hard journey to this moment alongside your protagonist so that it feels as powerful to them as it does to the character. They need to understand how everything involved with this moment works so that, when the moment arrives, they are thinking, “Ah ha! Of course,” rather than “Say what now?” And they need to know exactly what hangs in the balance as this moment unfolds.

  1. Make sure the readers understand the importance of the moment. In The Dead Zone, King takes the readers through several grueling adventures where Johnny deals with his unwanted gift of prophecy and feels unsatisfied, even tortured, by his abilities. This makes finding a grand purpose for his gift meaningful. This is the reason we have come with him through all his trials.
  2. Make sure the readers understand how the rules work so the moment needs no explanation. When we get to the crosshairs moment, we not only know the way Johnny’s visions come to him (we’ve seen many examples), we also know these episodes are taking their toll on him physically. He can’t go on forever making prophecies—it’s killing him.
  3. Make sure all necessary backstory is in place so the readers feel what’s at stake. In The Dead Zone, the readers are well educated about the man Greg Stillson. We know he’s evil. We know he’s fooled millions of people. We feel the full impact of the possibility of Johnny risking everything to stop this man.

Now, as you plan your own crosshairs moment, look for ways to prepare your readers. Show them the struggle your hero goes through to climb to this moment. Set up the rules of your reality—make the moment seem inevitable, if you can. Lay out the exposition gradually and early on to sustain the tension over the outcome of this moment.

Echoing the Story Crosshairs Moment

Much like building to the crosshairs, you also need to make sure everything that happens after the crosshairs moment is affected by the event. Everything in the book should be tied to this moment. It can’t be a temporary thing. And the aftermath needs to feel right for the kind of story you’re telling.

  1. Tie the crosshairs moment to all the subplots and plot points that follow, including character arcs. Johnny is risking his life, his reputation (he will be seen as a crazy assassin afterward), and his relationship with the woman he loves. If your crosshairs scene is the most important moment in the book, the readers need to see the impact running through the rest of the pages that follow.
  2. The emotional shift that happened in your crosshairs moment has to remain true for your character. If your hero gathers enough personal strength at that important crosshairs moment to decide to make a sacrifice, like Johnny did, then for the rest of the book the readers need to see that strength in him. Johnny owns his resolve for the rest of the novel. We can see and feel that he is a changed man.
  3. The tone of the novel should match the crosshairs. If your lighthearted adventure has a sobering crosshairs moment, make sure you don’t jump back into a playful tone as if nothing happened. If your gritty mystery has a heartwarming crosshairs moment, don’t go on as if that important warming were a mirage. After the crosshairs moment in The Dead Zone, there is an appealing energy that continually calls back to mind that new resolve: Maybe I can save the world.

As you write your overarching crosshairs moment and the scenes that follow, make sure every page echoes that moment. Look at how each character is affected. Demonstrate how everything has changed. And make sure the tone of your crosshairs moment, and the effect it has on your subplots and characters, fits the overall tone of the book.

About the Book

For more tips on developing crosshairs moments, check out Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb.

Online Exclusive: Q&A With Novelist Laura Whitcomb

Award-winning novelist Laura Whitcomb shares her insights into the writing life in this exclusive Q&A.

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