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Give me a black moment

BrokenHeartI’ve noticed a distinct lack of gut-wrenching black moments in several of the books (by major authors) I’ve read recently, and it’s bothering me. I hope it’s not a trend.

What is the black moment you ask? It’s that all-is-lost moment in the story just before the final act begins. It’s  the absolute worst thing that can happen to the main character, and if done well, it should break the reader’s heart. They shouldn’t be able to imagine a way out of it, yet it should set up the final act and the satisfying resolution.

For some examples, let’s turn to movies (spoiler alert!).

– In Avatar, the black moment is when the humans attack and destroy the Na’vi village. Our hero, Jake, has lost the fight, lost the girl and his place with her people, and lost his chance at walking again.

– In The Hunger Games, it’s when Rue dies.

– In Star Wars, the black moment happens when Obi Wan Kenobi lets Darth Vader kill him.

– In Toy Story, it’s when the van drives away with Andy and his family and leaves Buzz and Woody behind.

Okay, enough examples. The thing is, if the black moment isn’t devastating enough—or is hinted at but never actually happens—I feel cheated. The happy ending/resolution isn’t nearly as satisfying if the main character(s) in whom we’re emotionally invested, don’t have to work for it.

Or put another way, the ending is exponentially more gratifying when they do have to work for it. The black moment forces them to reevaluate everything. Their goals, and their perceptions of themselves and the world. It’s the catalyst for change. It forces the character to arc.

Imagine if Rocky had just clobbered Drago (the Russian) easily at the end of Rocky IV. BORING! Wouldn’t you be angry? Don’t you want some excitement? Don’t you want to feel like he just might lose, and be biting your nails on the edge of your seat, wondering if he can pull it off? Don’t you want him to dig deep to find some inner strength and purpose that he hadn’t yet discovered within himself?

Make the lovers part ways over an issue that seems irreconcilable before they get their happily ever ever. Force the sleuth to face a dead end before he solves the mystery. Have the spy fail, get pulled from the case, and lose her job before she finally stops the evil terrorists.

The stronger the black moment, the more emotionally satisfying the resolution is.

Go ahead, authors, torture me. Break my heart. I’ll love you even more for it.

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Lightbulb moments

Writers who talk about structure often reference the concept of story beats. Like beats of music in a song, story beats are the little moments that are strung together to make a novel or screenplay.

But I never quite understood how long a story beat was until I started reading STORY by Robert McKee. He’s the first author I’ve read that clearly defined it, and he basically said that a beat is one unit of cause and effect. Or action/reaction. Which made me think of Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Hmm.

In other words, every time someone says or does something and the other character reacts to it, that’s a beat. Or the character sees, feels, hears, tastes, or smells something and reacts to it with thought, action, or both.

Lightbulb moment.

I love how the more books I read, the more concepts overlap and gel together to solidify an idea I hadn’t yet grasped.

Another one that I didn’t think I’d seen in quite this way before—but, of course, the next day I saw the concept mentioned in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES—was the idea of taking the character from one state (or charge) to its opposite. For example, when we talk about character arc, we’re taking our character from unloved to loved, or afraid of fire to able to run through fire, or risk-averse to daring.

So – to +, or the reverse. Boiling it down to two opposing charges really clarified things for me. Such a simple but powerful idea that should make it easier to put the character arc into words and see quickly if it’s really a change.

McKee believes we should not only do this for the whole story, but for each scene, sequence (a string of scenes with its own climax, like a chapter), and act.

I can envision + and – signs alongside my goal/conflict/disaster notes for each scene, and going through my outline when I’m done with the first draft to make sure I flipped the character’s circumstances or way of thinking. Somehow it’s easier when you break it down to employed/unemployed, married/divorced, safe/unsafe, sad/happy, hot/cold, poor/rich.

I’m only on chapter two of STORY, so I expect to have more lightbulb moments along the way.

Had any of your own lately that you’d like to share?

Photo credit: LAPTOP IDEA © Yanik Chauvin | Dreamstime.com