The doom moment is an internal character arc piece that forces your protagonist to face off with the inner demon that has been plaguing this character
The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.
The flip side of the third-act disaster beat is that your protagonist is brought low. That’s the whole point of the disaster! It’s an external plot beat that forces an internal character arc change.
Get psychological, because now we turn to the inner stuff. This is the point at which your protagonist must be forced to face her inner demon.
This internal battle takes place when your protagonist has no choice but to turn from the path of lies to the path of truth. But first…make it hurt.
The external plot makes things bad. The doom moment makes everything even worse. The worst possible disaster has struck, and now your protagonist is lying stunned, not believing she can possibly go on.
The doom moment is an internal character arc piece that forces your protagonist to face off with the inner demon that has been plaguing this character from the start.
The doom moment usually directly follows the third-act disaster beat of the external plot in a basic three-act story structure. It marks the necessary beginning point of your character’s transformation.
Your protagonist is at her all-time low. Everything just came crashing down around her in the plot. Now she’s wallowing in that lowest pit, and she can’t imagine things getting any worse.
All hope is lost.
So then what’s the harm in changing? What else has she got to lose?
But first, that inner demon is going to rear its ugly head. It’s going to try to crush your protagonist’s soul.
Whatever lies she believes, her inner demon will try to convince her of their truth so that she can never pick herself up again. And you need to let her believe she’s all but failed.
Think of it this way: if things are going well enough—or at least OK—is there any reason to change? People are creatures of habit, and the same brain pathway connections are far easier to keep making over and over again than to reroute new ones.
Without some external reason all but forcing a change, your character really has no reason to do so. The protagonist’s inner demon is a powerful fiend that’s been nurtured and fed from whatever past traumatic experience it was created out of—whether that was one major event or a constant drip of pressure over time, it doesn’t matter, and the outcome is the same either way.
This demon is the corrupted, twisted truth. Specifically, it’s the truth that your protagonist needs to learn. Instead, your protagonist fully clings to the corrupted version—the demon of fear and lies. Because your protagonist won’t let go, the demon keeps pulling your protagonist back down with it. It holds your character back from getting the very thing she truly wants and needs.
The epitome of this relationship is what readers need to see in the doom moment. They need to see your character very directly confronting these longheld corrupted beliefs.
Fear will keep your character running from this confrontation until there’s absolutely nowhere to run. She will try to avoid and ignore the problem until she suddenly can’t.
Sure, there’s a battle raging in the plot. Maybe the protagonist’s friends are falling or otherwise lost, leaving the protagonist all alone to drown in self-pity, guilt, loathing, and failure.
But the story that really matters is the one going on inside your protagonist’s head. In sci-fi and fantasy, sometimes this internal battle is manifested in a dreamlike or alternate-reality-type form. Even so, the thoughts and beliefs are still internal and emotionally driven.
It’s not easy for your protagonist to face everything she’s been working so hard this whole time to avoid and ignore. So she’s going to feel like this is the end. All hope is utterly extinguished.
So find a moment in the external disaster during which your protagonist can go a bit inward. The enemy might be approaching, but there are still precious seconds in which your protagonist must see her inner demon in all its horror. Only then will she be able to come to terms with the truth. Not a second earlier.
Let’s see how this internal showdown works in the midst of the external disaster in other novels. Of course, I’m using the first books in three series in these explorations of story structure. So understand that the full character transformation doesn’t occur in any books that aren’t the finales.
But this is good for speculative authors to see even so. Single books each have a condensed version of the overall series structure. Each beat is still necessary to fulfill in some way, but in cases of non-finale books, the internal change that occurs is either a step toward the overall series transformation or a transformation related to a sub-theme of the series. You’ll see this play out in the following structural examples in which I show how the external disaster leads to the internal confrontation:
The Lord of the Rings:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
The Hunger Games:
In your own novel, make sure the doom moment is accomplishing what it needs to. It should
Take place internally somehow—it’s a character arc beat, not an external plot event.
Feel like all is lost, there is no hope, and the enemy will win.
Make your protagonist painfully aware of her mistakes, the lies she’s clung to, and the fears she’s avoided.
But truly, it’s worth the creative energy to craft this beat with intention. The doom moment beat will help you pull off your story with huge climactic payoff that wouldn’t exist without it.
If your protagonist simply “finds” more inner strength (like I see in so many stories) without clear reason, how is that satisfactory for readers? Subconsciously, readers are looking to vanquish their own demons. Show the dark side of that process too.
Readers crave that emotional catharsis and need to live it vicariously through your main character. So make your character live it!
Categories: story structure
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