Wednesday, February 06, 2008

How Black is Black?

I thought I had a post all ready to deliver about how black moments have to be truly black and dark to hold reader interest. Then I read a book that proved otherwise. So instead, I'm going to contrast two great books and their approaches to the black moment and then seek your feedback.

When reading Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald, I had an epiphany: The best black moments occur when the reader truly doubts whether the heroine will get her HEA. At this point tension has built and the black moment delivers a knockout punch from which you are not sure--or indeed, truly believe--that the heroine cannot recover. Thus when the heroine glimpses her HEA again, the reader sighs with relief right along with her.

I think it was Piper who once said that she skips to the end of books to make sure that the heroine and hero end up together. But, when you read enough romances, you pretty much know that the hero and the heroine WILL end up together--the only question is HOW. However, I think the best stories make us forget this. We begin to bite our nails. How will the couple solve their conflict? The clock turns over to the small numbers of the night, and we still keep reading. We begin to fear that we're not reading a traditional romance. Will we have to wait for a sequel?

This approach to tension crafts powerful novels even when the tone is more light-hearted or even comic. But then along comes Emily Carmichael in The Good, The Bad, and The Sexy, and says, "Screw you, conventions of writing romance, I don't NEED a black moment." Usually, when an author makes such a bold decision, I loose interest about the halfway mark and never make it past the center advertising card. I skip ahead, trying to finish up so that I can move on to something else. Sometimes the secondary plot is enough to keep my interest (Allison Brennan's Speak No Evil is a great example of this), and I read ahead without any loss of momentum. But usually No Black Moment = No Repeat Customer.

So why does The Good, The Bad, and The Sexy work? The couple simply slide into their HEA with little more than a hiccup. The secondary plots aren't suspenseful enough to offer a real mystery. But this is a terrific book. The answer I think is the characters and their banter. Her characters are so much fun and the dialogue so snappy that the reader is happy to spend more time with the characters.

Now, here's the truly interesting part of this comparison: Both of these novels are variations on the same archetype/master plot: the fish out of water story. Heroine (or Hero) is thrust into a unfamiliar environment. Comic (or tragic) merriment ensues as we watch him or her flop about. Hero (or Heroine) is there to support/torment the adjustment. You can rack up library fines all the way back to Othello and beyond just reading variations of this story. Why, then, do we keep reading? We know that one of two things will happen: the character will decide that their old life wasn't so bad after all, or they will happily (or maybe not so happily) embrace their new roles.

We keep reading because each author handles this basic theme in a different way. Some will deliver a black moment so intense you almost forget to feed the baby. Some will be so much fun you almost forget to feed the baby.

What type are you? How black is your black moment? Which of your favorite books fit into each category? (Please share titles/authors!)


Paty Jager said...

Hmmm... I wish I could answer this as eloquently as you wrote it!

My own books, usually have what I call a double black moment. Something external happens that shakes the belief of one of the main characters. Then the next scene is the heart wrenching scene where that person believes the love they finally found is not strong enough to hold them together.

As for books I've read- my retention of books I've read is as big as a gnat's brain. And I don't read as much as I should. The most recent book I read, I didn't finish. The characters were boring and I could care less whether they found love or not. And the book before that... I can't remember. Sorry. I'm not much help, but I'm anxious to hear what others have to say. I'm pretty much if the characters draw me in or the plot is really good, I'll keep reading and the black moment doesn't define if it's a good book for me. It's the total package.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Good post, Wavy. And so well written. I've missed your blogs. ;)

I love a good black black moment. Like you said, the kind where, even though you know it's a romance and the H/h will have an HEA of some sort, you aren't sure how they'll get there. My favorite keeper books have dark, dark black moments. Usually where a secret is revealed or the H or h have done something so awful you think, "omg, there's NO WAY they can redeem themselves." Those are the best. And all of my keeper books have them.

In RS, which I write, there's a wide variety of black (or not so black, as the case may be) moments. All RS's have a climax, where the H/h's lives are put in jeopardy, but it seems lately more and more are building up to these tense external climactic moments and in the process, skip over the emotional black moment, for whatever reason. Either they run out of pages or the internal conflict between the two simply wasn't that great. It also explains why so many of the RS's I've read lately aren't staying on my keeper shelves. I love a good tense climax, but I read romance primarily for the romantic conflict, and if that's not there, the book won't continue to hold my interest.

The authors who I think have great black moments aren't so much RS authors anymore. I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips black moments (contemp), and Judith McNaught generally does them well. Cindy Gerard and Roxanne St. Claire have good ones (RS). And JR Ward (para). I've always been a fan of Nora's books, but she's one of those RS writers who doesn't always have a real emotional black moment. And it seems lately, most of her romantic conflict is wrapped up 2/3 the book. (Which might explain why I haven't added a lot of her books to my keeper shelves lately.)

Alice Sharpe said...

Wavy, lovely to read your blog again. The line, "You can rack up library fines all the way back to Othello and beyond just reading variations of this story," is brilliant. I love it.

