What Makes a Story’s Black Moment a Black Moment?

by Jami Gold on December 16, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Black-and-white image of cemetery cross with text: What Creates a Black Moment?

If you’ve seen or used beat sheets before, you’ve probably noticed a beat that is often called the Black Moment. The Black Moment is usually one of the most emotional sections of a story, so it can be difficult to pull together.

It doesn’t help that different beat sheets will sometimes place the Black Moment in slightly different places in the story. Or that different story structure systems use different names for the beat. A Black Moment plot point beat might also be called Crisis, Second Plot Point, All Is Lost, or Break Into (Act) Three. It’s enough to make us crazy and worry that we don’t know what we’re doing. *smile*

But as I’ve mentioned before, the names of the beats don’t matter. No matter what we call them, our story will have scenes or events that fulfill the Black Moment function:

  • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution

And if we read stories (or watch movies), we’ve seen this beat play out endless times, so we probably understand the plot point more than we may think. But let’s take a closer look and see if we can learn something new.

The Black Moment: The What

At some point in our story, our character will symbolically “die.” This usually means they’re stripped of their hope, but it can also mean they’ve lost other aspects as well, such as goals or plans. In a romance, this is often the breakup scene, or the “boy loses girl” scene.

The characters will seem further from their destination (goals) than ever, and the reader shouldn’t see a solution either. Maybe the antagonist is bigger, stronger, or more pervasive than they thought. Maybe they’ve been betrayed. Or maybe they just lost their mentor.

In my stories, the Black Moments include betrayals, abandonments, kidnappings, soul-crushing shame, etc. It seems like the couple can’t reach their Happily Ever After. Think “angst.” *smile*

Whatever happens, our characters are so devastated that they give up despite the consequences. Those stakes that have been carrying them through the rest of the story aren’t enough to force them through this defeat. They give up.

Black Moments in Plot-Focused Stories

In plot-focused stories, we want this moment to invalidate all their plans for success. Do they need to do one certain thing to thwart the bad guy’s scheme? Great! Make that thing literally impossible.

If they need to unravel a puzzle, the one person with the answer just died, they lose their one lead in a crowd, the password they risked everything to find doesn’t work, etc. They’ve reached a dead end, and their hope for solving the problem has died.

Black Moments in Character-Focused Stories

In character-focused stories, we want this moment to break them. Do they have a backstory wound or fear? Great! Echo that wound or fear and make them feel the pain. Any progress they’ve made in changing who they are during the course of the story should seem like a mistake.

If our character started out not trusting others, but over the first three-quarters of the story, they’d begun to trust again, we now need them to feel betrayed and untrusting all over again. Their hope for trust being the answer to happiness or success has died.

Our stories will likely include both plot and character aspects of a Black Moment, so don’t worry about trying to decide one over the other. But either way, hope should die.

It’s only after that symbolic death that our character will find the courage to do the things or take the risks or make the changes necessary to “win.” It’s only after losing everything that they’ll be willing to do anything—because they have nothing left to lose.

The Black Moment: The When

Depending on the story structure system we use, the Black Moment is supposed to land around 75-80% of the way through the story. In three-act stories, the Black Moment usually signals the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three.

In the beat sheets on my site, I use the 75% mark and not 80%. Why?

Partly that’s because I like the symmetry of 25% for each beat (or in the case of Act Two, a double of 25%). *smile* But honestly, most of us tend to underwrite our Act Three because we’re racing to the finish just like our characters.

There’s a lot we have to wrap up in that final act, and we don’t do ourselves any favors if we use a percentage that encourages us to rush through details rather than diving deeper to bring together our plot arc, subplots, character arcs, and themes in a cohesive way. We’ve probably all read stories that fell apart, shortchanged, or rushed the ending in some way, and we don’t want that for our stories.

Most systems that use the 80% mark are based on screenwriting, where the action of the Climax’s showdown will be shown and not shared in words. For the visual medium of movies, 80% works.

