What is a Dark Moment? It’s a particular event in the backstory of your lead character. It’s not a happy event. It’s a terrible event. It’s not necessarily the worst thing that ever happened to your character, but it’s something that has bent your character’s life and is bending it now as your story opens.
That’s what a Dark Moment is. But what’s it good for? Why should you care?
An example might be useful. Lets take Ken Follett’s classic thriller The Man From St. Petersburg. The plot is simple to explain, and you’ll forgive me if I include some spoilers here, because that’s necessary if I’m going to teach you the value of a Dark Moment:
It’s the early summer of 1914, and Prince Aleks Orlov, nephew of the Czar, has come to England to negotiate a secret military alliance with England. The alliance would obligate Russia to support England in the event that it goes to war. And that would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Russian peasants.
Russian anarchists learn about the negotiations and send a man to kill Prince Orlov. They desperately want to avoid having Russia dragged into a senseless war. And they know that England gives asylum to anarchists, which infuriates the Czar. An anarchist assassinating the Czar’s nephew will ruin any chance of a military alliance between Russia and England.
The above two paragraphs describe the external story. The story goal of the anarchist is to kill Prince Orlov. He’ll either succeed or fail. Either way, there’ll be global consequences.
It’s a strong external story, and most thriller writers could do a good job bringing it to life. But Follett does an exceptional job by weaving in an internal story. Here’s how he does it.
The assassin, Felix Kschessinsky, grew up in St. Petersburg. Nineteen years ago he met Lydia, the daughter of a Russian nobleman, and fell in love with her. They had a passionate affair that went on for weeks. Then one day, Feliks was arrested, tortured by the Russian secret police, and held for a couple of months. When he was finally released, he learned that his lover Lydia had married an English aristocrat and gone to live in England. This is Feliks’s Dark Moment, and for nineteen years, he learns nothing more about her.
Lydia grew up in the highest Russian society. She is the aunt of Prince Aleks Orlov. She is now Lady Walden, the distinguished wife of Lord Walden. When the English government makes overtures to the Russians about a military alliance, the Czar insists that the English negotiator must be a man he knows and trusts, Lord Walden. Lydia is delighted to have her nephew Prince Orlov living in the house for a few weeks to negotiate with her husband.
Lydia has done her best to forget the young man she loved in Russia. The worst day of her life was the day she was forced to marry Lord Walden. That was her Dark Moment, but she’s carefully pushed the memories into the back corners of her mind. She loves her husband, Lord Walden, even if she’s not passionate about him. She has a good life—a large home, a place in society, and a beautiful daughter, Charlotte. But Charlotte is not Lord Walden’s daughter.
Charlotte is Feliks’s daughter. She doesn’t know it yet. Feliks doesn’t know it yet. Lord Walden doesn’t know it yet. But when they find out, the story’s going to blow wide open. The external story will be blown open by the internal story. Geopolitics is going to be smashed by emotopolitics.
The Dark Moment shared by Feliks and Lydia transforms this high-stakes international thriller into a deeply personal thriller as well.
And that’s why you should care about Dark Moments. Dark Moments inject deep personal meaning into your external story.