Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The perfect black moment

I'm a sucker for angst. Black moments are my favorite part of a book, flat out. A half-assed black moment can ruin a book faster than head-hopping can.

So it's no surprise that my favorite books contain a great black moment. But they're difficult (read: almost impossible) to pull off on TV. Take two of my favorite TV shows for example: Castle and Bones. Both star a couple with massive amounts of sexual tension. Both ended last season with hints that the two would finally get together (Ter wrote a great blog about this back in July, at the end of the last season.)

Last season of Bones ended with an "I'm pregnant" cliff hanger. The two of them got together in a moment of grief, and then bam - they're pregnant, living together, perfectly happy in their relationship, have a baby, etc. No more tension, no explanation, nothing. It's not the fact that they're together that bothers me. It's the fact that we missed the good part. After years of growing tension, it was just . . . done.

Imagine a book with four hundred pages of growing tension and intimacy, conflict and fights, suspense an agonies. And just when you're getting near the climax, they're perfectly happy together.

Something vital was skipped, and as a lover of romance, it killed the story for me.

By contrast, Castle ended with an "I love you" cliffhanger as Kate lay dying after being shot through the heart. Very tragic and all that. And just as Terri predicted last year, Kate pretended she hadn't heard up straight up to the last episode. A full year of denial, denial, denial. And we got to watch as both Castle and Kate had to deal with their feelings and figure out what they wanted.

It started to come together.  In this year's season finale, they were finally set up for their first date. It was sweet. I thought it was sweet enough. And then BAM - without warning came one of the best black moments I've ever seen on television. 

Here's a few things that made it work so well:
  • it was organic to the story - it played on a weakness the heroine has had the whole show. She's obsessed with the unsolved murder of her mother (she was a teen, I think). The black moment is a final culmination of that weakness.
  • it was legitimate - nothing about it felt over dramatic or like they'd gone to far (to me, at least. levels of melodrama are super-subjective).  Castle walked away - and there was no other choice he could have made. Our hearts could break for him, without being pissed he was missing an obvious solution
  • there was a surprise twist - as the black moment was building, I thought I knew where it was going. I was wrong. In the four years the show has been on, every time Kate got into trouble, Castle came and rescued her. Again, Kate got into trouble (hanging off the ledge of a building 20 stories in the air, in this particular episode) and I thought Castle would save her. She thought he would save her. For the first time in the show's history, he didn't come and rescue her
What do you think makes a good black moment? What ruins them? Any great examples, from either TV or books? 


Maureen said...

Hee, hee. I'm sitting here just past 11 on the west coast and thinking I almost want to get up at the crack of dawn to watch Terri disagree with you about the Castle finale.

I, personally, thought it was spot on. I didn't see any other way for them to went the perfect arc for everything they had set up. Whether I agreed with any of that or not!

And Bones? It sucked and I watch it nowadays for the secondary characters.

Want an evil black moment? How about how they ended NCIS...? I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.

A good black moment has the reader wondering how in the hell did this happen (I love having things thrown out of nowhere, even if they saw something coming, they weren't sure what it was) and I also like them to believe to the depth of their soul that there is no way to climb from that black hole.

What ruins them? Bones was a good example... I never bought it. Never.

Marnee Bailey said...

Great blog, Hal!

I also think what kills a black moment is when the conflicts and character motivations aren't conflicting enough. At the black moment, it should be that both of them can't get what they want unless someone changes their perspective.

Either someone needs to get over something, someone needs to give up a foolish notion, or someone needs to accept a new reality. Or both of them need to change. Whatever. I just think it's got to be that they reach a dead end and there's no way to go unless someone decides to adjust to circumstances in order to be together. That they make a choice.

I get frustrated when resolutions don't involve a character's choice. Like, if just external things change and all of a sudden they can be together. I think that's when I feel like it's a cop out.

haleigh said...

Haha Chance! I can't wait to see what Ter thinks :) I haven't seen the end of NCIS (it's waiting on my DVR), and now I'm nervous. Eeek.

I also like them to believe to the depth of their soul that there is no way to climb from that black hole

I agree fully! They have to genuinely beleive it's over, or the whole thing doesn't work.

haleigh said...