For novelists, an action sequence that might take up a line or two in a screenplay (“Hero fights with villain”) might take up several pages in our manuscript. We need that extra 5% for our Act Three.

But even with that knowledge, we still might not be sure what counts as our Black Moment. Is it the devastating event that causes a loss of hope? Or the decision to give up? Or in a plot-focused story, is it the start of the consequences taking effect? Or in a character-focused story, is it the exploration of the characters’ depression?

I usually aim for the triggering event to occur around that 75% mark because beat sheets are primarily plot-focused. However, as a major beat, the Black Moment is like a big version of a scene and sequel. The event itself is the scene, and the fallout of that event—the decision to give up and the plot consequences or depression or both—is the sequel.

A bad event without any fallout wouldn’t be a Black Moment. So when I think about the Black Moment in a story, I think of all sides of the event and consequences.

How Is a Black Moment Different from a Climax’s Setbacks?

The Climax plot beat takes up most of Act Three and is sometimes also called Finale, Showdown, or Final Battle. The Climax is another major beat and is also very emotional, so sometimes it might be difficult to know what makes one emotional scene a Black Moment and another emotional scene a Climax.

After our characters give up for the Black Moment, something makes them un-give-up. They give up giving up. Maybe the consequences are worse than they thought. Maybe they learn something that gives them hope again. Or maybe a sidekick gives them a kick in the pants.

As soon as they decide to pick themselves up and start working toward the story goals again, the Climax has begun. As I’ve mentioned before:

The Climax is a special case in that the (beat sheet’s word or page count) range encompasses everything leading up to up to the Climax as well as the actual “showdown.” For example, the Climax would include: deciding to storm the castle, gathering weapons and allies, traveling to the castle, breaching the castle’s defenses, battling the minor bad guys, rescuing the good guys, and fighting the big bad villain.

It’s difficult to separate those steps into separate beats, so they’re frequently lumped together in one breathless-race-to-the-end-of-the-story rush. All of the Climax-related scenes typically take up the majority of Act Three.”

In a long string of events like that, our characters will experience setbacks. The castle will be guarded by a dragon. The love of their life has already left to catch a flight to the other side of the globe. The lighting near the bomb makes it impossible to tell the difference between the red and green wires. Etc., etc.

The difference is that these setbacks, while depressing or terrifying or hopeless-seeming, will not cause our characters to give up completely. They might lose hope for a minute and then recover to reach the “what the heck, if I’m going to lose anyway, I may as well lose by trying” attitude.

In other words, it’s the fallout of the Black Moment that makes it different from these setbacks. In the Climax, they’ll recover quickly enough to not need a scene-or-more-length sequel exploring how hopeless things are.

Instead, in a plot-focused story, the characters will push through the obstacles. They’ll fight through the pain of injuries, find innovative ways to take down the henchmen, and risk blowing up the bomb by following their gut instinct on which wire to cut no matter the advice they receive.

In a character-focused story, the characters will prove that they’ve put their weaknesses, fears, backstory wounds, etc. behind them. They refuse to let their issues hold them back from their goals. Our characters won’t be utterly broken by any setbacks. They’ve found their courage and/or made a leap of faith and are now willing to do or risk things they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do before.

Whether our Climax’s setbacks involve plot events, risks to our character’s courage, or both, the characters will reject the idea of letting obstacles stop them. They realize that whatever they have to do to overcome the setbacks is worth it, even if they have to sacrifice themselves.

They’ve survived the fire of the Black Moment and risen from the ashes stronger and more determined than before. The decisions, actions, and knowledge they apply during the Climax form the crux of our story’s theme. And as long as our story isn’t a tragedy, they’ll succeed on some level and reach the story’s goal. *smile*

Do you struggle with writing Black Moments? Is it hard to torture your characters and “break” them? Have you ever wondered what made the Black Moment different from other obstacles they encounter, especially during the Climax? Do you write plot-focused or character-focused Black Moments? Or do you write a mixture?

