Writers In The Storm welcomes back Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo for the final installment of her plot-fixing series. Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House. AND she’s a 2012 DOUBLE RITA Finalist! In case you missed any of the first lessons, you’ll find links below.
by Kara Lennox
Plot Problem #14: Weak black moment
There must be a point in your book when all seems lost.
The hero is about to fail in his quest; the heroine is about to be thrown off a building; the villain has gotten hold of the secret weapon. Your hero and heroine are breaking up and there appears to be no way to work out their differences.
Go back to Lesson 5 and review Plot Problem #7, Stakes are too low.
By now, hopefully you’ve raised the stakes in your story. The black moment is the time to play that up. You have to keep asking yourself, per Donald Maass, “How can I make this worse? What is the worst that can possibly happen?”
Don’t hold back. Your black moment isn’t black enough until the reader, and possibly even you as the writer, can’t see a way out. In some cases, your hero might actually fail in his/her quest. That’s okay, so long as he/she ends up gaining something even better in the end.
The black moment is when your characters must make that ultimate sacrifice.
Throughout the book they’ve been growing and learning; now, when nothing is working, their only choices is to somehow apply the lessons they’ve learned to get out of the fix they’re in.
Maybe they put together the final clue of the mystery and figure out where the kidnapped child is hidden. Maybe the heroine realizes the only way she can be with her vampire hero is to become a vampire. Maybe the heroine learns that she had the tools she needed to vanquish the villain all along.
Escaping from the black moment might require all of your skills as a writer and a good bit of brainstorming. Sometimes, once you know how you want the characters to escape, you’ll have to go back and plant the tools, or the knowledge, or the clue that is needed.
One thing you do NOT want is some heretofore never mentioned element to swoop in and save the day. No angels suddenly appearing out of nowhere to vanquish a demon; no rich uncle suddenly dying and leaving the heroine enough money to save her failing company; no suddenly remembering a secret password.
Also, no sudden changes of heart. I have read many books where the hero is a complete jerk throughout the whole story, until the very end when he suddenly turns all mushy and says something like, “Didn’t you know all along that I loved you?” This might have flown in years past, but not today.
Likewise, this is also not the time to reveal that the “other woman” is actually the hero’s sister. (And if you read the lesson about conflict, you already know that a simple misunderstanding can’t be the conflict for an entire book.)
If you’re struggling for a black moment, look at your characters for a clue.
Ask yourself what is the one thing your heroine would never, ever do? If the heroine is a daddy’s girl, she loves her father and trusts him and would never, ever betray him, the black moment might involve her discovering he is a criminal. And her ultimate sacrifice is that she has to turn him in, possibly to save the hero from being convicted of the crime. Now that’s a black moment.
Plot Problem #15: The Ending Does Not Satisfy
A strong ending is crucial to a successful plot.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said, a great beginning sells your book; a great ending sells your next book.
You want your reader to sigh with satisfaction as they close your book or turn the last page of your manuscript. If your characters have overcome impossible odds, chances are your reader will feel satisfied.
In a romance novel, this means the hero and heroine get their happily-ever-after. Although they don’t have to commit to marriage, they do have to commit. The reader has to believe that these two are going to spend the rest of their lives together.
This means you must have solved the conflict. No fair just having them agree that they love each other, so they’ll figure it out later. They have to have it figured out by the end of the book. (This applies to a standard romance. If you’re writing a series a la Stephanie Plum, or the J.D. Robb “Death” books, there may still be larger issues to settle, but the hero and heroine are at least in a truce where they can be happy for a while).
If the book is a romantic suspense or fantasy or mystery or romantic-fill-in-the-blank, this means you’ll have other conflicts to resolve. The villain must be vanquished, the child rescued, the demons sent back to hell, the magical potion recovered, etc. etc.
The rule of thumb for this is, resolve those OTHER conflicts first, then resolve the romance. That way, the moment your hero and heroine have committed to each other, your story is done.
If your book is primarily another genre, with a romantic subplot, you’ll probably want to resolve the romance first, then the other conflicts. Whatever the central conflict is, that is the one you resolve last.
Sometimes, because we love our story people, we have a tendency to linger too long.
Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how much to dwell on happy-happy. I have often been guilty of ending too abruptly. I once had an editor who felt so uneasy about the terrible conflicts these two people had overcome, that she wanted to be reassured that they really had solved their problems and she requested an epilogue set in the future (complete with babies, of course).
The story will feel “finished” to the reader if you somehow restate the theme.
If you are in the hero or heroine’s head, you can have her state it outright. This is what she learned, and this is how she is going to live her life from now on. Or, you can be more subtle. Conventional wisdom says show don’t tell, so if you can devise a scene that shows how the characters have changed, that’s even better.
You do, however, want that last line to be memorable. You want a picture to linger in the reader’s mind.
In my book Reluctant Partners, the hero and heroine were in dispute over the ownership of a fishing charter boat. The first scene involved the heroine kicking the hero off her boat. At the end of the book, they’ve had the sign over the dock repainted to list both of their names, side by side, as co-captains.
A nice technique to bring a book full circle is to use bookend scenes.
Think about the movie BACK TO THE FUTURE. The first scene with Marty’s family shows how completely dysfunctional all of them are. Dad is a wimp, Mom is a lush, brother works at McDonald’s, sister is a loser. The last scene, Dad is a successful author, Mom is slender and athletic and happy, brother is an executive, sis is popular with lots of boyfriends. (My take on the theme of this movie, BTW, is “One single act of heroism can change you, your future, and the future of everyone around you.”) If you can do this with your book, chances are you’ve nailed the concept of theme.
Homework: How will you end your book?
- What kind of visual can you give the reader, a symbol of the new reality that has been forged by your characters’ hard work, sacrifice, and everything they have learned?
- What do you want lingering in your reader’s mind?
- Can you do bookend scenes?
(Hint: Sometimes thinking about this might suggest a new opening scene for your book that you never considered. Be open to this! It might be really, really good.)
* * *
So now we have come to the end of this series.
I’m always happy to try to answer any questions, even ones that don’t directly apply to plotting. I hope you’ve enjoyed the whole Plot Fixer series, and I wish happy sales to all of you. And me, too!
Need to read a missed lesson?
- Lesson 1: Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
- Lesson 2: How to Fix a Weak Opening
- Lesson 3: A Lack of Goals
- Lesson 4: Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
- Lesson 5: Raise the Stakes
- Lesson 6: Your Plot Moves Too Slowly
- Lesson 7: How to Pick Up the Pace in Your Story
- Lesson 8: Is Your Plot Too Predictable?
- Lesson 9: Plots That Rely on Coincidence and Contrivance
- Lesson 10: A Loss of Focus
Do you have questions about plotting based on these two lessons? What about from other lessons in the series? We’ve got Kara, so let’s keep her busy in the comments! 🙂
Kara Lennox, author of Project Justice series for Harlequin SuperRomance has six titles now available in e-book or print! Her novel, Sweet Romance Hard to Resist now available from Harlequin Heartwarming. One-Night Alibi is coming in July 2013. She also writes as Karen Leabo. Her latest title is Millicent’s Medicine Man, Loveswept Classic Romance.
You can find Kara at: