I am very excited to welcome author Angela Ackerman to the blog today. This is a great article and I hope you will find it useful. It’s amazing what nuggets of wisdom you can find while attending a writing conference. I just found out that the The Emotion Thesaurus will be coming to a language/country near you. Congrats to the authors!
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Literary Agent and Writing Instructor, Donald Maass. Writing 21st Century Fiction was the topic, based on the teachings of his new book by the same name. (This book should be on your Must-Buy list, by the way–it’s incredibly insightful!)
Donald discussed a few trouble spots he tends to see in the manuscripts that cross his desk, and one of the biggest is during the “black moment” where a protagonist is lost to despair (the All Is Lost moment if you are a Save The Cat fan). This can be a tricky area for many because the moment should be something deep and unique, not a general “life sucks” bleakness or overlong wallow that turns readers off.
Donald said often readers will skim past these dark periods of introspection because they are such downers, and encouraged us to think hard about how our character could use observations of his own dark moment to deepen the scene.
His advice was this: Write down an object that the protag notices that others might not. Use it to help show the character’s own observations of himself in that moment–the quality and intensity of the despair.
I chose the All Is Lost moment from my Upper Middle Grade WIP, Wrath of a God. The hero Brett is fighting Osiris, Egyptian God of the Dead, who has raised the demon Ammut to help him. The creature bites Brett’s friend Nathan, injecting poison into his bloodstream. He then watches, helpless to do anything as death comes for the boy.
I used Donald’s technique and chose incense as my object (which is burning in the underground throne room, the setting where this scene takes place). Would you like to see what I came up with? *Disclaimer: this is fast-and-dirty workshop writing, taken right from my notes!
Brett watched Nathan writhe as the poison slid through him, colouring his skin and beading his body with sweat. He slid away from himself then, numb and fogged, the smell of intense fading along with the sounds of his own laboured breathing and Amber’s voice screaming for him to do something. There was only knowledge inside him, a well of knowing that he couldn’t dispel, words with dark edges and echoes. Osiris had won.
Is it effective? I think so. This is introspection of defeat, but it is sensory as well, pulling the setting into sharper focus. I don’t even have to look at the original scene to know it’s stronger than what I had written. (If you are looking for another big tip I learned at this workshop, just follow this link!)
How about you–have you tried this technique? How do you write compelling dark moments? Leave your tricks and tips in the comments so we can all learn together!
Author Bio: Angela Ackerman is a Canadian who writes on the darker side of Middle Grade and Young Adult. A strong believer in writers helping writers, she blogs at the award winning resource, The Bookshelf Muse and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression. Angela is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.