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Writing a Big Black Moment

I always get stuck at end of a book.  Every darn time.  I cannot tell you how many endings I’ve had to redraft — more than once.  With this boatload of failure as my guide, I figure I’m the perfect person to write a blog on the topic of the BBM — the big black moment.  

And, as an added incentive to get ya’ll to comment, I’m going to be giving away a copy of HOME AT LAST CHANCE, my forthcoming release to one non-Ruby commenter.  I should note that I had to rewrite the ending of  this book about five times before I got it right.  

So what the heck is a BBM, anyway? 

Joseph Campbell says it’s the ritual death at the end of a story.  At the other end of the spectrum, a screenwriter would tell you that the BBM is the point where the boy loses the girl.  I don’t know about you but Campbell seems a little heavy, and the screenwriter’s guide seems a little shallow.

So, after much trial and error, I’ve come up with my own definition of a romance BBM. 

It is the moment when both the hero and the heroine face the real prospect of living the rest of their life without love.

I used to think that the BBM was easy to write.  I figured that I could just drop the antagonist into the story, put the heroine (or hero) in jeopardy, and, voila, a black moment would happen.  I discovered that this sort of thing isn’t actually the black moment at all.  It’s the trigger for a black moment. 

It’s completely counterintuitive, but the best BBMs have nothing to do with the antagonist showing up and causing mayhem.  The truth is, a black moment is created by the hero and heroine’s reaction to the mayhem.  More important, the hero and heroine’s reactions must always be tied to their character arcs.  Which means it takes a number of scenes to successfully set up your BBM.  In fact — most of the last half of your book is aimed at this moment. 

So, here are a few practical suggestions on how to set up a BBM, gleaned from my many screwups:

  1. Know your hero/heroine’s character arc.  Specifically you must know what he/she needs to learn by the end of the book.  The classic example is a heroine who needs to learn how to trust.
  2. In the middle of the book, write a big dramatic scene or series of scenes that requires the hero and heroine to behave as if they have learned whatever it is they need to learn.  (See my RSS last blog.)  So, for example, if your heroine needs to learn how to trust, put her in a situation where she has to trust the hero.  Make it a positive experience for her and let her have a first kiss or a love scene to celebrate her growth as a person.
  3. In the chapters leading to your BBM give your characters a series of problems that challenge what they have just learned in the middle of the book.  So, for example, if your heroine needs to learn how to trust, give her a bunch of obstacles in the external plot that call the trustworthiness of the hero into question.  She continues to trust the hero throughout this testing phase, although she has her doubts. 
  4. At the point where the hero and heroine are just about to declare their undying love, create a trigger in your external plot that forces the hero and heroine to abandon what they have learned.  This is the point where the antagonist can show up, or something else can happen in the plot that causes a major disaster to occur.  Whatever happens, the trigger must force the hero and heroine to willingly revert to the person they used to be, before the story started.  So if the heroine needs to learn how to trust, the antagonist shows up with ironclad evidence that the hero is a liar, a cheat, and a con man.  Once a character reverts, a black moment is created.  The only way out of the black moment is for the character to relearn (this time for good) whatever it is he or she began to learn in the middle of the book.

In my debut novel Welcome to Last Chance, I followed these steps to create an emotional black moment.

1)  My hero needs to learn how to look at life on the bright side.  My heroine needs to learn that she’s worthy of love.  In the middle of the book, I have my hero looking at the bright side of several big disasters, at least one of them triggered by the heroine.  The events in the middle of the book teach the hero the value of keeping an open and positive mind.  They also teach the heroine that she might have found a man who will love her in spite of her jaded past.

2)  In the next few chapters, I put my hero through the wringer.  At every turn he’s presented with more bad news about the heroine and various other relationships in his life.  He struggles to keep a positive spin on things, and comes to depend on the heroine’s help.  At the same time, by helping the hero cope with his problems, my heroine starts to think that she might be worthy of love, but she’s still consumed by worry that the hero is going to learn about her past and walk away.

