Day Zero. That – “the” – day that something happens that changes your world forever.
We humans count time before and after each one of those. Assign meaning to events, and our conceptions of them, based on how we felt, and what we thought, on each side of those days. “Before my father died . . .” versus “Since I lost my father . . .” or "While Clinton was president . . ." as compared to "After George W. Bush assumed the post . . ."
It’s important, I think, to be exceptionally cognizant of the Day Zeroes in our writing. Why? Well, most of the time, our characters are barreling full bore toward one of those days, or are living in the aftermath of one, and are now trying to parse the world and its details, make new meanings, in light of the emotional reckoning delivered by the transitions that day rendered.
When we think about Day Zeroes, we usually reduce their function to a simple loss of innocence: “Before the bad day, Ngami smiled easily at children’s laughter, but after losing her child, she can no longer bear the sound.” (I disagree with this oversimplistic and reductionistic perspective, but that's a subject for another post.)
Often, very often, we’re dealing with the reconciliation of two Day Zeroes in our literary work. Maybe a protagonist, for instance, has gone through something terrible, and here, in our pages, in our hands, our broken woman is going to learn to trust again.
I think all writers understand how fundamental Day Zeroes are to our stories. But I also think we give them too much weight – or rather, we assign them too much weight, and when we do that, we render our stories less believable.
Every day we – all human beings – experience important events, both positive and negative. Make important decisions that manifest consequences. And each time, we emerge changed. A little more jaded, a little less tender, a little sadder, a little more needy, and maybe a little wiser. Our experience might recalibrate any single factor, though it is likely that it has altered more than one thing/perception/thought/proclivity, perhaps even in opposing ways.
And, on an even smaller scale, every single interaction we have alters our perspective. We collect information as we walk the world, and as we do, we develop expectations about it. How people will act. What things are likely to happen. And when they happen differently, even just by a hairsbreadth, such as when someone smiles instead of smirks, it forces us to reevaluate. These are what I think of as Minute Zeroes.
As we drag our characters down the various roads we paint for them, we need to try and keep both Day Zeroes and Minute Zeroes in mind. If you can show your readers the small changes, maybe just by a lifted brow that expresses their surprise, it helps the reader understand who they are – at their core – and by doing so, we readers might just recognize our own experiences and identify with your protagonist just a bit more, too.
And holding hands with your protagonist as she walks helps you, the author, know her even better, which in turn leads you to understand what direction she’s actually going, and what thoughts and beliefs will lead her there – is Ngami growing more cynical, or more optimistic? – and knowing what road Ngami is walking will help you discover exactly what needs to happen at the upcoming Day Zero, and beyond, to take her precisely where you want her to be.