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.