The Black Moment: How to raise the romantic stakes before the HEA

By Patience Bloom, Senior Editor, Harlequin Romantic Suspense

What is a black moment?

In a romance novel, the black moment occurs when the hero and heroine lose all hope in love. Their lives might be in danger, too, or another crisis might wrench them apart. But the main issue is that their happily-ever-after may not happen. For a romance reader, this is a crisis indeed. Can you imagine a romance without that declaration of true love at the end?

Why do even need a black moment?

In real life, you really don’t need one, but in romance, it’s a must. Otherwise, why bother to read the next chapter? If the hero and heroine break into song about their perfect union, your reader might fall asleep during those 250 pages. This is why a writer must keep that romantic tension tense, prolong the gratification, and give readers that ecstatic payoff when the hero and heroine do finally overcome their obstacles.

What are some examples of a black moment?

In Pride and Prejudice, when Lizzie realizes what a good man Darcy is and his absence tells her that he won’t return (we know better.) In Jaws, when that shark comes into the sinking boat and eats the captain, leaving water-hating Brody alone in the middle of the ocean. In Pretty Woman, when Vivian turns down the offer to stay in Edward’s great condo in New York and they go their separate ways. A good exercise is picking out the black moments in stories. You’ll know how to up the ante on your happily-ever-after.

So how do you create a black moment?

You start with the conflict. Your hero and heroine aren’t perfect, right? If they were, you wouldn’t need to tell their remarkable love story. They should have problems, experiences, reasons that make true love impossible. Think about what things torture the hero and heroine, separately and together.  Does she have traumatic events in her past? Is he too damaged because of his job? What do the characters have to conquer in order to be together?

When you build a black moment, ask:

What keeps the hero and heroine from getting together instantly? It has to be more than fear of love. This is where you keep asking why until you get to the end of who these characters are. What makes them blind to the truth?

What would be the absolute worst thing to happen to your hero and heroine? Often, the worst is a return to some kind of trauma. For a claustrophobic hero, it would be feeling trapped, physically, emotionally (or both.)  For the commitment-shy heroine, it would be showing real intimacy or stick-to-itiveness.

If you need inspiration, think about the black moments in your life. Muse on the qualities a character exhibits as he or she loses hope (and reward your thinking with chocolate!)

Last question: Is the black moment ones readers will see coming? If so, add a twist, veer off your charted course. Avoid clichés such as the heroine walking into the parking lot at the obvious time when she’ll be kidnapped. Misunderstandings can also be an easy way out. Think deeply about the characters’ motivations. What interesting spin could you include to wrap up the story?

Create a hero and heroine people can root for. The black moment brings out the fighting spirit of your characters. What better way to get the reader to turn the pages?