Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Black Moment


Black bear in stream.
Photo by Tom and Pat Leeson.

I hope they used a zoom lens.

Bears are one of the few animals that inhabit my part of the continent that I actively fear.

The photo strikes me as an appropriate icon for the Black Moment -- that ohmygod point in the climax of a novel where everything goes to hell.

Where the hero is up against the wall facing a firing squad or the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks. Before the sudden blare of the bugle tells us the cavalry is coming. Before the canvas is ripped away to reveal a company of marines.

When. All. Is. Lost.

And the protagonist faces death, defeat and the destruction of everything dear.

Via Writtenwyrdd (see sidebar) I found Jim Butcher who has a series of excellent essays deconstructing the elements of climax: he lists them as isolation, confrontation, dark moment, choice and reversal.

A fine example of this sequence is employed by fantasy/alternate history writer G.G. Kay in Song for Arbonne.

The good guys face a larger and more vicious enemy. Prior to the final conflict, a vital ally storms out of a strategy meeting and consorts with the enemy. At the balance point of the battle, just when a desperate tactic might succeed, the good guys face the bitterness of betrayal. He and his horsemen appear on the crest.

Then his troop charges -- straight at the enemy.

The important thing about the Black Moment -- and its resolution -- is that it must follow logically from the motives of the characters, the elements must already be present in the narrative, so the reader does not experience a WTF deus ex machina.

The Black Moment must be set up in advance.


40 comments:

Vesper said...

How interestingly you call it the Black Moment. The photo goes with it perfectly. Thank you for the links.

Bernita said...

Now I have to plan how to put my heroine in the middle of one, Vesper.

Jaye Wells said...

I've always found it interesting how despite training from birth in the construct of story, there exists in most people an eternal optimism. In other words, I still get frustrated when the black moment occurs (I want the hero to win, dang it, how will s/he do it now?). Yet, I would also be disappointed if the prize was too easily won.

Bernita said...

What I don't like is to see it coming, Jaye, though I want it to be perfectly reasonable in retrospect.

Josephine Damian said...

Another basic Writing 101 rule that so many failed writers get wrong.

Thanks for the reminder, Bernita.

Bernita said...

And I thank Written for linking to the reminder, Josephine.

Ello said...

This really made me wonder if I was at all effective in the set up for my black moment, like that term! But I think I am no longer the best judge for that! I can only rely on my readers to tell me and I hope they have been absolutely honest. sigh.

StarvingWriteNow said...

You did it again--now I have Penelope Pittstop stuck in my head, tied to the tracks by Snidely Whiplash and crying out "Haaayyyuulllp!" And where, oh where is Dudley Do-Right?

Bernita said...

Ello, I'm sure it will be fine.

It's such a classic example, Starving!

Carla said...

I hope they used a zoom lens as well! What an amazing photo to illustrate your point.

Sam said...

I was just thinking of the last time we went blueberry picking at the lake - and my mother suddenly screamed "Bear!"
We dropped our buckets and sprinted for the boat. No questions asked, no hesitation. Nobody saying "Heck, I have to get a photo of this!"
(We respect bears up in the northeast!)

Dave F. said...

I've called it "the face of ultimate evil" in that in most horror, it's the point where the villain strips away all pretense of being good. Alternately, it's the point where the hero faces his or her greatest fear and fails.

SzélsőFa said...

The worst moment may come out of the blue, to make the fear more sudden, but it should not come completely unexpected. Like one walks in a crowded street and there comes an alligator. That would be just plain stupid.
(What a stupid example).

I also have an irrational fear of bears.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

The black moment is the single thing most short stories I reject do not possess. Good post, Bernita.

Bernita said...

Nearly gives me palpitations, Carla!

One should always respect bears, Sam. Oh yes.

I don't think the hero has to fail, Dave, but the reader has to think that things are so dire that he might.

Bernita said...

Unless there's not a bear within a hundred miles, Szelsofa, I wouldn't call the fear "irrational."

Thank you, SS.
I'm not very good at black moments - shall have to work on that in my WIP.

Scott from Oregon said...

I went inflatable kayaking with a friend as nearsighted as I. We came around a bend inthe shallow river and saw precisely that black moment you refer to. Scat on the banks and a few scattering black bears as we traveled, led up the the black moment.

THis bear sttod and stared us down as the current fed us right into his dark mencace.

We tried back paddling to no avail. It was all looking rather certain and disasterous... when, much to our amusement, hordes of naked people started to stand and wave at us from the banks.

Young and pretty and tanned and hairy.

Hippies.

The bear turned out to be the largest black dog (NewFoundland cross) I'd ever seen.

SO sometimes, into the black moment, leads to lots of nudity and licking.

spyscribbler said...

Yes, so true. I'm not certain that my black moments don't end up gray and weak, sometimes.

Thanks for the link to Jim's journal. Love it!

Charles Gramlich said...

I like this, "the black moment." I know I've had these in each of my books, especially Cold in the Light and the last two Taleran books. I hadn't really thought of them in this way, though, and of how necessary they are. Good food for thought.

Julie said...

.... like the Phoenix principle?

raine said...

Great photo with subject.

