Sunday, 21 February 2010

black moment fail

How can you tell when you’re an idiot? You make the same mistake twice.

During the first draft of my urban fantasy THE INFERNAL FAMILY, I nearly blew the third act by copping out. Failing to make things bad enough for my protagonist. Then I stumbled over the concept of the black moment, the lowest possible point at which all seems lost, and had a little epiphany. I ended up writing some of my favourite and most violent scenes -- a rampage of vengeful destruction that carved up most of the cast.

Guess what I did to IRONBANE? Yep. Blew the black moment.

In fairness, there is a black moment. The antagonists come together to cause a huge cascading series of disasters, which the protagonist has to fix alone thanks to what she did to her devoted companion. She comes up with a plan, but it’s horrific even by her standards. She’s terrified of what the antagonists will do to her, what she’ll have to do to her friends, what she’s becoming. There’s supposed to be a real danger of not being able to go through with it.

At this point, I apparently decided that we needed a flashback to a much scarier situation in which she successfully overcame her fear. Thus murdering any tension and burying it in a shallow grave. I mean, this black moment is bad, but at least it’s not that bad, right? If she faced that, she can face this.

Yeah, I’m a structure genius all right.

Happily, I think I can fix this. But I’m thinking carefully about how I can avoid black moment fail in the future, and I’m coming up with some rules of thumb. The black moment is only black enough (for my taste) if:
  1. The protagonist is totally alone. Everyone they relied on must be dead, alienated or gone in some way. It should seem like the protagonist may never regain those close friendships.
  2. The protagonist should be facing certain death.
  3. The protagonist has to doubt themselves. You can be a hero in the face of certain death, but during a real black moment the protagonist can’t be a hero -- they can’t be proud of themselves at this moment. They have to be afraid, ashamed, despairing.
  4. The black moment should be the worst the protagonist can remember. Period. If the protagonist has been in worse situations, the black moment isn’t black enough.
Maybe if I consult these rules when planning my next novel, I can avoid ruining the third black moment in a row.

What do you think, team? Is the black moment important to you? Do you structure black moments into your novel? Do you stumble across them by accident? Can you improve on my rules of thumb?


  1. I always make sure there's a part of the story where everything goes pear shaped, but it doesn't always meet your black moment criteria. I do think it's important to have a point near the end of the story where everything goes wrong, and only the lessons the protagonist has learned can get them out.

  2. Hmm I don't know if my "black moments" meet your criteria. Mostly the second one though. The rest of them I guess they're a mix. Great post, it's good to know that we need black moments to really give our characters a hard time hehe

    By the way, I gave you shiny blog awards!

  3. I also think it's important that the black moment is one which the protagonist literally can't turn back from. It's that all or nothing moment that decides the outcome of the whole plot, but also means that things will never be the same. Definitely approve of having a lot of this at the end of the novel to avoid ruining the ending by being anticlimactic.

    And yay for mistakes that can be fixed easily! Go you :)

  4. Black moments. I have not heard of black moments before. I've been aware of similar concepts, but having a name and a list of criteria makes me think I should probably get myself one of these lovelies. *sends muse out to find one*

  5. YES, I've got one! It doesn't fit number 2, but... well, almost. :D This post is, as always, brilliant.

  6. Is this Alien from Westeros? Very cool blog. Ironbane does indeed sound freaking awesome.

  7. This is FABULOUS advice. I followed the link over from Tartitude, and just read a couple, and this is a real gem for those of us weenies who are afraid to be quite as rotten as we should to characters we've fallen in love with.

  8. Hm. This is a good thought. I have bad moments, but I don't think your definite of "black moment" would fit what I've written so far. Actually, strike that—it does fit one novelette, I think.

    But I don't think it would even work for what else I've done. Not because there is no dark point, but because… erm… how to put this…

    I don't follow standard act structure.

    There. That works.

    Still, I'm HORRIBLE to my characters.