Two weeks ago my daughter and I went to a movie right after I’d spent a weekend with writer friends talking about plotting. Instead of just watching the action, I sat there thinking: there’s the call to action, there’s the black moment, there’s the renewed call, there’s the climactic moment, and there’s the return to what will be the character’s new normal. I still enjoyed the movie, but jeez, I wish I hadn’t analyzed it at the same time.
In this particular movie the protagonist has his black moment in the woods, in the mud, during a rain storm. He wallowed for a bit, before he realized he had to go forward, to accept the call, to become the hero of his journey. It made me think about black moments in mystery writing.
There’s a difference between black moments and giving your protagonist trouble. Trouble is: your protagonist is being chased through the dark, she comes to a river, she finds a raft, she shoves off, a terrible storm comes up, she loses the pole she has for steering, she hears a speed boat pursing her and a waterfall ahead. That’s a lot of trouble.
Where does the black moment fit in to all of this? It could be at the crucial moment where she hears the speed boat behind and the rapids ahead. She lies on the raft thinking it’s all over. The storm hammers her. She will either die at the hands of her pursuers or by going over the waterfall. There is no future, the past no longer matters.
The black moment, therefore, is the darkest point before the proverbial dawn.
And the dawn will come—in a mystery at least (unless you’re talking noir). But your character doesn’t know it, not until the renewed call to action occurs.
Picture the protagonist lying there, thinking of the people who depend on her. She can’t give up so she dives into the water, fights the current, and swims to shore—her call to action renewed! Her pursuers think she’s gone over the falls, so she’s free (for the time being) to solve the mystery.
There are lots of opinions about where this black moment should occur in a manuscript. Some people think it should be at the midpoint of the book, some at the end of the second act, and some right before or during the climactic scene. Whoa! What’s a writer to do? People who are strict plotters will probably disagree with me, but I think it depends on your book. It might be slightly different depending on your story and what your protagonist is up against.
Black moments don’t need to stand out with a big neon flashing sign over your character saying: Attention, this is the black moment. Really, you don’t want your readers to stop and think, aha, the black moment. You want it to be part of your protagonist’s emotional journey. In my fourth book, A Good Day To Buy, Sarah’s black moment is when she realizes she’s about to be caught in a lie and will have to face betraying two people she loves. In the third book, All Murders Final, it’s when Sarah wants to walk away from her investigation and leave it to the professionals.
So far, there’s been no wallowing in mud for Sarah, her black moments have been more subtle. But, hey, who knows. Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.
Writers: Do you think about black moments as you write? Readers: Do you spot black moments in books?
Sherry Harris, a former director of marketing for a financial planning company, decided writing fiction couldn’t be that different than writing ads. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But eventually because of a series of fortunate events and a great many people helping her along the way, Kensington published Tagged For Death the first in the Agatha Award nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. Sherry is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters In Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters In Crime, where she serves as President.
Sherry honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. She uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the series. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.