3)  Of course the heroine’s worst fears are realized when the antagonist shows up and puts the heroine and members of the hero’s family into jeopardy.  The heroine saves the day, but the hero has been pushed beyond his ability to look on the bright side.  He walks away because of his inability to think positively.  When the hero walks away, he confirms the heroine’s belief that she’s unworthy of love.  This is the black moment — when the hero and heroine actively turn away from love for reasons that are not correct, but which seem reasonable to them at the time because they have reverted to the people they were at the beginning of the book.

So, are you good at setting up a black moment?  Have some tips to share?  Now’s the time, because I could always use a few more tips on setting up a good and satisfying ending.

43 responses to “Writing a Big Black Moment”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Oh my good lord, this is SOOOO clear and helpful!!

    I’ve been looking forward to this second post on plot structure after your “writing to the middle” post helped me so much…I got my middle fixed, and then got snagged around the Black Moment. I’ve read a billion explanations of the Black Moment, but this is by far the most useful I’ve ever read about how to do it in romance! (And I think I’ve got some sparks going around in my head about how to fix mine. Wahoo!!!)

    Hurray, Hope!! And thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Elisa,

      Thanks for suggesting the blog topic. Although, I have to say it’s way easier to outline what to do to create a BBM than it is to actually create one. My problem is that you spend the last half of the book helping your hero and heroine fall in love, so when you get to the BBM, pulling them apart requires them to regress. I can’t tell you how many times one of my CPs has said, “but your hero is acting like a jerk,” and I’ve had to say, “yes, exactly.” 🙂

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  2. Lynn Cahoon says:

    I’m working on edits now. And your insight into the BBM is priceless.

    I’m digging out my copy of Welcome to Last Chance and looking up your notes.

    Thank you!!!

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  3. Laurie Kellogg says:

    What a great Step-By-Step process, Hope. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it put in such easy to grasp terms before. Thanks for laying it out for everyone.

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  4. liz talley says:

    Very nice. Both these posts need a bookmark for me. I often just tell the story, but how wonderful is it to tell my characters’ story and then be able to go back and make sure this happens when it is suppose to happen? Since I’m in the middle of my book right now, this is perfect for me.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Glad to help. I have to admit that I can’t start a book unless I have a pretty good idea of what it is the hero and heroine need to learn by the end of the book. I wouuld say to anyone who doesn’t like to plot, that having this one piece of essential information is like having a GPS before you start. If every scene from the beginning is all about a heroine’s trust issues, the reader is going to see that internal arc. I also have to admit that even when I know this information, I still have problems sometimes writing a satisfying ending.

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  5. Vivi Andrews says:

    Interesting way of attacking it, Hope. I often think of the BBM as the moment when they FAIL and the happy house of cards falls apart.

    As an alternate way of looking at it, a BBM could be:

    The moment when the hero & heroine have achieved their initial, tangible goals, which they thought would make them happy, only to realize the victory was empty since it is in conflict with walking away with the One They Love.

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    • Oh, that is a good twist, Vivi. What they thought was important really isn’t, or has been replaced.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Vivi,

      This is also an excellent definition, especially if you’re writing a plot driven story, like a romantic suspense or a fantasy where a hero and heroine’s initial external goals are front and center.

      As an author of contemporary romances that are very chacter driven, I would find this definition confusing. In Welcome to Last Chance my hero’s external goal is a search for a “sane and stable woman” to be his wife (something the heroine isn’t.) The hero is presented with numerous options that might meet his needs, but he never really achieves this goal — he chooses the heroine instead. He abandons his goal, in other words, for something better. But he abandons that goal a long time before the BBM occurs. At the moment of the BBM, he takes a U-turn and goes back to the search for a woman who is sane and stable. He is very quickly presented with the “woman of his dreams,” and realizes that he’s been an idiot. So, yes, he does abandon his goal in the climax, but in the BBM he clings to that old way of thinking, and it’s the reversion to the orginal goal that for me, creates the black moment.

