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5) Oy Ve, The Ordeal

It’s the moment in the Hero’s Journey that can often mess with a romance writer’s mind–the Ordeal. Or, as we all know is…The Black Moment. But, that’s a bit simplistic because depending on the depth of your story, it’s not the COMPLETELY worst moment of your hero’s story. Confused? That’s okay, believe it or not, I can explain.

As I’ve said before, the Hero’s Journey is a great guide, to see if you’ve touched your points, but one thing to remember when writing Romance is that you are essentially creating two Journeys for both Hero and Heroine. The External Journey and the Internal One.

Much like following two timelines, each one is going to be somewhat separate from the other. The pacing and plot of each often offsets the other. When the pacing of the External Journey (The Plot) slows, it’s a great time to up the speed on the Internal Journey (The Romance). They’re going to overlap, ebbing and flowing, back and forth. If you’d really like to get your hero’s undies in a bunch, then spike them both at the same time–but not yet. Save that for the next segment!

So, today’s lesson: The Black Moment is your spike on your INTERNAL Journey. And, it’s not the worst one. The Ordeal “can be defined as the moment the Hero faces his greatest fear.” “The simple secret of the Ordeal is this: Heroes must die so that they can be reborn.” Translated: You’re going to test him or her by exposing their weakest point and making them face it. Then, of course, they need to royally screw up.
The fate of every hero is to take two steps forward and one step back. They have good things, just enough to think that they’re steady, safe or that everything is going to be just fine. But that’s putting down your guard–one of the primo lessons of the journey is to NEVER do that–and of course, a price must be paid for such foolishness. Usually, it’s to realize that a hero still has flaws, weaknesses. Or maybe just to admit.

Think of it as purifying gold. The only way to do that is to put it in the fire and run the weaknesses out. Every stage of the process is a hotter fire, until the gold shows it’s perfection. That is how you make heroes.
Now, again, there are elements to the Ordeal that need to be expessed. Take a look at the list below and double check that your story has them. For the romance writer, you can choose to make this your External Journey’s rough patch or your internal journey’s black moment. One caveat: you will need one of these for both.

Death & Rebirth: “In some way in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality.” They must see their own weakness and have it exposed. And it’s not fixable in that scene.

“Most of the time, they magically survive this death and are literally or symbolically reborn to reap the consequences of having cheated death. They have passed the main test of being a hero.” Picture all those movies when heroes go flying off cliffs of building edges only to be discovered hanging on to the edge by their fingertips.

Rebirth isn’t really something you want to rush in a romance, though. For us, it’s more of a spot where the hero says to himself, “I shouldn’t have done that.” They’ve suffered an emotional loss–their chick leaves, her husband discovers that she cheated, etc.–and usually because they did the unwise thing. Remember, all black moments MUST come out of the actions of the hero, either prior to the story or in the course of it. No Deus Ex Machina for you or the Hand of God is going to slap your book right out of the editor’s office. A buddy who accidentally slips the truth is not good enough in today’s market. This is simply what’s gone around coming around. Your hero must pay for previous actions as well as present ones. And they must have no one else to blame.

The Crisis, Not The Climax: “The Ordeal is usually the central event of the story, or the main event of the second act.” This is where your hero screws up. It is NOT where they fix anything. It’s more where they wonder if they CAN fix anything. Wallow, wallow, wallow, folks.

Be Conscious Of The Placement Of The Ordeal: Either have a central crisis–dead center Act II–or a delayed crisis–near the end of Act II. What kind do you have? Romancers generally have an end of Act II type, or even a start of Act III kind. The rule of thumb has always been to have the Black Moment as close as possible to the end of the book so you can tie up the plot and have the characters miserable–and apart, must remember the words “apart” because that’s Romance Industry suicide–for as little as possible. So, I’m about to fly in the face of convention, but I’m recommending against it.

I like the end of Act II because emotions are a hell of a lot harder to get over than facts that can’t be disputed. One of the biggest faults in our industry is that people view Romances as not having a true expression of human emotion. People grant forgiveness too easily, too whole heartedly. We fall in love too fast, without explanation. We confuse lust and hot sex for life-long love. I have to admit, a good thrust should not be confused for a shoulder to lean on. We have people in therapy for that very thing. So, if you give your characters time to naturally have their emotions change or develop, you’re going to have a book that remains on people’s shelves at home instead of rusticating in their trashcans.

Points Of Tension: “Act 2 is…100 pages of your novel. It needs some kind of structure to hold it in tension. The crisis atthe halfway point is a watershed, a continental divide in the hero’s journey, that acknowledges the traveler has reached the middle of the trip…Everything in the trip has been leading to this point, and everything after it will be just going home. There may be even greater adventures to come–the final moments of a trip may be the most exciting or memorable–but every journey seems to have a center: a bottom or a peak, somewhere near the middle.”

