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Behind the Black Moment

As a writer starts to learn her craft, she’ll start hearing certain catch phrases – the inciting incident, the point of no return, the black moment.  Those are the beats, the story moments we have learned are commonly part of satisfying plot arcs. Something will to happen to disrupt our character’s life, they will have to make a choice they can’t turn back from, and then toward the end there will to be a moment when all seems to be lost, when it looks like they won’t succeed and the happy ending is truly out of reach.  Then of course they rally and triumph and we all live happily ever after, but that black moment, that moment when the HEA is in peril, is what makes the triumph so sweet.  The blacker the night, the more beautiful the dawn.

Or so we’ve been taught – and I generally tend to agree, but I do think there is a potential for forced, contrived writing when we get ourselves in a mindset of “I need a black moment.”  Today I want to take a different angle on it, and instead of thinking why the story needs a black moment or why I, the author, need a black moment in the story, I want to think about why the characters need that black moment.  Why it is an unavoidable part of their path to the happily-ever-after (or HEA).

This may seem obvious, but to me it was a real aha moment when I realized that the best black moments are the ones that force the character to confront a fear, or learn a lesson, or face a hidden truth that is standing in the way of their ability to achieve their goals.  Those moments are necessary to the character’s growth as well as the plot.   And inevitable, because without them, the HEA simply could not exist.

For example, the hero of my upcoming release cannot live happily ever after until he faces his fear of being left – so the black moment has to highlight that fear.  He has to tell the heroine to leave before she can make the choice to do it herself – which of course plays into her deepest fear, that she will never be good enough to be loved for who she is. It isn’t until both of them are forced to see how their fears have been controlling their actions that they are able to be open to the possibility of the real love they have with one another.

If there is something that your character has been avoiding that they must overcome in order to achieve their HEA, the black moment can be the catalyst that forces them to confront their hidden truths and the fears they’ve shoved aside. 

Take the movie 27 Dresses for example.  (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)  As in all films where deception plays a part (James Marsden isn’t entirely truthful at the beginning), the truth has to come out before the hero & heroine can establish an honest, open relationship.  The characters may be falling in love, but until it comes out that he was paid to date her (10 Things I Hate About You) or that she invented the fact that she was engaged to his brother (While You Were Sleeping), there can be no HEA.  But in 27 Dresses, the truth about James actually comes out relatively early since it is not, in fact, the biggest obstacle to the HEA. 

The black moment is actually when Katherine Heigl sabotages her sister’s engagement to the boss she is secretly in love with.  That cringe-worthy moment is the catalyst for a greater understanding with her sister, and also helps her realize that her boss isn’t the one she wants to be with after all.  It isn’t until she has that moment that she can be free to pursue a relationship with dear ole James.  If she didn’t have that black moment, there would always be the question of whether she only loved James by default.  

It’s all about putting the relationship to the test.  It’s like in the TV show Survivor (I’m a total superfan).  Everyone can say they love one another, but you never know who you can really trust until you go to that first tribal council and see where the votes really are.  The relationship has to be tested in order to get to a satisfying HEA – and that is what the black moment does.  It puts our characters to the test.

So if you’re stuck trying to figure out your black moment, instead of asking “What’s the worst that can happen?”, maybe try “What truth do they need to face to get to the HEA?” or “What does my character need to learn to be ready for their HEA?”  It’s another way of reframing that common plot thread – and creating a juicy black moment that feels inevitable, necessary, and ultimately satisfying.

How do YOU approach the black moment?

17 responses to “Behind the Black Moment”

  1. Addison Fox says:

    What a great post, Vivi!! And I LOVE that you used 27 Dresses – that movie is a perfect example of taking the “expected” and turning it on its ear.

    Great things to think about here!!

    Addison

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  2. Tracy Brody says:

    You really got me thinking since I so often heard and thus think of the BBM as them losing it all/worst that can happen, yet in my just finished MS, it really is about my heroine’s willingness to face her fear rather than run from it that leads to her HEA. Thanks, Lizzie. Will we see you on Survivor next? Big fan too!

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    • Oh holy wow, I would be so horrible on Survivor. I would *love* to compete in all the challenges and try all the social gamesmanship, but I become so cranky when I’m not fed on a regular schedule I’d probably sabotage my own game from hunger. Would you go on? It would be so fun to cheer you on!

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  3. Tracy Brody says:

    I would go – but that would mean actually applying. I’d spend months beforehand strengthening my swimming skills and learning to build a shelter and start a fire. Like you, I get pretty cranky when I’m hungry, and the ugly side of me would probably emerge. At least I’d drop some weight until I got voted off.

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    • The infamous Survivor diet – not sure that’s how I want to drop 15 pounds. And YES on strengthening the swimming skills – I felt bad for that kid who learned to swim right before he went on to the show. He needed to be on the team that won right off the bat so he could sit out the swimming challenges. I’ll be curious to see how this Edge of Extinction thing plays out.

      You should apply! It would be such an adventure! A once in a lifetime experience!

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  4. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I really love that thought: What truth must they face? I may even go back through my completed books and see if I got there naturallY.

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  5. Darynda Jones says:

    I love this so much!!! Since I write mystery with a hint of thriller for the most part, my black moment tends to come when the heroine has to solve the mystery and save the day. But your approach would make any success so much more meaningful. UGH! BACK TO MY OUTLINE! hehehe

    Fantastic post!

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    • I think we naturally do a lot of this stuff instinctively – and if it isn’t broke don’t fix it! But it’s fun to have a new way of approaching the problem for when it feels like it isn’t quite working.

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  6. So helpful having that alternate question instead of trying to force it. Thanks, Vivi. (And I would love to see someone I know on Survivor!)

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  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    Such a smart way to see it, Vivi!! I need to think how to make this work in my WIP.

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  8. Barbra says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I was replotting a MS this morning and couldn’t quite figure out what it was missing. You got my brain churning and I’m stoked to put the final planning touches on it. Always go back to the basics!

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  9. What a great post and definitely gives me food for thought. I love the idea of both of them facing their worst fear as the black moment because it gives both of them one final chance to grow before the HEA!

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