As part of both my coaching service and my critique service, I get to see the framework of a lot of stories in progress. When it comes to conflict in general, and Black Moments in particular, there’s one thing I’ve noticed over and over.
People pull their punches.
They get to the Black Moment, and it’s really more of a Light Gray Moment. What happens is… unpleasant. Possibly even upsetting.
As a reader, I don’t want unpleasant or upsetting. I want soul-crushing*. I want to be tied up in knots. I want to stay up until three a.m., wondering how this character is going to get out of this predicament.
*And if you think this doesn’t apply because you’re writing comedy, you are so very, very wrong. I direct you to THE HANGOVER, which is a funny gross-out movie, a perfect mystery, and a great example of how to raise stakes.
How to crush a soul (successfully.)
There are four questions you have to answer for your reader before you can have a true soul-crushing Black Moment:
1. “Why do I care about this character?”
Usually, this is interpreted as: is my character sympathetic? Can the reader relate to the character? Because relating to a character means your reader can imagine herself in the same situation. She would care if it was happening to her. That’s one step closer to caring about the character. Bottom line: your character needs to be interesting, in an intriguing situation. The situation will carry you until we learn more about the character. (One further note: she doesn’t need to completely empathize. I love the show Dexter, and I can’t imagine chopping people up. That said, I relate to his misguided sense of justice… and I look at the building conflict and go, Wow, how would I get out of that?)
2. “What am I rooting for?”
Once you’ve managed to create a character readers can care about, you’ve got to go to the next step. Readers need a clear and tangible outcome to root for. Like any good goal, you need to know when you’ve achieved it. Be crystal clear.
3. “What happens if the character doesn’t get it?”
This is what’s known as creating high stakes. If the answer to your character not getting what she wants is “she’ll be unhappy” then you do not have stakes. You’ve got a tangible outcome, right? You need a tangible consequence for failure. If the ending means the character doesn’t achieve her goal, but there’s still a happy ending because she realizes that she didn’t need it, this still applies. She has to feel shattered and hit rock bottom before realizing that. She can’t simply have “an awakening.” (See point 4.)
4. “What’s stopping the character from getting it?”
This is the whole shebang: conflict. What’s standing in the way of success? It not only needs to be sizable enough to require a lot of ingenuity and effort, it needs to escalate… like climbing a mountain, you’d better make sure every step gets harder. Oh, and be wary of internal conflict. If your character has a goal of, say, getting married, and she’s got a proposal and everything but her conflict is her abandonment issues, if you’re able to solve it by saying “she decided her abandonment issues didn’t matter” then I have news for you: YOU DO NOT HAVE CONFLICT.
Once you’ve got these four elements, you’re ready to craft a truly soul-crushing Black Moment.
Take your goal. Look at precisely what your character wants, and why she wants it.
Next, write down a list of the ten worst things that could happen in terms of those characteristics. For example, let’s say you’ve got a character who wants to get married by the time she’s thirty. The reason why: she’ll inherit a billion dollars… and she’s been struggling financially, trying to make ends meet to cover the expenses of a demanding and dysfunctional family as well as pay for school.
From a Black Moment standpoint, it has to look like she is not going to get the money, because she’s not going to get married. To really make it worse, she’d get kicked out of school and disowned. See? No punches pulled there. And say she fell in love with someone who doesn’t believe in marriage, and she was going to married some other guy just to get the money. Bam! She loses the guy she’s in love with, too!
At that point, she could also get hit by a truck. Or maybe learn an asteroid is heading toward her home town. Those are, admittedly, Very Bad Things. However, they don’t really tie to the goal and motivation, so they don’t really apply. The Black Moment must be in terms of what your goal and motivation have set up.
Donald Maass suggests a great trick: write down at least twenty possibilities for scenarios where this could go. The first ten will probably be stereotypical, complete cliches — what the reader’s expecting. The next ten is where the juice is. Stretch yourself.
Where the torture comes in.
You might think that the torture in the title means torturing your protagonist. That’s true, to a certain extent. More importantly, you need to torture your readers. You’re putting someone they care about in gradually increasing pain. Worse, you’re making them watch!
The really amazing thing?
They’ll thank you for it. Pay you for it. And keep coming back for more.