That said, we all know I am the least analytical writer on the face of the earth. I am also, mostly, not a very analytical reader. I read a book for two reasons. Characters I love or a mystery that has me hooked. If I can get both in one book, it's a keeper. If the book is boring, it never gets read, period. I am not prone to picking it apart to figure out why it worked or didn't work. Next to you and Eli, I feel like a very lazy reader (and writer.)

Black moments don't carry the importance for me that they seem to carry for either one of you, either. Esp., the emotional "Will they get their HPA moment?" Eli pointed out that these don't always exist in RS though her favorites definitely have them.

Thinking out loud here, in most mysteries the romantic relationship isn't the main thrust, so I don't miss them if the rest of the book is good. In fact, I enjoy books where the two main characters work together -- kind of like Titanic, for instance, where their love was resolved way before the physical danger. That's fine with me.

Good to have you back!

Danita Cahill said...

Great post, Wavy, and wonderful to have you back. Like Alice, I also loved the Othello line you wrote. Very nice.

Yes, it is Piper who always reads the last page before buying or committing to read a book. Cracks me up. But also sticks with me. I think of her when I write or rewrite the last paragraphs of a story. I think of her as my "ultimate, hard-to-please romance reader" and I want to please her and others like her. Besides, don't we all love HEA endings the best?

I am not much of a romance reader, although I crave some romance in every book I read and every movie I watch. Most stories without relationship issues just aren't realistic enough for me. After all, love is what makes the world go round.

As far as book titles and authors, I'm going to talk a little about a movie instead. An animated movie at that: Disney/Pixar's Cars. As the mother of a young son who lives for anything with wheels, I have watched that DVD countless times. I'm pulling my fingernails out over it yet because it is a well-crafted story. It has a fantastic character arc and a twist at the end prooving that what the main character wants most of all turns out to not be the most important thing.

As far as dark moments, it has two, I think. The first when Lightning McQueen is trapped in "Hillbilly hell" as he calls the podunk town of Radiator Springs, doing community service work for his traffic violations and vandalism. He wants/needs to escape to California for his big Piston Cup race and can't.

This is when his character arc begins to climb.

The second black moment is later, when he is racing along the California track. His head is not in the race because his heart is with Sally the Porche back in Radiator Springs, and he is losing the most important race of his life.

Of course then comes the end of the arc, and a HEA ending in a sort of epilog.

Good movie. Even after 217 and a half times.

Paty Jager said...

Whew! Alice I'm in good company! I don't analyze things I read either. I either like them or I don't.

I've always felt that was the reason I wasn't getting published because I didn't analyze everything, but that's not me.I've never analyzed a thing in my life. I hated science because you had to do theories and come up with reasons why things happened.

I don't care why things happen, I just want to be entertained and feel satisfied when I finish. Both in life and my reading. ;)

But those of you who do analyze and pick at things to see what makes them work are the ones who teach those of us who aren't inquisitive how to do things.

I applaud you and wish I wondered what made the moon white and the sun yellow. But I don't care, I just know I like the difference! LOL

Paty Jager said...

Danita, That is a great movie to see the character arc. I saw it several times while watching my grandsons in AK! LOL Boys and cars what is that all about!

Alice Sharpe said...

Well, now, wait a sec., Paty. I have admitted I don't analyze everything I read or write, but I can't quite roll over on saying I don't care how things work. I love science, I love to figure out what makes people and things tick, but when it comes to reading, I try to suspend picking plots apart (as long as I enjoy them) so I can go along for the ride and when it comes to writing, I just tend to do things by instinct (tempered with hours of plotting a backstory so I know what happened.)

I can't quite embrace being labeled not inquisitive. Are you sure you want that designation? LOL, you made me reconsider what I said and the way in which I said it! (And frankly, I am not buying for a second that any writer lacks curiosity!)

wavybrains said...

Eli--This is my problem with NR too! I need a good black moment--not fun dates and flowers and romance. :)

Alice--I really wish I could shut off the part of my brain that picks books apart--it takes part of the fun away sometimes. But other times, it adds to the fun of it for me. I'm thinking of submitting something for the Crusie anthology since I love taking apart even books that I like!

Danita--I like the Cars analysis.

Alice Sharpe said...

Danita, I am going to go rent CARS. I've heard that it's a great story from other folks. Anyone see that movie that's just coming out on DVD with "Star" in the title? I can't think of the name. The one with Michelle (get ready, I'm about to butcher her last name) Phiffer?

Alice Sharpe said...

Wavy, Good to see you're thinking of submitting something. Is this that contest I think Jane mentioned?

Paty Jager said...


I wasn't saying you don't analyze anything- I was just saying it's nice to know there are other writers out there who don't analyze every book they read.

See I knew I should have kept writing and ignored the urge to stick my foot in my mouth.

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty -- If writing were going better for me today, I wouldn't have time to read things and think about them!!! My foot is in my mouth about half the time! Sorry I sounded snippy.

(Are you almost finished with your first draft?)

Paty Jager said...

Getting closer every minute!
I logged in 5,369 words Monday, nothing yesterday and I'm at 1500 words so far today. I'm on the down hill side of the black moment and tasting "The End".

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty, you lucky dog.