Agree with what you've said here, yes.
One of my problems has always been setting up the black moment without giving TOO much away (if there's a mystery), or too much bloody foreshadowing, but not having it come out of the clear blue.
Quite right. Must be set up.

Robyn said...

SO sometimes, into the black moment, leads to lots of nudity and licking.

Scott...that's absolutely fricking brilliant...

Does the BM (adolescent snicker) always have to be action, though? I like BM's that are emotional, as well.

Bernita said...

I bet you clutched your paddle very tightly, Scott!

Lots of good stuff at his site, Natasha.

Charles, you're obviously a "natural."

Yes, Julie - providing the Phoenix principle means the protag goes down in flames, yet rises from the ashes.

I think so, Raine, as a natural/possible result of the conflicts set out earlier.

Bernita said...

Wouldn't any black moment be part of some sort of action or event, Robyn? An attitude, a speech, a decision?

Robyn said...

I meant not necessarily a Perils of Pauline thing. A woman choosing to say "I don't" at a wedding as she realizes she may love him but she can't live with him, for example. That's still an action, but more along emotional lines.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I wrote an ending to Hinterland and one of my favorite critiquers (and fellow editor) said, "NO NO NO! He needs to lose his sword, crawl through the mud in a violent thunderstorm, everyone dead or dying around him! He has to be covered in blood and devoid of all hope. Light should be cracking through the pearly gates; his relatives must be waving from the tunnel of white light. He must be so weak and hindered that the antagonist not only holds all the cards, but has plenty of time to play them.

And then, still, after all that Sean must prevail--alone."

Good advice. It's now got a pretty damned exciting ending.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol Sex Scenes, a situation like that is something I start my books with (like Madalric finding himself wounded and with a twisted ankle tied a sacrifical victim to a pagan altar with several hundred inimical Chatti milling around) - I really wonder how I can top that in the Black Moment. And Madalric isn't even the MC, I'm just mean to all my characters. :)

But then, so is GRR Martin and his readers love him for that.

Bernita said...

Robyn, I definitely think emotions are part of it, agony and despair and stuff like that.

A prefect example, SS!

I think you're a "natural," too, Gabriele.

cyn said...

great link. and as with you and risks, the Good Climax is very timely for me at the moment. thanks for sharing!

Bernita said...

Hope it's helpful, Cyn.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

This is one thing I'm not very good at writing. That moment when the character feels hopeless, nothing will get better.
I'm still working on getting that "moment" to shine a little better.

Bernita said...

Makes triumph shine the brighter, Jennifer.
I'm working on it too.

Shauna Roberts said...

Creating black moments is a technique that I haven't mastered yet, and not for lack of trying. Thanks for the link to the Butcher essays.

I lost my copy of Song for Arbonne in the flood and bought a replacement, but have not read it yet. I will move that to the top of my to-read pile and study how Kay accomplishes it.

I have to admit to being a fan of black bears. I admire their strength and intelligence and bravery and their ability to hibernate. I have never met one up close, though, except in a zoo.

Bailey Stewart said...

I love Jim Butcher!

Since I write romantic comedies, I have to have a black moment with a comical twist.

Bernita said...

Shauna, "Song for Arbonne" is probably my favourite Kay, and it is certainly worth studying as an example of Black Moment skill.

Delicious, Bailey!

Steve Malley said...

Apparently, when one encounters a bear, the protocols are different for black bears and brown, or 'grizzly', bears.

A black bear is generally docile and shy of humans. A harsh word or abrupt motion will often shoo them away.

A brown bear is territorial. Any harsh words, etc. may engage them in a little good-natured dominance combat. Humans rarely win.

Attacked by a brown bear, one is best to play dead. No dominance issue, no problem.

Attacked by a black bear, the hungry bear has decided you may be food and is proceeding to eat you. Fighting 'tooth and nail' is the recommended course. The nose is a good target.

The problem? Brown and black bears look alike, and they both come in a range of colors from honey-blonde to, well, black.

The brown bear has a distinctive hump on its back.

Sooooo... If a bear attacks, when deciding whether to fight back or play dead, WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE LOOKING FOR A HUMP?!?!

Great link, too, btw!

Bernita said...

Steve I view all bears with the greatest of respect - especially the ones with cubs.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great post, bernita! The Black Moment is where all that the characters have invested in emotionally, physically, etc. are held in the hand of fate. If something goes wrong, all is lost. And, as you rightly say, it must make sense how it occurs. The real possibility of failure must exist or the story will be flat, and the elements of the failure must feel realistically possible.

writtenwyrdd said...

Regarding bears, I must offer teh opinion that species specific responses are important, but really, knowing if you are in grizzly country, and knowing the relative size difference should be enough to know how to react. Besides, pepper spray and not getting between any mamma bear and her cubs, that's all you really need to decide what to do.

We have a local woman who is part owner of a trout farm. She actually showed me pictures of her feeding bears by hand in her back yard. Seems she's had generations of bears come, ever since she fed some orphaned cubs about ten years ago. I told her she was a fool, she thought they were cute. Brrr. Sometimes people provide their own bleach for the gene pool, yannow?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written.

And when the bear ambles up to some kid expecting a handout....
people like that create accidents-in-waiting - not just for themselves but for others.