I so agree with you, Marn! I almost put that in my list of points, actually, that at least one person has to make a significant change. Then I second-guessed myself. I'm so glad you agree!

The only exception I can think of is Pamela Clare's "Unlawful Contact." In that one (a romantic suspense), the external conflict was so intense that an additional internal conflict between them would have been too much. But that's the *only* example I can think of. I'm pretty sure it's the exception that proves the rule.

MsHellion said...

I knew there was a reason I shouldn't have stopped watching CASTLE this season--but I was so sick of the "are they, aren't they" Ross & Rachelness of Castle and Beckett, I usually decide to go to bed than make any attempt to watch them.

And now I actually missed an episode that was actually good!

TerriOsburn said...

I hope Chance is up and has her coffee. First let me say what I agree with. Bones. Stopped watching after the "I'm pregnant" bullshit. Beyond being pissed off about exactly what you say here, closing the door and not giving us what they'd spent YEARS building toward, that entire story element is beyond out of character.

THAT is what will piss me off more than anything be it a book, movie, or television. Don't establish a character to be one thing and then make them act totally out of character to suit your plot. Drives me batshit crazy.

Now, to the disagreement. ;) I HATE Beckett. She doesn't grow, never learns anything, never changes. She's an arrogant woman obsessed with the past trailing Castle along like a puppy. Mind you, I LOVE Castle and the other characters on that show. I watch for them and the writing.

But the best scenes are when Castle has his alpha moments. That black moment should have been an alpha moment for him and it was a tiny bit, but not enough. He was simpering and whining (though the "I'm right here!" totally turned me to pudding.)

Her reaction in that scene infuriated me. No emotion. No "I don't want to hurt you but you have to understand...." Nothing. Don't even get me started about the external story. She's been established as a by the book, justice always cop. To go after that asshole, KNOWING he's no amateur, with no backup, completely going against everything in her character to date?


Needless to say, I hated the last scene. Didn't believe one iota of it. Add that the only way they'll be able to keep any conflict going next season is to have her pull the "That was a mistake" card and I'm not sure I'll bother watching.

TerriOsburn said...

Wow. Uhm. Did I kill it? LOL! Sorry!

Maureen said...

There! Ya see?

Beckett is so wounded and that is something I totally get and she is so fucked up. It was refreshing to see her finally, totally screw herself to the wall... That, I totally believed. And her moment of acceptance that she had screwed up was believable to me.

If Castle didn't have his daughter or Mom, then he would have walked into that danger with her. I believe that Castle is balanced by the love for his daughter and the responsibilities that entails. Something Beckett doesn't have! Save to her job, just not the same thing...

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

Have to admit...I don't watch Castle so I feel out of this one.

I did watch Bones up until the last season or so, but that was more a time thing than a story line issue. BUT, if I had been watching when the baby thing happened and all that tension disappeared, I'd be PISSED beyond belief.

TerriOsburn said...

It doesn't just have to be about these 2 shows, Scape. A couple hears ago I read a Historical by an author I really like. She's had a long career and still turning them out. But that book had NO black moment. Not even a gray one. I was shocked. And other than remembering it was set during Christmas and that there was no black moment, I couldn't anything else about it.

Goes to show, a great black moment can make a book even more memorable.

P. Kirby said...

Hubby and I used to watch Bones religiously. He even referred to it as "his show," in an oddly, old-before-his-time parlance.

Totally lost interest when the writers started shipping Bones and Booth. I know, I know. Most people wanted them together. But to me it felt like unnecessary fan service. To be honest, I don't even like them as a romantic couple. Professional partners? Cool. The contrast between Bones's literal, and liberal-minded, scientific approach versus Booth's traditionalist, but more empathetic self, totally worked for me. But the last thing I wanted to see was them making wuvy-dovey faces. The pregnancy plotline was the last straw. We don't watch anymore. Mileage may vary.

I'm also in the minority in that I like the black moment to be induced by external causes. I really hate it when, near the end of the story, the writer pulls the old schtick where one of the couple (usually the woman) decides the guy hasn't proved he loves her (enough), and goes off in a huff. Or she decides (rather arbitrarily) that she doesn't belong in his world; or that his parents hate her; [insert some other lame contrivance cooked up in the heroine's head].

