Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Bright Black Moment

I confess. Until I started hanging out in writerly circles, I’d never heard the term Black Moment. Naturally, like every kid who’s been to junior high, I’d been taught the major features of the Western novel. These features are (Say it with me, class.) introduction, exposition, climax, denouement or falling action, and conclusion. But Mrs. Daugherty never said anything about a Black Moment and I imagine your seventh grade English teacher didn’t either.

So what the heck is the Black Moment? How does it fit into that spectrum, and where? That’s a question I’ve heard again and again in writers’ workshops and conferences, and seen in articles and blogs. In her workshop, The One Page Plot: an At-a-Glance Method for Building Story, author Christie Ridgway tackles the Black Moment, saying it’s when the opposite of the story goal happens. Renowned Hollywood script doctor and lecturer Michael Hauge teaches it’s the point in the story when all is lost. That’s all as in, everything the protagonist hoped to gain or achieve.

Of course, as readers and as writers, we want more than just a Black Moment that meets these minimum requirements. We want a good one. A real humdinger. So what’s a good Black Moment?

R8er and critique partner extraordinaire, Candy Lyons, recently told me she knows she’s got the Black Moment right when it makes her cry. That’s when I realized what I want in a good Black Moment. I want to cheer.

When I’ve reached the point in the story where everything is stripped from the protagonist, I want to bite back tears, ball my fists and, through gritted teeth, cheer that hero or heroine on, saying, “Come on! Come on! I know you can do it!”

As it turns out, that desire may be hard-wired in many readers as well as writers—particularly those who love mysteries, thrillers, and suspense of all kinds. Furthermore, it may be connected to the reader/writer’s desire to see justice in the world. Theoretically, it doesn’t matter if that justice is meted out by nature (as in Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits); chance, fate, or Karma (like in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking); or societal authorities (such as judges and jurors and the likes of Perry Mason and Ben Matlock). Some readers and writers just have to have in their reading experience. The theory snagged my attention at the first writers’ conference I ever attended, and though it’s one of many I’ve studied, I think there’s something to it.

What do you think? When all is lost for that poor protagonist, do you cry, cheer, sigh, or dance? It's your turn to confess. What makes a bright Black Moment?


  1. For me, the black moment is when I feel uncomfortable. Depending on the situation, it can make me cry or make me cheer them on, but whatever it is, it's a feeling that I don't want the character to stay like this forever. When I'm writing, I feel sad or upset for the character and want to write them out of it. Sometimes I will write them out of it before I write them into it. But if I'm reading, it's what keeps me going past my bedtime to see how they are going to get out of their predicament. The thing that kept me reading as a kid until 4 in the morning during summer break, until my eyes felt like they had sand in them. Because I just HAD to know how they would get out of it.

  2. So true, Lisa! I'll read and read to get past that uncomfortable feeling, too! Maybe it makes us write faster--I don't know. I've noticed that sometimes my writing friends may feel their own Black Moments have lasted forever. Really, it's often just a few pages. But think of all the uncomfortable feelings the writer had to endure, sometimes for a few weeks, to produce those pages. You bring up a great point. Then again, you usually do!

  3. Well, Nicole, you know my answer. When I cry. When I experience the loss my protag feels, that's when the big black moment is successful for me. I remember listening to the last book of the Harry Potter series on audio while on a road trip home from a family vacation. We'd been driving for hours. Everyone else had fallen asleep and when I got to the point where HP sacrifices everything in that confrontation in the Enchanted Forrest with Voldemort. I began to sob. I had to stop for gas and I got out, still sobbing and pumped my gas. People were staring at me. When I got back in the car, my husband was awake and he demanded to know what was wrong. I couldn't get it out I was crying so har. And all because of a moving story with a character I'd invested countless hours and years into. I couldn't believe what J.K. Rowling had done and there was no way I thought she could pull out any type of happy ending that would satisify me after that. Fortunately, she did. And I adored it.

  4. Ah, the black moment. The moment of ritual death. The point when all seems lost...I'm with Candy, when a black moment is done exceptionally well, it usually makes me tear up. Even if the rest of the book is so-so, a good black moment will reach into my chest and rip my heart out. I guess it depends on the kind of book as to whether I'll start rooting for them too. I think though, that I can't get to the point of cheering within the black moment itself. I need a breather to regroup - as characters often do - before I can change gears to save the day mode.

