The Power of the Greatest Fear in crafting a novel!

The Power of the Greatest Fear

Want to build a powerful climax to your novel? Harness the Power of the Greatest Fear to bring your character to an external plot climax, as well as an internal crisis.

We talked last time about the power of the Dark Moment Story in building that layered character. The Dark Moment story is also used to create the capstone of your novel: The Black Moment Event. This moment is not only the climax of the story, but the point of change for your character and sets up the epic finale of your novel.


The Black Moment Event hinges on understanding your character’s Greatest Fear.

Every character has a deep and abiding fear, based on his Dark Moment Story that has molded him as a person and helped established motivation for all his decisions and choices. This fear, as the novel opens helps determine what your character wants (namely, not ever repeating this fear) and guides his personality.

The key to having a greatest fear is that you want to create something that could possibly happen again, maybe not with the same people, or even the same event, but to create the same painful, emotional scenario.

This is how an author goes beyond a stereotypical, cardboard character. You, as the author, get to build your own person with his own wounds. Your character’s reaction to their dark moment story might be different than another character’s reaction to a family fight.

More, every dark moment is going to surface different kinds of fears. You can pick any fear you want out of that Dark Moment Story. It just depends on what you want to do in your story, and what story you want to tell.

The interesting part is that much of the time, authors pick a fear we relate to, which means that we will have truth in our past that we can then apply to the story. So now we’re creating characters that we can tap into in an authentic way.

In My Foolish Heart, I created a heroine who was agoraphobic. It was based on a talk show host, who’s never been in love and was trapped in her home. The reason she was trapped in her home is because she had panic attacks as a result of seeing her parents die in a horrific car accident right outside their home.

I did not understand my character. I knew her Dark Moment Story and her Greatest Fear but I couldn’t relate to her . . . or so I thought. See, I’ve always been a “brave” person–even living overseas and raising four children in Siberia. I looked at Izzy, my character, and thought she was weak.

Until . . . I started rooting around my past. I went back to a time when I myself was struggling to leave my home. I wasn’t afraid to leave but rather–overwhelmed. When I was in Russia, I had four children under the age of five, so young I had to carry two of them when we left the house. We lived in a high rise, on the ninth floor. We didn’t have a phone. We didn’t have Internet. We didn’t have running water. I didn’t have a car. And we had to walk two blocks to the little grocery kiosk. There would be times when my husband would be gone for two or three days and we’d have saltines and peanut butter in the cupboard. I’d stare at the empty shelves, wanting to conjure up anything to eat. I would think . . . I don’t know how I’m going to leave the house to buy food. I wasn’t afraid but I felt trapped, and that was enough for me to relate to Izzy and say, “Yes, this is what it feels like to be trapped in your home.”

From that emotion, I was then able to create a scene where Izzy actually was out of food and she had to go to the store. More, I was able to accurately portray her struggle.

If your character’s Dark Moment Story is something you can related to, something you can pull from your own life, you’ll create authentic situations and authentic emotions as you build that character’s story. So, don’t pick a greatest fear you can’t wrap your brain or emotions around. However, the beauty of the Dark Moment Story is that you can pick whatever greatest fear that you want. So choose wisely.


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The Greatest Fear is going to be helpful in two ways.

  1. Recreate it in the Black Moment Event. Using the Greatest Fear as a template, you’ll find an event or situation that resurrects this fear in a tangible, believable way, played out in the Black Moment Event. This gives you plotting fodder! You don’t have to set the Black Moment in cement, but you can brainstorm a number of fantastic ideas to help in the formation of your plot.


  1. The Greatest Fear adds both motivation and behavior to your character from the first page. Characters are wired to stay away from things that are going to hurt them, especially their greatest fears. So as your character walks on the page, he’s already going to be making decisions that will protect him, and keep him from getting into that dark place.


e.g. In My Foolish Heart, Izzy never wanted to leave her house. So she rigged her life so she never had to leave. She knew all the delivery numbers by memory, paid someone to deliver groceries and had a work-at-home job.


The Greatest Fear is the single most powerful ingredient you as the author can pull from the Dark Moment Story to help you build motivation, behavior and the essential Black Moment Event that builds the external climax and sets up the character change.

Next time we’ll talk about creating a powerful Internal Journey by understanding the Lie your character believes.

Until then, Go! Write Something Brilliant!





Susie May

P.S. Need help crafting a novel?  Check out our Brilliant Writer series in kindle! 







Extreme Book Makeover: Don’t forget the Hurrah Ending!

I love sports movies. They’re so simply constructed – a down-and-out team (for some reason – they’ve lost their coach, or their team is divided, or their star players are taken out, or they’ve been named the underdogs), faces unbeatable odds (usually the reigning champions), fights through their fears and doubts, and in the last play, triumphs in some amazing way.

If you’re a Patriots fan, you’re pumping your fist right now. Sorry, Seahawks friends. But, this year we had a fantastic super bowl.

