Developing the Dark
Copyright 1999 by
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
The 5 Ds of the Dark Moment
1. Dilemma-- the situation has disintegrated around the
protagonist, and all seems lost.
2. Desperation-- the protagonist flails about, considering the
most extreme escapes from the dilemma.
3. Despair-- the protagonist surrenders to despair, certain that
there is no way out.
4. Deconstruction-- in the calm that follows despair, the
protagonist begins to analyze the situation, deconstructing needs,
values, and options.
5. Decision-- the protagonist decides what can be discarded, and
what's most essential to be kept, and determines a course to achieve
The climax is the working out of the decision the protagonist
made as a result of the brutal deconstruction forced on him by the
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
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
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
Alicia Rasley is a
16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana
RWA, a writing teacher, and a
RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers
If you like my articles, check
out my interactive writing booklets, Point of View Manual, and plot
The Story Within Writing
The Power of Point of
The Story Within
if you prefer the spoken word, check out my workshop tapes:
Alicia Rasley's interactive