I write out of my subconscious so anything I say about craft needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but I hope these random comments spark some thoughts for plotters as well as diehard pantsers like me.
When I start a book, I have a hero and heroine (sometimes a villain), a setting, and a situation presenting major problems for my protagonists. I generally also have some inkling of where the story goes over the next 400 pages. But the really good, vivid stuff comes as the conflict develops organically from those particular characters and how they interact with each other.
So the seeds of the black moment, that scene towards the end of the book when all seems lost and a reader can’t see any way the characters will achieve their happy ending, are sown in the first few pages.
How do you go about creating a heart-wrenching black moment? A technique that’s terrifically effective is something I heard in a Donald Maass workshop:
- Work out the one thing your character would never do, then make him/her do it.
- Work out the one thing your character would never sacrifice, then make him/her sacrifice it.
- Work out your character/s greatest fear then make him/her face that.
Using the answers to one or more of these questions can lend enormous emotional power to your black moment. Especially if you’ve spent the entire story, right from the start, building up just how much the character wants what they sacrifice or fears what they face or abhors what they do.
Here’s an example of what I mean from my debut Regency historical romance, Claiming The Courtesan:
The hero, the Duke of Kylemore, is on a parabola of redemption (hmm, there’s a term that’s going to take over the writing world, NOT!). On this parabola, he confronts a series of black moments, each darker than the next. This leads to the final crisis where he has to do the one thing that at the start of the book he would never countenance doing because he recognizes it would destroy him.
He knows what he wants (the heroine) but in his desperation he goes about achieving it in the surest way to drive his goal further out of reach. When Verity, the woman he loves, runs away and almost dies, he at last recognizes that his obsession has led him to horrific depths where he is on the verge of destroying the only thing that gives his life meaning.
A black moment indeed. But it’s actually the start of him climbing slowly and painfully back into the light. That’s not far past halfway through the book.
There are more black moments to come, culminating in the worst one at the end. At the start of the book, he will do anything, right or wrong, to keep this woman. At the end, he acknowledges she is free to go although he knows that nothing but devastation awaits him without her. That’s truly the climactic black moment, when he (and hopefully the reader) thinks all is lost!
Always make the black moment completely individual to that person. It’s the thing Kylemore would never do, not the thing Lord Generic Hero would never do. There’s plenty of things that could separate a couple, for example, war, death, money, family issues. But in a romance, the black moment should grow naturally from some essential issue that has propelled the character through the story.
Your black moment should emerge directly from the conflict at the heart of your book. This not only lifts the stakes during the black moment, it also gives your story an organic unity.
Confronting this issue and conquering it lead to your character’s emotional growth and leave the way open for the happy ending and the emotional pay-off which is one of the reasons we all read romance! That sigh of blissful contentment when the characters ride off into the sunset for their happily ever after. We want to feel these two people have faced difficulties and overcome the obstacles between them. Now they face a fulfilled life together, their love strengthened by what they learnt about themselves when they came through the black moment. Knowing how to write a great black moment is an essential tool in any writer’s box of tricks.
Don’t censor yourself when you come to the black moment. It needs to be as black as night not a whiter shade of pale. You can come back and tone it down later if you think you’ve gone too over the top. I believe more books have failed to sell because the writer pulled their punches than failed to sell because the writer went out with all guns blazing to create every ounce of drama they could.
One of the best ways to make a black moment powerful is to force your characters to face the consequences of what they do. That seems so simple, doesn’t it? But I read a lot of contest entries and the occasional book where the writer just doesn’t want to make those characters face up to the damage they’ve done and suffer accordingly. We’re all nice people (well, I’m sure Hearts Talk readers are. I’m not so sure about me – bwahahahahahaha). We don’t like to give the characters we love pain. Believe me, if you want to write a compelling story, you have to.
Do black moments only appear in dark, angsty books like the ones I write? Not at all! You still need the crisis and the catharsis in the lightest comedy. Tone is important but that doesnÆt mean characters in a comedy shouldn’t face the prospect of losing everything they want and emerge from their crisis purified and deserving of a happy ending.
So good luck with making your characters really miserable. It renders readers happy! And may all your black moments be BIG ones! Be ruthless. Be ultra-ruthless. Torment those characters until they’re screaming for mercy. Your readers will thank you for it and they’ll line up to buy your next book as a result!
This article first appeared in HeartsTalk, the newsletter for Romance Writers of Australia, in January, 2009.