    But I see where you're coming from, because I *hate* when a black moment is not sufficiently "saved." It's why I don't tend to read "literature" and why some mystery have lost my patronage over the years. In the first case, I've found a wee bit more wallowing in the black moment than I prefer (sometimes it can feel like a whole book is a black moment) and in the second, I've thrown the book across the room when that sense of justice you mention goes missing from the resolution. In romance (as I define it at least), the characters always triumph over the black moment. Not always in a way that satisfies me personally, but mostly in a way that satisfies the genre's expectations.

  5. Nichole,

    Great topic. I think another purpose that the so-called "Black Moment" serves is to highlight and accentuate the positive resolution that comes afterwards. In other words, it is the valley that one descends into that makes the mountain top seem that much higher and unachievable--and yet that much more glorious when it is achieved. Seen from sea-level, that mountain may not seem as high or impressive.

    After all, would Job's story of blessing have been the same had he not lost everything just before? Or would Joseph becoming second only to Pharaoh in Egypt have seemed as unlikely had he not been sold into slavery? And would Jesus' life have meant as much if he didn't go to the cross to die and then be ressurected?

    The valley always makes the mountain top stand out in stark contrast.

    - David

  6. Candy, I thought of you when Mr. Christoff and I saw the final Harry Potter film last weekend. Of course, the structure of a movie is a little different than that of a book--and the experience of curling up with a good novel can be a far cry from enjoying a movie in the theater, but a young woman in the row in front of us literally clapped her hands and bounced in her seat at each of those Black Moment elements. I had to grin! That's a woman after my own heart.

    Interestingly, in both the book and the film, what brought a tear to my eye was the end, perhaps when justice had been served. Hmmm...

    But cry or cheer, we've just got to have that Black Moment to have a satisfying read, don't we?

  7. Interesting, Keely. I imagine knowing what you MUST have to be a satisfied reader, makes you a stronger writer in your chosen genre. After all, the story has to satisfy the writer first. That's what keep me building those painful black moments. If I can't get worked up to a good cry or a hearty cheer at my own black moment, who else will? I hope that means you've got a humdinger of a black moment just around the corner for your readers. I bet you do!

  8. Great point, David! I agree. The deeper the valley, the higher the peak.

    What do you make of stories where the valley, rather than the mountain, sticks with us? I'm thinking of your Job example. It seems we always think of him as the guy who lost everything, rather than the man who ended up so much better than he began.

    Now, that's got me thinking about stories where we remember the Black Moment rather than the triumph that follows, and why we might cling to that. Hmmm...

    Any ideas about that, anyone?

    Thanks for getting me thinking, David!

  9. Hello,
    I had not heard of this term until this blog. But then, I'm not a writer.

    I find it interesting that in thinking upon examples that have touched me, I found that some perhaps were too black. The Harry Potter example was one of them. It didn't necessarily seem that all was lost to me because the self sacrifice could be the means to Voldemort's end. I was looking for a creative solution there, but also knew that there was no way of Harry not surviving - if not there would be no final satisfaction. Maybe because it was so completely black I couldn't accept it on face value. I didn't believe it. Or maybe I wasn't given enough time to come around to believing it.

    Is there such a thing as too black of a moment?


  10. Excellent question, Alicia.

    "Is there such a thing as too black of a moment?"

    Being far from a black moment expert myself, I'd still say yes. And here's why...If the conclusion of a story leaves the reader feeling the protagonist sacrificed too much in that big, black moment, then yes, that moment might've been too black.

    As you point out with Harry Potter, the payoff, after the black moment, has to be satisfying. Maybe some would say Harry didn't sacrifice enough?

    I can also think of one example where a story's hero sacrificed waaaay too much. If you've read this novel, let me know. The writer is a good one. His political thrillers are often on the lists. His projects are on TV. But to spare him and myself (No razzing me, readers!) I'll omit his name and just say that well into one of his thrillers, his protagonist dies. And there's no miraculous/paranormal/sci-fi device to bring him back.

    The hero kicks the bucket, buys the farm, and heads to that ultimate library in the sky. His buddy picks up the quest, right where the hero left off...and I didn't care.

    I couldn't get into it. The hero sacrificed too much. There was no payoff for me when the buddy met the story goal and overcame the bad guys at the end.

    Of course, maybe that had more to do with my emotional investment in the protagonist as a reader. But anyhoo...that black moment was, as you say, too black.

    Thanks for your question, Alicia, and thanks for visiting. Come hang out with the R8 any time!