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35 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee December 16, 2014 at 11:55 am

I have a hard time not torturing my characters. >_> I don’t consciously work with beat sheets, but I think my Black Moments are character-focused, like the stories themselves.

In fact, I just checked the story I finished drafting yesterday. The Black Moment falls at about 75% through, and it’s when the MC fails altogether at the one thing she’s been trying to do all along (but also knew all along that she wouldn’t be able to prevent, but she had to try).

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Jami Gold December 16, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Hi Carradee,

LOL! I understand. I love drafting Black Moments. 😉 Like you, my Black Moments have a plot trigger, but the fallout definitely centers on the character aspects. Thanks for sharing!

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Lee Summerall December 16, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Jami, thanks for another great post. Most of my black moments seem to be a mid-shade of gray, so this was really valuable. It also may help with the episodic aspect of my novels (and thanks for a previous post on that subject).
I’m hoping you could add a few comments one of these days on the terms “set piece” and “trying too hard”. I’m thinking, maybe, that they are all tied together and pop up at a certain point in a writer’s development when, yeah, we can write, but we can’t write the right thing well enough. A pale gray Black Moment may be only a “set piece” or a really inky black one could fairly be termed “tried too hard”? A previous post talked of therefores and meanwhiles, and I think these might tie in as well. Or maybe I’m reading too much and trying to remember too much and not integrating the information enough.
I just left a completed ms alone for seven weeks and, coming back to it to see why it really doesn’t work well, I get that dismal pale gray feeling that I don’t know what’s wrong, and can’t tell if it’s really sucky or my hyper-critical brain is sabotaging me. Are my therefores leading to a black enough moment? Is my protagonist too noble for his own good? Is my heroine too flaky as a result of the really, really Black Moments she suffered? And is that “trying too hard”?
Yeah, nobody who really knew the score ever said writing was gonna be easy! But the information you provide often helps illuminate the path the improvement. Thanks.

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Jami Gold December 16, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Hi Lee,

As I mentioned to Carradee above, I love drafting Black Moments and have no trouble torturing my characters, so I’m glad my enthusiasm might be able to help others. LOL! I know many struggle with either making their characters suffer enough or figuring out how to make the moment blacker, so you’re not alone.

As for your questions, I haven’t heard the term “set piece” used in a consistent enough way to know what the context might be for the trouble you’re seeing. For “trying too hard,” that often refers to one of two things:

  • The writing craft itself suffers from overwriting, $20 words, too flowery prose, etc.
  • The plot or emotions feel too forced.

On the plot side, the latter might mean that the story has too many coincidences, that characters feel like puppets to the plot, or that the Therefore transitions aren’t convincingly smooth, as we discussed last week.

On the emotion side, the latter might mean that the emotions seems out of character, that the emotions seem like a mismatch to the trigger, or that one emotion doesn’t seem to flow to the next in an emotional journey.

Does that help? There are probably other reasons too, but those were the top three for each that I could think of off the top of my head. 🙂

And yes, it’s normal for us to go through a “this is crap” phase with our writing and our story. 🙁 Sometimes that means we need more time away from our story, or sometimes it’s time to bring in a beta reader or critique partner to help. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Lee Summerall December 19, 2014 at 6:15 am

Wow, thanks, Jami. Lots to consider. Glimmers of what could be some of the problem.
Back to the drawing board. After I eat a pint of Talenti gelato.
Happy holidays!

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Jami Gold December 19, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Hi Lee,

LOL! I know the feeling. The learning curve can feel brutal. 🙁 Good luck and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Lara Gallin December 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

There’s a couple of unpleasant moments in my story although I’m not sure how they should be catagorised. The first is about mid-way when the MC is about to do something really stupid and is caught in the act by her best friend who is furious. They’ve never argued before so it’s a real blow to her. When she gets home, her sister who witnessed what happened, is waiting and a vicious argument ensues at the end of which the sister slaps the MC and storms out. At that point, losing her best friend and her sister drives her further into her obsession.

