We’re just eight days away from the longest night of the year. What better time to think about the dark moment in your novel?
Until now your protagonist has been facing increasingly difficult obstacles to get what she wants, but at the dark moment, all hope for a good outcome seems lost. It is worse than falling short of her goal—it is the opposite of success.
The structural bones of your story will point you toward what this moment might look like. The examples for today’s discussion are brought to you by the mad skills of author Janet Benton in her historical novel, Lilli de Jong.
Inciting incident/story goal
To construct an effective dark moment, you need to look back at what it is the character wants, and why she wants it so badly.
Raised as a Quaker, Lilli de Jong values education, independent thinking, and a strong moral character. But when she soon finds herself completely at odds with her dreams for her life—pregnant, left behind by her lover, banished from her congregation and teaching position, and cast from her father’s home by his new wife—Lilli must face alone a society that has little compassion for unwed mothers. With no other option, Lilli enters a haven for wronged women to deliver her child. The expectation for this charitable support is that three weeks after delivery, she will allow a married couple to adopt her baby.
After giving birth, Lilli writes in her diary:
The doctor has cut the fleshy cord that connected us, but an invisible one has taken its place. I begin to suspect that this one can neither be cut nor broken.
My shoulders, back, arms, and neck ache from holding her; my nipples are scabbed and sometimes bleeding; yet the most worn-out, painful part of me is my heart. It stretches so wide when she’s contented that I believe its fibers are tearing. When she suffers, it shrinks and throbs and hardens into a knot.
Lilli sees herself and Charlotte as an emotional, spiritual and physical unit. Her goal, further motivated by the strong bond she had with her recently deceased mother, is to keep her.
To appropriately plan for the dark moment, you must return to the stakes, for this is where your protagonist will suffer from them the most. Lilli’s bond with Charlotte deepens through nursing, but as her three weeks of safe harbor near their end, Lilli attends a church service and has this epiphany:
I saw laid out the whole of my upbringing, which had urged me to live honestly; my coming situation, where lying would be the rule; and the cowardice that had kept me from admitting this divergence…
But the moment I let go of Charlotte and pretend she never existed, my life of sin begins. Lies will color—no, suffuse—my most intimate relations. The pain at my center will stay closed and festering, while lies spread like a layer of lard beneath my skin.
This passage helps us understand the toll to Lilli’s spirit as she must work as a wet nurse, using the milk Charlotte called forth to nurture a rich couple’s baby. Lilli gets a room, board, and wages, yet the situation inspires a variety of heart-wrenching scenes as her own child must stay with an undernourished woman feeding several infants. Small moments of grace, and Lilli’s own moral courage, keep her pushing forward.
But for the read to be truly satisfying, things must get even worse. Sometimes that will mean your character will be pressed into an impossible choice; other times, she must accept failure and experience its consequences.
Lilli’s resolve never wavers. That is, until she’s put into situations that make it seem like reuniting with her child is within grasp only if she’s willing to break the moral code that for her defines a worthy life.
When faced with one such choice, Lilli writes in her journal:
For my own honor is no longer a thing I can cherish.
This is an emotional dark moment, to be sure, but Benton pushes further.
Lilli spends her last dime to reunite with Charlotte, but the occasion is far from joyous. The baby is ill. No one will welcome them. Without work, they are starving and homeless. Lilli succumbs to a spiritual dark moment:
…I held my blade aloft, examining its sharpened edge, considering what force it had in my despairing hand.
The opposite of success
Remember, though, that Lilli’s bond with Charlotte is emotional, spiritual, and physical. She needs this bond to feel whole; splintering her moral character is the antithesis of that.
It is at this emotional and spiritual low that Lilli receives some devastating news. All hope seems lost. Weaker and weaker, her back literally against a city wall and her baby clutched tight to her breast, Lilli succumbs to dehydration and hunger, entering a sleep from which she may not wake.
This physical low point completes Lilli’s dark moment, which is the opposite of creating a life with her daughter. She has exhausted all options, including every fiber of her being, and can no longer protect her child or herself.
Why would we be this hard on our characters? Think of it this way: we breathe all day long without thinking of it, but it isn’t until our head is held underwater to the point of ultimate despair that the next, hard-won breath gains dramatic significance.
And if you think Lilli is down for good, you may have underestimated this mother’s love.
Watching beloved characters bottom out in the face of impossible odds sets up the climactic struggle, the most inspiring part of a story. If first you push your characters deep into the failure they’ve feared, readers will return to your stories for their life-affirming nature again and again.
Have you pushed your character far enough into her dark moment to set up a satisfying climactic fight? Is it the opposite of the goal s/he seeks? Could you push it even further? What has your own darkest hour taught you?
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