Last year, not so much. I’m not going to dig up old wounds, but the lights going out ended up being the most exciting part of the game. Why? Because. . .we had no triumphant ending. No white-knuckle, breath-holding, I didn’t-see-that-coming finish.

No Hurrah Ending

The Hurrah Ending is what we’re waiting for in a great sporting event…and in a great story. We trek through every chapter, suffering with the character, waiting for the finish that will make it all worthwhile.

And when we don’t get it, we walk away, unsatisfied.

unbrokenI watched Unbroken this weekend. It’s the epic, unbelievable story of survival by Louis Zamperini in World War two, through plane crash, being lost at sea, then two years in a Japanese prison camp. I loved the book. I devoured it because the unbelievable events kept me at the edge of my seat.  I suffered with Louis Zamperini with each turn of the page.

And when he returned home, despite the name of the movie. . .he was broken. Yes, he survived, but, to be expected, he took the war home with him and it began to haunt him.

And, although relieved he’d survived, I felt as broken as he did. He had lived. . .but he hadn’t triumphed.

Until. . .until the last twenty pages when suddenly everything changed. Desperate, suffering from serious PTSD, and on the brink of losing everything, Louis gave into his wife’s request to attend a Billy Graham crusade.

And, that night, when he went forward to receive and give forgiveness, he went from wounded to whole. From survivor to significant.

The war was over.

Knowing this, I watched the movie, waiting for the triumph. But the movie ended with Louis returning home to his family. As if his survival was enough. Granted, that’s astoundingly inspirational. But it’s not enough to survive on the outside. To simply return home.  We needed triumph over the darkness inside.

Thankfully, there is more to the Louis Zamperini story than what we got in the movie. The book tells us how he overcame on the inside – how he returned to Japan and forgave his captors, his abusers.

They left that out of the movie, telling it in the epilogue lines.

The huzzah ending became a footnote.

Imagine with me, the power of the story if they told the last twenty pages. What if they showed his drinking, his anger, his nightmares. Showed his BLACK MOMENT. . .his greatest fear, that the words of his brother, Pete (if you can take it, you can make it), weren’t true. That after surviving such atrocities he DIDN’T make it, but rather let it destroy what was left of his life? What if, in that moment, he believed the lie (said in the beginning of the movie) that he was nothing?

Then, what if they showed him crawling to the altar, clinging to God, realizing that God was in his suffering, and has a purpose for his life. What if they then showed his life transformed? What if the final shot was not in the footnotes, but in the body of the movie when he returns to Japan, sees the guards who hurt him, has a moment of flashback where he remembers the beatings, then reaches out to embrace them?

That’s a movie that is added to our “must-see-every-year” list. As it is, we enjoyed the DVD extra documentary, “the Real Louis Zamperini” more than the movie because it gave us the hurrah ending we’d waited for.

Great filmmaking. Moving. But if you want to create a powerful story, we need the hurrah ending to make us rise off the sofa and cheer.

Let’s take it apart just a bit here. The Hurrah Ending consists of 5 parts:

Black Moment Event (the realization of your character’s Greatest Fear)


Black Moment EFFECT (the inner black moment, the sense that the lie feels real.)


Epiphany (The Truth that sets him free)


Overhaul/New Man (he steps into his destiny and becomes a new person)


Final Battle (the thing (action) he can do at the end that he can’t at the beginning)


Does your book have a Hurrah Ending? If not, then it’s not finished.


Go ahead, fix it. We’ll just sit here waiting for that last, epic play of the game.


Go! Write something Brilliant!


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The What and Why of Writing: Black Moment

I’m going to be honest and admit that, at first, I didn’t understand the power of a novel’s Black Moment. The Black Moment merely meant something bad happened to my main characters. Nothing more, nothing less.

But when I understood the depth of the Black Moment – what it was and how to use it in a story – wow! my novels changed.

What: Black Moment

In one word: devastation. That moment where there is no turning back and no hope, when your character’s worst fears come true. The Lie feels true and things can’t get any worse. The Black Moment breaks your character’s heart — and the moment of truth they experience later heals their heart.


As writers, we’re told to wreak havoc on our characters. When you write your hero’s or heroine’s Black Moment, you let the worst possible thing happen to them.  Think Luke Skywalker’s “I am you father” moment with Darth Vader. This is where their emotional wound is gaping and the Lie they believe about themselves brings them to their knees.

When you hear the term “Wound,” think romance. When you hear the term “Lie,” think faith. The hero or the heroine heals the Wound and God heals the Lie. The Wound prevents a character from developing a lasting relationship with someone else. The Lie they believe interferes with their relationship with God.

Remember: The Black Moment is a recreation of your character’s Dark Moment — that painful experience in their past that shapes who they are today and affects their relationship with others and with God. When you write the Black Moment it does not have to be the exact same thing happening to your hero or your heroine. If someone they loved drowned in the Dark Moment, you don’t have to have someone they love drowning in the Black Moment.  Rather, your character experiences the same feeling of loss, or abandonment or failure.