There are the beginnings of a reconciliation at the 75% mark but that’s then whipped away. The MC’s flat is trashed, she believes it was an entity that is stalking her whilst her sister thinks the MC did it herself. There’s another argument and the MC runs off into the night, convinced that her sister is going to have her locked up.

It is a tragedy so I’m not too sure about the structure. The only things I’ve found on it so far are in respect of plays rather than novels but it does seem to fit my story.

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Jami Gold December 16, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Hi Lara,

Yes, tragedies might have a slightly different structure, mostly because the Black Moment won’t be the characters’ lowest point–as outright failure or death would be. 😉

I’m not nearly as familiar with tragedies, but I’d guess that some of the same guidelines apply. Maybe think about the theme or message you want readers to take away and just make sure that the low point of the Black Moment hints or ties into that somehow. (Similar to what I mentioned in the post about their fear or wound.) Good luck with figuring how to make your story the best it can be, and thanks for the comment!

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Sharla Rae December 16, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Another great blog Jami. Thanks for putting so much time and thought into these issues.

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Jami Gold December 16, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Hi Sharla Rae,

Aww, thank you! I hope people find them helpful. 🙂

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Robin December 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

Thanks for a great post, Jami. 🙂 I think my black moment also suffers from only being mid-gray.
Back to make things worse for the MC.

Have a great day!

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Jami Gold December 17, 2014 at 10:14 am

Hi Robin,

I hope this helps. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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chemistken December 17, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Once I learned about the “All is Lost” moment, I started watching for them during movies. They’re especially obvious in Pixar type movies. Anyway, as soon as I recognize the black moment, I note the time, and then, knowing what time the movie began and assuming that we’re at the 75% point of the movie, I calculate when the movie will end. I’ve never been off by more than two minutes. Apparently, Hollywood takes these markers pretty darn seriously.

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Jami Gold December 17, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Hi ChemistKen,

Oh, how interesting, or fun, or both! 😀 Yes, Hollywood typically is more strict on these marks than novelists have to be. I’m not sure why that is–maybe because just one page off equals a minute off in the movie, and they have to keep it to a certain length movie? Thank you so much for sharing that insight!

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Amanda Sumner December 27, 2014 at 4:50 pm

I’ve spent the time since you put up this post (thanks!) thinking and thinking about black moments and the third act, pulling books off my keeper shelf, using my calculator to find the 75% mark, etc. I always thought the black moment of romances fell a lot later. Some do fall a little later–a little past 80%, for example, especially for category romances–but the problem was really that I was counting the moment just before the protagonist decides to fight back as the black moment. After reading and re-reading this and doing my homework, though, I see that the actual event that’s so black happens earlier–then the protagonist spends some time mucking around in the dark, resisting the idea that he/she has to commit to his/her essence. Thanks so much for this!

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Jami Gold December 28, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yay! I’m glad this helped. And I figured that was the case with the difference between the Black Moment and the Climax, which is why I wanted to be so clear on the differences here. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and letting me know!

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Calisa Rhose December 29, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Knowing the time line for the black moment helps so much! I read this and all the while one certain story (targeted for and rejected by HQN in 2010) kept playing like a movie in my mind. I’ve been trying to figure out what was wrong with that story that keeps it in the perpetual rejection piles and this article definitely helps pinpoint part of the issue. It’s all in the timing. Yes my black moment is around the 75% mark, but then I think I rush the end into that same percentage mark. I’m beginning to see where I went wrong, at least partly. Thanks!

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Jami Gold December 29, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Hi Calisa,

Yay! I hope this helps. 🙂 Good luck with your story and thanks for stopping by!

