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December 16, 2014

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

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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What do you think?

35 Comments on "What Makes a Story’s Black Moment a Black Moment?"

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Carradee

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).

Lee Summerall
Lee Summerall
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… Read more »
Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

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.

Sharla Rae

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

Robin
Robin

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!

chemistken

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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[…] thing to do, but that lead to failure despite their efforts. That’s often part of the definition of the Black Moment. Characters are trying to improve and learn, and then the rug is pulled out from under […]

Amanda Sumner

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!

Calisa Rhose

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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[…] An infographic tells us how to write a scene in 11 steps, Fiona Quinn discusses how to tactically clear a building, Philip Athans describes how to scare the heck out of your readers, and Jami Gold explores what defines a Black Moment. […]

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[…] steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution—we see how that’s the same function as the Black Moment. It’s the darkest moment when the protagonist has lost everything and gives […]

Sheogorath

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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[…] How to make our Black Moment really black […]

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[…] story beat of the Climax, our characters have just experienced the Black Moment/Crisis beat, and they’ve given up. How do we get them from point A to point […]

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[…] of the first writing tips I learned years ago was to include a light moment right before our Black Moment. The contrast doubles the emotional punch of the tragedy for our readers’ emotions. Humor is […]

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[…] ending to feel in jeopardy, which is met by a major turning point near the 75% mark, also known as the Crisis beat in story […]

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[…] I revisited a favorite post of mine by Jami Gold, about writing the black moment in your manuscript, i.e. the point where your lead has lost all hope of achieving his or her objective. This post has […]

Vicky

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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[…] Some of us might struggle with passive writing or weak verbs. Others might tend to write without enough emotion or scene-setting. Or maybe we fail to create strong enough conflicts or Black Moments. […]

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