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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.

Image credit: By Corazón.svg: User:Fibonacci derivative work: InverseHypercube (Corazón.svg) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons

The Hauge

Which screenwriting consultant is on retainer to Will Smith’s production company?

Which story expert can spot your novel’s flaw in six seconds flat?

Who can help you take your story to a whole new level?

Michael Hauge.

If you’re not familiar with his Six Stage Plot Structure, check it out here.

I was lucky enough to attend Michael's workshop last weekend in Bethesda, and it was incredible. On day one, he went through each step of the hero's inner and outer journey, using popular movies (including video clips) like Shrek, Wedding Crashers, Hitch, Gladiator, and Good Will Hunting to illustrate the concepts.

The second day we spent the morning analyzing Sleepless in Seattle in depth, as well as reviewing key concepts from the day before.

In addition to the lectures, I learned a lot from his advice to others in the audience. Eight of us won the raffle to eat lunch with him where we asked general questions, and each got some one-on-one time where in thirty seconds he nailed my problem with the external story goal: no visible finish line/item that readers could imagine (e.g. a trophy, $20000, a dead terrorist, the deed to that coveted beach cottage).

The event covered a day and a half, so I could write a book on what I learned, but instead, I’ll share with you some of my favorite takeaways.

  • Emotion in a story grows out of conflict, not desire.
  • The arc moves the protagonist from identity to essence.
    • Identity: the emotional armor we wear to protect ourselves; our facade
    • Essence: who we are when you strip away all the emotional armor; our true self
  • In a romance, the love interest should be the protagonist’s destiny because he/she sees beneath the protag’s identity and connects at the level of essence. (Not just chemistry or kismet.)
  • When two characters are in conflict, it’s at the level of identity; when they’re connected, it’s at the level of essence. (This was a huge aha for me. I think this will really help me understand why conflict is lacking in certain scenes.)
  • Instead of the protag having to make a choice as the conflict, have her try to take on both things she wants to do. The conflict can come in trying to make both endeavors work (e.g. caring for an ailing parent and running a business).

Even if you’ve listened to his CD The Hero’s Two Journeys with Christopher Vogler, I highly recommend Michael's in-person workshop. Not only will you pick up things you didn’t catch before, but having him there to answer questions is priceless. And if you haven't tried The Hero's Two Journeys, what are you waiting for? 😉

Not all educational opportunities are worth the time and money, though I've found that every workshop, craft book, or online class provides a new way of looking at something I already knew, a deeper understanding, or an outright epiphany.

Michael Hauge's workshop was worth every minute and every penny. If you get the chance, go.

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

Getting started

It’s hard to determine a story’s turning points if you don’t know where it begins. Duh, right? But a large part of my pre-writing phase has been focused on figuring out what is back-story and what’s not.

It sounds like such a simple concept, but beginning too early or too late can be the death of an otherwise good manuscript. In my experience judging contest entries—and with my own writing—the temptation to start too early is especially strong.

In our desire to make sure the reader understands what’s going on, we’re tempted to throw in everything that’s happened to the hero since birth. While some books do this well, in my opinion the best books start with a change, or a foreshadowing of change. That is, a spark or catalyst that logically sets things in motion.

I recently judged a contest entry where the writing—the element of getting words on the page in a coherent and interesting fashion that makes me want to keep reading—was good. Unfortunately, the author started too far back and I eventually grew impatient for the “real story” to start already.

In my own manuscript, Slow Burn, I originally had opening scenes where the hero’s brother is kidnapped, the hero gets shot, and later the heroine escapes from a boat into the ocean and then struggles to survive the cold water. Some of those scenes were pretty exciting, but when I tried to figure out what the goal of the scenes were in relation to the story I realized I’d started too early in the characters' lives.

Where did things really change for them in a relevant way? When Steve found Libby floating in the water.

That was the inciting incident. (And coincidentally, or not, that scene was the original spark for the whole book.) It brought them together, started them on their initial journey, and paved the way for my first turning point. Everything I’d written before that became back-story that I sprinkled throughout the MS.

And in fact, not immediately knowing how or why Libby ended up in the ocean creates a story question that hopefully entices the reader to keep reading.