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Sheogorath March 8, 2015 at 9:45 pm

Sometimes, the Black Moment and the Climax can occur together. For example, in a story I wrote, my character gets transported to another world and transformed into a different species, then after many adventures and travails, he finally gets back home, waking up in his own bed, and believes he’s in his original body until he looks in the mirror.*
*Plot point totally robbed from Labyrinth.

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Jami Gold March 8, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Hi Sheogorath,

Yikes! What a plot twist! LOL! That’s an interesting example for how some stories won’t follow the standard structure. The Black Moment would be more implied by the fact that the end of the story indicates there’s no more change to hope for–give up. Very interesting. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Vicky January 29, 2016 at 1:12 pm

I’m struggling with the idea of a big black moment at 75%. My impression/research is that peak conflict comes around 90% and my feeling is that this victory should come through transformation and completion of the character arc…ie, arise out of the black moment. If the character’s already learned his or her lesson way back at the beginning of Act III…what’s left? 🙂

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Jami Gold January 29, 2016 at 1:27 pm

Hi Vicky,

The Black Moment is all about failure. The “lesson” might being shoved in their face, but that doesn’t mean they’ve learned it. 😉 Check out my post about the Climax/Showdown beat of Act 3 to see how they’re different.

The Black Moment is about their symbolic death. Act 3 is about their symbolic rising from the ashes. 🙂 The Black Moment creates a negative level in their character arc so their climb through Act 3 is a more dramatic change.

In other words, you’re completely right about what Act 3 should be, and your confusion might be rooted in thinking that the Black Moment has a resolution (or recovery) point, and it doesn’t. That doesn’t happen until the Climax.

Let me know if that still doesn’t make sense. 🙂 Thanks for the question!

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Vicky January 30, 2016 at 10:33 am

Thanks, Jami.
I think it’s a question of what’s being considered the Big Black Moment. For example, looking at the Wizard of Oz, people tend to put this at the point where the WWW is about to burn the Scarecrow. But the important moment for Dorothy, IMHO, is when the balloon takes off without her at 95%. That seems to me to be the point where she’s lost all hope and has to learn the lesson that will take her home, and I’d argue that’s the pivot point for her character arc.

So…both points are important to the story and it may just be a question of terminology. But to me, the big important emotional moment is that one close to the end….?

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Jami Gold January 30, 2016 at 11:12 am

Hi Vicky,

Every story is going to look a little different obviously. 🙂 However, as I mention at the end of this post, the Black Moment isn’t necessarily going to feel like the biggest setback unless we look at it in context.

In Wizard of Oz, the balloon leaving her is a huge setback, but it also doesn’t have the fallout (at least in the movie–I’m not familiar with the book). She has maybe a paragraph-worth of bemoaning her fate, and then the good witch shows up to teach her the way. As I mention in the post, the setback of the Climax is overcome quickly and doesn’t have the depth of fallout of the earlier Black Moment.

I disagree that the threat of burning the scarecrow is the Black Moment. It is where she’s starting to learn her lesson (as she realizes just how much danger she brought to her friends and how much they’re constantly risking for her, having the “don’t be selfish” lesson shoved in her face 🙂 ), but I’d consider it the rally point–where she fights against the urge to give up. So the burning scene is firmly in Act 3 and kicks off the almost-Act-long Climax if you ask me.

It’s the trigger for her to fight back more and bring her out of her “I’m doomed” attitude that happened with the kidnapping and the literal ticking-clock threat. That moment when she’s stolen from her friends and threatened with no escape and has an hour to feel the fallout of her situation–that’s the Black Moment. 🙂

In other words, our story will have many setbacks for our characters. To figure out which is which, we have to look how the event functions within the story, and that means looking at the context around the event. Let me know if that still doesn’t make sense. 🙂 Thanks for the question!

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Vicky January 30, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Thanks again, Jami, that all makes a lot of sense (and I’m enjoying reading your other posts on plotting).

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Jami Gold January 30, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Hi Vicky,

Yay! I’m happy to help! 🙂

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