Example: What if my heroine felt responsible for the death of her younger sister? This all goes back to her Dark Moment: When she was 12 years old, she and her family were at Destin, FL and she was supposed to watch her 6-year-old sister. They were playing in the waves, got caught in a riptide, and the lifeguard saved our heroine, but not her sister.

When I develop the heroine’s Black Moment in the novel, I need to devise an event where she is responsible for someone else – and somehow doesn’t protect them. Could it be water-related, i.e. back at the ocean? Sure. But it doesn’t have to be. I just need to recreate the emotion that she fails to protect someone she loves. I need to tap into her Wound (the loss of a loved one that affects her present-day relationships) and the Lie (she failed someone she loved, so how could God love her?)

How have you recreated the Dark Moment within your character’s Black Moment, making that event all the more powerful for your reader?


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Quick Skills: Black Moment Construction

The Black Moment in your novel is the most important part of your novel.

I just had to say that because I see so many manuscripts that pull their punches on the Black Moment.  Authors have fallen in love with their characters and they just don’t want to hurt them.  But creating a powerful Black Moment is what both the character and the reader need to convince them they must change.

So, how do you create a powerful Black Moment?

First…let’s just take a look at the Black Moment Flow Chart:

Dark Moment of the Past (Greatest Fear + Lie) = Black Moment Event = Black Moment Effect = Epiphany = Character Change.

Again, how do we find the Black Moment?  We go into our character’s backstory and find a DARK MOMENT in their past that has shaped them, ask them to tell us about it (in a journal entry, so we can use it later), and then pull out from it the Greatest Fear and the Lie (Black Moment flow chart).   The Greatest Fear is the EVENT you will recreate in some form, and the LIE is what you will make your character believe is True, and inescapable as an EFFECT of the Black Moment.

The result of this is the Truth setting your character free, (finally!) and then a Character Change finale where your character does something at the end they can’t at the beginning.

Now that we have that flow nailed down, let’s touch briefly on how to create a powerful Black Moment (Event and Effect!).

1. Examine their Greatest Fear to find the acute pressure point.

Often, an event like a parent dying isn’t the Darkest Moment. It’s the moment, two months later, at the Father Daughter dance when our heroine doesn’t have a date that this sinks in.  Go to that moment and ask your character…why is this your darkest moment?  Maybe it’s because he always asked her to dance, and she felt silly, so she turned him down.  Or that she spent all year waiting for this dance, and now she had no one.  What does this moment tell her about life, herself, God?

Obviously, when you recreate the Greatest Fear, you can’t recreate the actual event. But you could create the pain of that event.  Regret.  Abandonment.  Anger?   The key is to create a Black Moment Event that produces the same emotions, the same conclusion.  The same LIE.

Think outside the box – turn it over, and take a good look.  It’s the not-so-obvious moments that are the most profound.

2. Build that fear in from page one.  (Hence why you need to know what it is before you start the novel).  You should slowly be pushing your character to confront this fear (even if they don’t know it), with every turn of the page.

You know from the first scene that Frodo fears succumbing to the ring, or worse, having his failure destroy the shire.  You know that Bourne fears he’ll never be more than an assassin.  You know that Richard Kimball fears letting his wife’s killer go free.  All these fears are voiced or shown in the early acts of the movie.  Give us a hint of that fear, and the tension will build as we draw near it.

3. Make the Black Moment Unexpected yet Plausible.  Whatever Black Moment you choose, it must be something that could happen. I watched the latest Indiana Jones movie again this weekend (The Crystal Skull).  And, even though I don’t love it as much  (although Shai LeBeouf is a great addition) the black moment does work.  No, I didn’t like the crystal skulls coming to life to suck out people’s brains through their eyeballs, and then vanish on a spaceship, it was pretty classic Indiana Jones.  After all, in previous movies, the Ark came alive and punched out people’s souls, and then there was the melting man who “chose poorly” in the Last Crusade.  So, even though I didn’t like the premise the screenwriters DID build up enough plausibility for it to happen.  And, let’s admit it – it was sort of unexpected (and creepy!)  So, you can get away with crazy out of this world black moments if you build up the plausibility.

4. The Black Moment should be strong enough to bring them to their knees and re-evaluate everything they believe in.  This will lead them to the Healing Epiphany. The hero must look back to his mistakes, and see what he did wrong.  And only then will he come to some truth that will open a new door to a new future.  In other words, deal with them on an emotional spiritual, even VALUES level to make them re-evaluate everything they believe in.  One of my favorite movies is Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  I always cry during the epiphany where Steve Martin realizes that John Candy, his annoying travel partner has lied to him about his life and has no place to go.  All Steve Martin’s annoyance is put aside by his gratefulness that he has a family to return home to.  His perspective is just in time for the holidays.

Makes sure your Black Moment rends their heart, and their epiphany heals it.

Quick Skills:  Construct your Black Moment Ending before you write the first word of your WIP so you understand how to increase the tension on every page of your novel.

Happy Writing!

Susie May

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