What about you? Do you struggle with where to start?

NaNo particles

As of November 10th, I have written 16,748 words for NaNoWriMo. After a frenzied couple of days of being behind, I’m back on track. Here are a few of the tricks that are helping me move forward and keep my internal editor napping soundly.

An outline. I’ve mentioned this before, but I spent about six weeks playing around with the story and characters before I finally had a decent vision of my major plot points and some of the necessary scenes in between. This has been an absolute lifesaver when I finish a scene and think, “Now what?” I check the outline and get back on track.

A change log. This isn’t for tracking revisions I’ve done, this is for tracking revisions I need to make. For small items that I want to come back to, I’ll either annotate the section (using Scrivener’s annotation feature), or mark it with a ZZZ (for which I have a saved search in, yes, Scrivener), and find it later when I’m in edit mode.

That’s what the change log isn’t. It is a document where I make notes of things that I need to fix in earlier scenes so that they match what I’m writing now. For example, halfway through the book, I decide that a reporter needs to be at the funeral in part one of the book for my current scene in part two to make sense. In the past, I would have gone back and fixed all the relevant scenes before moving forward.

Now, I note it in the change log and keep writing. Two big advantages here. One, I don’t lose my momentum with the current scene. Two, if I change my mind again later, I have just saved myself a lot of unnecessary time.

A tea timer. I’m trying to write in one hour chunks without interruption. Then at the end of each hour, I can take a (quick!) break to read email, play on Twitter, or read a blog. Or, you know, eat, work out, talk to my kids. This way I get a reward for my hard work, but don’t get sucked into the Internet vortex for hours on end. For this, I like the Tea Timer widget on the Mac because it travels with my laptop.

Understanding family and friends. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to find them, but I’m lucky enough to have my own set. The Engineer may not understand my love of writing and my addiction to books, but he respects it, and puts up with dirty bathrooms and dog hair on the floor. Or he cleans it himself! 😉 See, there’s that practical romance thing again…

So, those are my not-so-secret weapons to pounding out the words during NaNoWriMo, or any other month of the year. What are yours?

Filling my toolbox

My writing education has a theme. I cannot learn and apply a new concept or technique until my brain is ready for it. I’ve read book after book and taken numerous classes on all aspects of writing. Characterization, point of view, dialog, plotting, and so on. But often, even if I see the value of a lesson, it doesn’t “take” without some basic foundational knowledge that I don't yet have.

In basketball, they don't practice three-pointers before learning how to shoot from the key. (I hope.)

For example, I’ve been exposed to Dwight Swain’s ideas on using the scene and sequel technique for writing several times. (I hear Jack Bickham’s book aptly named Scene and Sequel, is a must have.) But for some reason, the concept didn’t click for me. Until now.

I’m taking a Pacing class with Mary Buckham. Seriously, if you ever get a chance to take one of her classes, run to get in line. Two of her lectures covered the S&S concepts, and all of a sudden it made sense. I give a lot of credit to Mary’s easy way of breaking ideas down to the basic, important points, and her willingness to answer all manner of dumb questions. Many of them mine.

I had a similar experience with Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks. I’ve mentioned it before. But looking back, many of the things I learned early on didn’t make complete sense to me until I understood the basic parts of structure. I took classes and read books that either ignored it, or assumed I knew it already.

As I move along on my learning journey, I’m acquiring the basic skeleton on which to hang everything else. It’s a heady feeling to see it all coming together, and be able to better identify where my areas of weakness are. I mindmapped my view of the writing process and the business and it turned out as shown below. You could probably argue different placement of some of the points, but I’d be most interested to hear what you think is missing.

Some elements of writing craft

The business of writing


Yes, I don’t know what I don’t know. There’s more out there that I haven’t yet discovered, I’m sure.

But I can also see how far I’ve come from that eager writer who knew nothing at all and just wrote for fun. Sometimes I miss the ignorance of those days because writing was pure joy. But the excitement is back as I start my new WIP knowing that my toolbox is filling up and I can use those tools to get my stories closer to the end product I want.

What's in your toolbox?