The eternal curse of being a writer is that you’re no longer able to look at stories in the same way. You can’t just sit back and watch a movie or read a book and enjoy it. You find yourself saying, “Hey, that bit really worked. I wonder why?” or “That was so boring I want to remove my left eye with a corkscrew. I wonder why?” You’re like a freshly-minted mechanic, no longer able to simply drive your car in blissful ignorance and stare in befuddlement when it breaks down. You have to know why.
For instance the book Save the Cat takes its name from the idea that a story’s protagonist needs a moment to be the hero, to shine through in such a way that the reader will want to pump his fist in the air and let loose an exultant “HUZZAH!” You can’t build a whole story out of that kind of moment, any more than you can build a whole car out of spark plugs, but it is a necessary piece of the completed whole.
But lately I’ve taken note of a different kind of moment in many of the stories I’ve been reading, the television and movies I’ve been watching. It isn’t the kind of moment you cheer for. When it hits there will be no fist pumping, no getting up out of your seat and walking around the room with the book in your hands because you’re too excited to sit still, but too enthralled to stop reading. (You guys do this too right? Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.) This is a moment that stabs into your gut like a rusty machete and then twists.
This is the moment when everything goes wrong.
Of course, if your story is any good, things have been going wrong all along. An easy path does not compelling reading make. But up until this point there was hope. Before the reader was saying to himself “Well golly, I wonder how he’s going to make it out of this one.” But now the mood has changed. The reader is reeling, swaying, staggering from the sucker punch you’ve just delivered. A main character has just died; the romantic interest had just professed his love to the wrong woman; the earth has been destroyed by the Vogon Constructor fleet. In short, thing are looking very very bad indeed.
This is what I’d like to call the “shoot the cat” moment. And I’m increasingly of the opinion that every story should have one. It’s a chance to remind your audience that you’re not messing around, a moment that will make them wonder exactly how far you’re willing to go.
As far as I can tell this moment can happen at virtually any point in the story, as long as the reader is vested in your characters. This means that unless you’re writing a book in a series or a serial television show (Season 6 of Doctor Who has a fantastic example of this in the opening scenes of the second episode) You should probably save this for somewhere in the second act.
Always remember, keep the stakes high and personal. Triumph means more after tragedy, and the further down into defeat you can drag your hero, the more it will mean when he overcomes it all and soars high above the clouds victorious once again.