I guess I just want her to grow a spine and say, "Do you love me, yes, no?" I'd rather they get that crap out of the way earlier, that way when the external stuff tries to pull them apart, I'm like, "Noo! They're perfect for each other."

But I'm weird...

TerriOsburn said...

That's a couple "years" ago. LOL! That's what I get for eating and typing...

P. Kirby said...

Other books...

Well, I'm almost done reading The Night Circus which does the external black moment pretty well. The two would-be lovers are trapped in a contest between two magicians. Sort of a la The Prestige, only the two characters are the ones doing the magic (real magic) while their mentors look on.

Anyway, the two fall in love, but there's a metaphorical ten-ton heavy thing weighing over their relationship--the contest. My complaint with the novel is that it takes too long to get going and wanders off too much with other characters, losing focus. But I like the premise and the two co-protagonists.

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander has a lot of black and dark gray moments.

TerriOsburn said...

I love the "ten-ton heavy thing". Great way to describe it. And I'm with you on that. If I've been with a character for 275 pages and she's still having the same hang ups on p273 that she had on p2, I'm annoyed.

Anna Campbell is the queen of the black moment. At least in the ones I've read. There are times I've had to talk myself through them. "This IS a Romance so you know this is going to work out. Calm down and keep reading."

Melissa Johnson said...

Love the black moment and I agree it can make or break the story. I don't watch either CASTLE or BONES consistently anymore, so I've lost track, but I did get hooked into ONCE UPON A TIME. I'd almost given up because the Snow White/Prince Charming storyline wasn't working for me. But the black moment mid-season in the "Beauty and the Beast" episode is awesome. The "beast" is Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, the villain of the series. (He steals the show!) When Belle leaves him in the fairyland setting, the evil queen tells him she is dead. Then in the modern Storybrooke setting we see she's locked up in psych ward. After that, I was dying to to see their reunion and the series cliffhanger paid off. Anyone else watch this series?

Maureen said...

Pat, I like a black moment that is very, very grey and turned totally black by external forces. Tease the reader with a resolution in sight between my characters, then toss in something that just eats the hope and which is totally outside their control.


This season's endings for most of the shows I watched were cliffhangers that were just evil. Not a big fan of the evil cliffhanger.

I didn't start watching Once Upon a Time and figured I'm screwed at this point. Maybe I can catch it online one of these days...

P. Kirby said...

The "beast" is Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, the villain of the series. (He steals the show!)

I've only seen two episodes, but I totally agree. But then, I always glom onto the villain or anti-hero.

Melissa Johnson said...

Maureen, Once Upon a Time has a lot of flashbacks (from the creator of LOST) so it is probably hard to get into! LOL Maybe they will show it from the beginning in re-runs.

This reminds me of another flashback heavy show - the latest movie version of Jane Eyre. It started with the black moment of Jane wandering the moors after fleeing Thornfield and told everything in flashback. I usually love flashback storytelling but I didn't like that version at all. I guess they figured everyone knows the story and characters so the viewer wouldn't get lost, but the black moment had no impact and even a flashback fan like myself didn't like it. LOL

TerriOsburn said...

I purposely avoided a bunch of shows at the start of the season because I'm trying to break my TV addiction. But it sounds like never would have understood Once Upon A Time anyway. LOL! I get lost easily when that flashback stuff happens. And I never watched Lost.

I'm also not a fan of Jane Eyre but considered watching the new movie version. Because of who plays Rochester if I'm being honest. Since I can't stand the opening part when she's a child, maybe this flashback thing will work for me. Hmmmm....

Janga said...

I'm lost with all the TV references. I've seen only a few isolated scenes of Bones and I've never seen Castle. I think TV shows in many genres lose power when they get a key couple together. Moonlighting is the top example of that for me.

Too many romance novels rely on a misunderstanding or a secret for the black moment IMO. It's reached the point where I stop and have a private celebration when the H/H actually talk to one another instead of jumping to conclusions. That's one reason I loved Lisa Kleypas's Rainshadow Road.

Has anyone else read The Witness, the most recent romantic suspense title by Nora Roberts? I don't think of her as being especially skilled at black moments, but the one in TW is masterful. If I hadn't read the ending first, I would have backed out of reviewing the book at that point. Even knowing, I was saying, "She can't do that. OMG, she did!" I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but I was impressed.

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