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  6. Awesome post, Hope. I’m a total panster so knowing what I need to be doing helps me in the right direction and you’ve layed the steps out so clearly. I’m sure I’ll refer to this post often. Thank you.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hi Autumn,

      I’m a reformed pantser myself. But I have discovered through numerous screw ups, false starts, endless revisions and rewrites, that having a good handle on the character arc of your hero and heroine is like having a GPS. You don’t really need a detailed outline, if you know what your characters want, and what they need to learn. You keep those things front and center in your mind and you’ll be able to write yourself around the shoals and rocks.

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  7. Um, bookmarked.

    I’ve often struggled with the BBM because when I began writing, I hadn’t heard of such a thing. It took me a while — and a rejection — to figure it out, and longer still to understand that it just wasn’t the moment where the antagonist screws things up. Maybe it CAN be just that in a different sort of story, but for contemporary romance in particular, it really should be deeper than that, as you describe.

    I’ve never heard it laid out quite like this, but I like the new angle, and I think it’ll be useful as I head through the middle and onto the end of my WIP.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Glad to be of service. Only one rejection? I’m sure I collected dozens of rejections for stories that were abysmally plotted and had no BBM at all. I believe in making every mistake you possibly can. Luckiy we learn from our mistakes. Some of us faster than others. 🙂

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  8. This is incredibly timely for me, as I’m crafting the BBM in my current work-in-progress right now. I’m a bit of an anomaly, in that I actually craft much of my stories around this moment. It’s one of the only things I have clearly in mind when I sit down to write chapter one (this isn’t to say I haven’t changed a BBM before, because I definitely have! But I like to know what my h/h are up against, so to speak, right from the get-go).

    I think you’ve nailed the definition perfectly, Hope– there has to be a moment where the reader thinks, “Are they actually going to be able to overcome this and have a happily ever after?” Being able to overcome internal obstacles (feeling worthy of love, to use your example) as well as external (an ex-husband who keeps turning up like a bad penny, to use an example from my WIP) makes for, in my opinion, an even better “ahhh” moment when the h/h have their resolution. Then the reader gets to feel as if she’s experienced the emotional roller coaster right along with them, and it gives a wonderful connection to the book.

    Of course, balancing the BBM is key. My biggest trick is creating a moment emtional enough to have doubt, but believable enough that they end up together. It’s a journey, to be sure!

    Great post 🙂

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Kimberly,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. I have no doubt that knowing the BBM before you start would be a useful thing to do. I’m still learning…

      But I so agree that if you can tie the external plot to the emotional arc and trigger the BBM in a believable way, the reader is going to find the ending way more satisfying. I’ve read books that just stop. Or books where there’s a lot of action and little emotion. Or books where one or the other character do something that doesn’t seem well-motivated. I have even written books like this. 🙂 The trick is to link the two stories together and to make the moment as believable as you can.

      Thanks for sharing.

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      • It’s sometimes tough to work backwards from all the drama I know will end up brewing between my h/h. I write chronologically, but my brain is always whispering about all this trouble they’re going to get into, hehe. But yes– I hear you 100% about stories that “stop”. I think we’ve all been there, either reading them or writing them.

        And I definitely agree that we have to kick them where it hurts the most right before letting them live HEA. I sometimes fear that my characters will refuse to talk to me when I do this 😉 You know what they say, it hurts me more than it hurts them, hah!

        What a great thread. You ladies inspire me!

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  9. Great summary of the BBM, Hope. I do love Joseph Campbell’s take, too. “Ritual death” – hah! That feels like where I’m at right now as I edit the BBM of my current WIP. Ah, frustration! Maybe a ritual sacrifice to the writing gods would help?

    I think the issue is the events leading up to the BBM don’t feel *strong* enough. Powerful enough. You can bet I’ll be working through your list as I plow through these edits…

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Anne Marie,

      I almost always feel that way about my endings. You spend all this time writing a book where the characters change and grow and then BAM right before the climax they have to do something dumb. Whatever trigger I use almost never seems strog enough in the first draft. The key is to kick them where it really hurts, so that when they react emotionally, the reader won’t throw the book across the room in disgust.

