Article of The Month

Developing the Dark Moment

Developing the Dark Moment

Copyright 1999 by Alicia Rasley

Not all books need dark moments, but properly used, this point of crisis can intensify the conflict and at the same time, initiate its resolution.

Think of the dark moment as the time when the protagonist reaches rock bottom. All seems lost. This will usually precede the climax (where the major plot problem is resolved), and thus take place near the beginning of the final part of the book. This is when all the torturing you've done has its greatest effect. But, just as Mommy always tells Tot during the spanking, the torture is meant to build character. The protagonist should experience despair, and then through courage come out of it with redoubled determination and greater wisdom.

The 5 Ds of the Dark Moment:

Dilemma-- the situation has disintegrated around the protagonist, and all seems lost.

Desperation-- the protagonist flails about, considering the most extreme escapes from the dilemma.

Despair-- the protagonist surrenders to despair, certain that there is no way out.

Deconstruction-- in the calm that follows despair, the protagonist begins to analyze the situation, deconstructing needs, values, and options.

Decision-- the protagonist decides what can be discarded, and what's most essential to be kept, and determines a course to achieve that.

The climax is the working out of the decision the protagonist made as a result of the brutal deconstruction forced on him by the dark moment.

So the dark moment is something of an acid test, if you don't mind mixed metaphors. As novelist and writing teacher Jenny Crusie puts it, the dark moment can offer a moral dilemma, one that confronts the protagonist with a threat to the internal identity. It's a time to clarify what sort of "self" the protagonist wants to be. Somehow the darkness forces light on what seemed to be impenetrable conflict.


For example:

Hero is that anomaly, the honorable politician. He loves his work, shaking hands, helping constituents, being on TV, running for election. And he also loves being able to further the social causes he believes in, even if he has to cut ethical corners and cover up the misdeeds of others. Here is where the moral dilemma starts: He sees himself as a man of integrity, but also as a man who is dedicated to serving the less fortunate. Fulfilling his role as a public servant leads gradually to valuing the end over the means, and thus chipping away at his integrity. He is able to live with this tension only as long as he's not confronted with the reality of his divided self.

Because of his love for the heroine, who is wrongfully blamed for the committee chairman's crimes, however, he faces the dilemma: He is participating in an injustice by keeping quiet about the scandal. If he speaks out, he loses his congressional seat, and his constituents and his causes will suffer, not to mention his ego and sense of purpose. If he doesn't, the heroine will lose her job and her reputation, and he will have to confront his loss of integrity.

The dark moment forces him to consider what really matters. The heroine's belief in him? Yeah. His own sense of integrity? Yeah. No conflict there. Then he looks at his job. He can't have her and integrity, and the job too. It's very dark-- there's no solution apparent.

Now what can he do? He can use this dark moment to deconstruct his situation, to determine what about his job really matters, and how he can preserve that without losing his integrity. The rest he can sacrifice. He decides that the fame and the fun of the chase and the thrill of victory and the Capitol office aren't what really matter to him. It's the social causes that he finds essential to his sense of self. And though it will hurt terribly, he realizes he can sacrifice the congressional seat and its perks and still fight for his social causes in some other way. Then he'll have self-respect, and the respect of the heroine, and justice will be served.

In other words, the dark moment confronts him with the need to establish a new value system, and that means going deep inside and deciding what counts for him, and what he needs to sacrifice to achieve it. The darkness comes from the initial realization that he will lose it all. But with courage he's able to examine himself and the situation and -choose- to lose something in order to become what he must be. The sacrifice, ironically, is less painful after the dark moment, because it's less sweeping than the trauma he was just contemplating, and he knows it will lead to a resolution and re-integration of his divided self.

Without the dark moment, the protagonist might have gone on for years, performing a moral balancing act but gradually losing self-knowledge and self-respect. It is the despair that forces him into analysis and action, and brings on the climax and resolution of the conflict.

Go to previous articles:

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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The Story Within Writing Series

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