06 June 2016

Your book's Darkest Moment

Back in March, when I requested partials from ten #P2P16 authors, I asked them to include the 5 pages that included their book's Darkest Moment and also to tell me where in book the DM landed. Why? I wanted to get a sense of the book's pacing, to make sure that the DM was dark enough, and that it was in alignment with the expectations set up in the first fifty pages.

Today I want to talk about your book's Darkest Moment and give you some ideas about how to self-check that it's the best Darkest Moment it can be.

Illustration: "Pay's good" by TPA
What is the Darkest Moment?
It's that moment when it looks like your main character (MC) isn't going to get what they've been after all this time. Despite everything they've tried and all the tears they've cried, it looks like they're going to lose. Your book's Darkest Moment should have that All-Is-Lost feel--meaning that, at least for a moment, there is no hope. It looks like your MC is going to die or give up, or they've hit some other obstacle that seems impossible to overcome.

Let's take the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example. Dorothy's goal is to get home. She travels far through a strange land, dodges terrifying flying monkeys and gray-faced Oh-We-Oh dudes with spears, passes the scary wizard's test by destroying the scarier wicked witch, discovers the wizard's true identity, gets her friends what they wanted, and is about to return home with the wizard, only to have him fly off in that hot air balloon without her. This is the Darkest Moment: despite everything Dorothy has been through and overcome, in this moment it looks like she will not get home because, as far as she knows, there is no other way home. In this moment, all hope is lost.

(Side note: Notice that if Dorothy had known before the wizard flew off without her that the shoes could get her home, it wouldn't have been a true DM because she'd still have had some hope.)

Where in the manuscript does the Darkest Moment land?
As a general rule it should come at earliest around 75% of the way through. Why? Because the DM is a culmination of sorts; it is the result of all that has come before, and in order to have maximum emotional impact, the story has got to build to it. If Dorothy had simply teleported from the Munchkin village to the wizard's audience chamber, asked for a ride, and immediately been granted one? When the wizard flew off without her, the emotional impact would've been missing. We're pulling for Dorothy because of all she's been through to get to that DM. If your Darkest Moment is coming earlier than the 75% mark, it could be that you've misidentified it, you're not making your MC work hard enough, or the pacing is off.

Depending on the type of book it is, it might come as late as the last chapter, but generally the 80-90% mark is good to shoot for. Why? Because once your MC hits rock bottom, they have to climb back out of figurative hell, and it's not going to be easy. (Unless of course you're Dorothy and the good witch tells you that you can use those shoes you've been wearing THIS ENTIRE TIME to go home. In which case, all you have to do is strangle her for making you go through needless hell, click your heels together three times, and bloop!, you're home.)

How does the Darkest Moment need to deliver on the promises of the first fifty pages?
If your DM isn't clearly connected to the first fifty pages, I'm probably going to be surprised in a bad way. The DM needs to bring together the elements that set up the story in the first place: the MC's goal, the character flaw(s) or internal conflict they'll have to overcome in order to triumph in the primary conflict, the stakes, and possibly the antagonist. It's not that I want to be able to guess exactly where the book is headed, but if there's no connection, are your first fifty pages truly setting up the story you're going to tell?

Generally speaking, by p. 50 of your book we should know not only what the MC's goal is but also what character flaw(s)/internal conflict they will have to overcome in order to triumph, and your DM reflects your character's growth in some way, either because it looks like your MC isn't going to overcome their flaw(s)/internal conflict or because they've overcome their flaw(s)/internal conflict and it won't be enough. Either way, it's looking hopeless.

We might also know in the first fifty pages who the antagonist is, but this again depends on the kind of story you're telling. Some of my favorite books/shows involve the MC spending a really long time trying to figure out who the real antagonist is so that the MC can defeat them. The final season of the TV show Castle is an example of this: they're trying to figure out who Locksat is, and the antagonist's identity is only revealed in the final episode. If your first fifty do contain an antagonist external to the MC, then that antagonist needs to be involved in the DM, otherwise it's probably* not going to feel like a true DM. That "involvement" could take many forms, however: the antagonist is about to arrive and the MC isn't ready; the antagonist has destroyed the MC's secret weapon; the antagonist seems to have won and gotten away with it; etc.

[*probably: Exception being if the antagonist is not what is keeping the MC from their goal, as in the case with Dorothy. She'd already killed the wicked witch by the time the true DM arrived, so the witch isn't directly involved in the DM. Although one *could* argue that the wizard acts as the antagonist for most of the movie, in which case...but I digress.]

Your DM is also directly tied to the stakes you've set up for your MC in the first fifty pages: if the MC doesn't accomplish their goal, then ___. Examples:
  • If Dorothy doesn't find a way home, she'll never see Auntie Em and Uncle Henry again, and they'll have to live with thinking that Dorothy died in the tornado and it might've been their fault.
  • If Castle and Beckett don't find out who Locksat is and defeat him/her, not only will Beckett never get justice for her team's deaths, but death might come for Castle and Beckett at any moment. They'll spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders in fear.
Without the stakes, there is no All-Is-Lost feel.

So how do you know if your DM is dark enough?
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether you can make your Darkest Moment even darker. Not all of them will apply to your story; they're just to get you thinking.
  • Does your DM have that All-Is-Lost feel? Do we believe for a moment that the MC isn't going to reach their goal? If there's any hope at all, try to eradicate it.
  • What are the stakes? Are they high enough? Do they involve consequences both for the MC personally and for a greater community/world/universe?
  • Does the DM involve the MC's character growth?
  • Is the antagonist involved?
  • Have you, the author, put your MC through enough misery? Was it too easy for the MC to arrive at this point? Is your DM coming after the MC has suffered trials and tribulations, only to appear to fail now?

I'd love to hear whether this post is helpful to you in thinking about your book's Darkest Moment. Are there any aspects I've forgotten? Any questions you have? What's the Darkest Moment of your favorite movie or book? Please leave a comment below!

3 comments:

  1. This is an absolute gem of a post! I love how you set out, very specifically what the DM is and clues as to where and why the DM works.

    Just from previous background knowledge, I'm assuming the DM is much different than the climax right? Is there any way it can be both?

    In any case, thanks to your feedback earlier in the year, I actually restructured my chapters, and as it turns out, my DM got moved from the 50% point to the 80% point, and I think that packs a much deeper punch.

    Thanks for posting this, and I'll definitely bookmark this to re-read

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    1. Excellent question, Tanna. The climax is defined as the point in the book with the highest emotional impact. It *might* be the Darkest Moment (as in Hamlet), or it might be the moment of victory when the MC finally resolves the primary conflict. If the DM and the resolution to the primary conflict come really close together, you might even lump them together to form the climax. I'm working with a client right now whose book does the latter. So in short: yes, the climax might be different from the DM, and yes, it might be the same. =*)

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  2. Fantastic post. My characters DM is 88% in, but she then has kind of a "darker" moment, maybe (?) later when the reality of it all finally hits her.
    Love your blog!

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