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  10. I so needed to read this post right now … I’m debating whether it’s time to start writing my BBM. I have about 20K left to the end of my WIP, and I think my previous MSs have waited too long to get to a BBM and the road to HEA feels rushed.

    This time, I was going to try to put it earlier and have more misery before the HEA. This definition and the tips couldn’t have come at a better time.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hey Arlene, thanks for stopping by. You know, I’ve never really thought about when is a good point to actually trigger the BBM. I’ll have to go back and check my manuscripts to see if there is any pattern at all to that.

      I do know that none of my black moments last very long. The hero and heroine are usually only broken up for a few hours or a day at most. I’m completely unable to keep them apart for days or months, as Susan Elizabeth Phillips did, masterfully I might add, in her latest novel. Man, that woman can write. 🙂

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    • Rita Henuber says:

      I put mine at about two-thirds in leaving the last quarter of the book for story resolution.

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  11. Rita Henuber says:

    Very nice suggestions. I think of the black moment as the event that stops the character arc and when one or both of the main characters go back thinking the way they did when the story began. When I think of a story I always have the beginning and end-don’t we all? But the next thing I envision is the black moment. What I’m writing now has a huge twist on a rather cliché black moment. Just need to fill in all the empty spaces. Easy peezy! Yeah right

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  12. Kim Law says:

    Such a terrific post, Hope! Really lays out what needs to happen in a clear and concise way. Now I need to rethink a couple things in my WIP. I’ll be sure to point people to this post in the future. It’s a keeper!

    Can’t wait to get your next book! 🙂

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  13. Tina Joyce says:

    Love this, Hope. The idea that the BBM causes the characters to revert to their former belief system! What an terrific way to look at it! Thanks so much.

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  14. Carla says:

    If you follow tip #3, you can also avoid the dreaded Sagging Middle. 🙂

    Related to #4 is when the hero/heroine try to solve the problem presented just before the BBM. H/h tries to revert back to identity but realizes, they can’t; they’ve changed too much to go back, and must proceed in their essence, even though this is new ground.

    I love a challenge! 🙂 Thanks for sharing this!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Ah, I was waiting for someone to mention Michael Hague, and his concept for character arc. Hague says that a charager has an “identity” and and “essence.” He has a very interesting take on character arc — that a protagonist’s journey is moving from identity to essence, where the identy is shaped by a rational but flawed view of the world. The hero/heroine is capable of love when they finally shed this identiy and find their true essence.

      It’s the same idea as trying to figure out what your character needs to learn by the end of the book. Whatever words you use to describe it — it’s still the character arc, and the seeds of the BBM have to be built into that and triggered by an event in the external plot.

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  15. Hope Ramsay says:

    And the free copy of HOME AT LAST CHANCE goes to ….

    Arlene Hittle!

    Arlene, please visit my webpage at http://www.hoperamsay.com, and use the contact form to send me an email with your snail mail address, and I’ll put your autographed copy of the book in the mail right away.

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  16. Tia Ramirez says:

    I love this! I used to think the sam thing about the BBM. But once I started writing I realized it’s not the event, it’s how they all react to it. Since then I’ve gotten better at showing rather than telling and letting my character’s emotions and reactions tell the story. This is such a great set up on how to biuld up to the BBM as well. I’m going to keep this in mind when I get to my BBM scenes.

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  17. I do have an unfortunate history with my BBMs — in my previous books, the black moments haven’t quite been big enough. Your tips are going to really help me amp these mss up. Thanks!

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  18. Sorry so late, Hope. Belly bug took me down for a few days.

    Great topic. Too many times, despite our best effort, the BBM turns into BM, and we have to rethink. Your tips might well make the process less uncomfortable. I’ll be printing this. *G*

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  19. […] With much help from my Ruby Sisters (see Hope Ramsay’s recent posts on the BHT and the BBM) and a shelf full of books on writing, I’ve got a pretty good grasp of those things for future […]

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