Having your crisis central, I’d be recommending for your external plot rather than your romance one. The reason being that all books can get a saggy middle. Much as I love Love, it cannot hold up a book all by itself. Adding disappointing setbacks and screw-ups in the middle of the book–especially as they will be all your hero’s fault (the villain that gets away because hero had to save a life instead, the evidence destroyed because of hero’s dedication to another cause or even his stubbornness) gives you more space to show the hero learning from the mistake and ups the stakes for the next stage.

Remember, “Even in the silliest comedy or most light-hearted romance, Act 2 needs a central life or death crisis, a moment when the hero is experiencing death or maximum danger to the enterprise.” Comedy is not the easy route. If anything, it’s much, much harder. You must maintain all the downsides to a journey while keeping the tone light. Not including them will doom the project to pure fluff that the reader won’t care about.

So, what will come out of all this senseless torment and misery? What is the point? Well, here’s another checklist for you.

Change: “Heroes don’t just visit death and come home…No one can go through an experience at the edge of death w/out being changed in some way.” Even the proudest of heroes has got to admit he’s fallible.

Taste Of Death: Stories enable viewers to be witnesses to death, sharing the depths of grief with characters, then rebound equally high at rebirth. Every emotional dip or spike will have an equal opposite after it. The deeper you dip, the more relief and enjoyment your reader will feel when they triumph…um, later. LOL!

Death & The Hero: The hero appears to die or fails in some way and that will ratchet tension. The hero can witness death, particularly a sacrifice that is like losing part of himself (Remember all those movies where heroes lose their mentors? “Star Wars” anyone? Bye-bye, Obi-Wan! Shoot, “Hellboy” even does it!) or the hero can cause death, creating yet another kind of personal cost for his survival. Now, people not need die in say, romantic comedy. “Death” here simply means that the hero loses something terribly important. Like trust or the chance to love again. It simply has to hurt, all the way to the bone, so they learn from it.

Facing The Shadow: “By far the most common kind of Ordeal is some sort of battle or confrontation with an opposing force…A villain may be an external character, but in a deeper sense…is the negative possibilities of the hero himself. In other words, the hero’s greatest opponent is his own shadow.” Translated: External Plot: “See the bad guy. Face the bad guy.” Internal Plot: “Expose softspot. Risk being punched in it.” Hero has to stand up and say, all right, I’m scared, but I’m not going anywhere. It makes him or her more heroic.

Death Of The Villain: The villain must ascertain a price here. “(T)he hero comes close to death at the Ordeal, but it is the villain who dies.” Or his underling. Or, the villain is wounded. (Keep in mind that villains are the heroes of their own stories.) Or the scary truth is finally out on the table, for all to see. In the end, the Big Bad, whatever it might be, is exposed either to be shown as unimportant because the hero faced it and didn’t die from it (though, they WILL be damaged in some way as an effect) or available for the perusal of all.

The Hero Cheats Death: “(H)eroes face certain death but survive where others have failed because they have wisely sought…aid in the earlier stages.” Basically, your hero is hanging on by the skin of his teeth because he remembered something you taught him earlier in the book. He’s going to know that he should have handled his challenge better, might even hate that he had to stoop to using this tactic, but he’s around to try again some other time.

Crisis Of The Heart: “In a story of romance, it might be the moment of greatest intimacy, something we all desire and yet fear.” Or “(W)hen a hero experiences betrayal or the death of a relationship.” Or separation w/ lover.
(That’d be the “Black Moment” OoooOOOoooooOOoooOOOOOoooo!)

Sacred Marriage: When the hero is reconciled with both feminine and masculine sides of themselves, good & bad, and accept them, making the hero stronger and emotionally balanced. This can also be when Hero is combined w/heroine and feels whole, but I don’t recommend doing that in a romance until Act III if you’re writing your Internal Journey. For the External Plot, this is a great time for the heroine to be the one rifling through the rubble of trouble hero has barely survived and she helps pull him from the wreckage. He’s so glad to see her, they know that they can overcome anything. (Then you kick them in the teeth again for the Internal Journey)

The Love That Kills: “A crisis of faith in the arena of love.” (See?)

Death Of The Ego: “The ordeal in myths signifies the death of the ego. The hero is now…dead to the old, limited vision of things & reborn into a new consciousness of connections.” Translated: Hero finally admits–now that it’s too late–that they were wrong. They understand now WHY they were wrong. it’s a hard, painful lesson, but by God, they’ve finally got it. Now they can go forth and get into some REAL trouble!

But that’s next week!

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