Thursday, October 29, 2009

Art Imitates Life – My Black Moment Revealed

Most writers of romance fiction will acknowledge there is a formula to our stories. Different writers define their formula in different ways, but almost every story teller, whether sharing a romance, a mystery, a literary work, or any of the hundreds of sub-genres within those basic plots, follows a similar structure. Here is one I am currently using in my fiction (Compliments of Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck, Inside Out):

Life: The ordinary lives of the characters.

Inciting Incident: Something that forces the characters to act, to choose
a path that sets them on an adventure.

Noble Quest: That special something the main character is compelled to

Disappointment: Most of a story is made up of a series of setbacks…

Y in the Road: …and the decisions the characters make in response to
those setbacks.

Help! (Black Moment): Until the character(s) reaches a point at which all
appears to be lost.

Overhaul: So the character(s) must alter their perception, change their
goal to what matters most.

Perfect Ending: And thereby live Happily Ever Happen.

Here is the story of my true life romance:

That November day in 1991 started out like any other in the previous four months. I’d wake up, look over at my new husband, and wonder what on earth I’d done.
I loved him. I thought I did. I knew I did. After all we’d been through to be together, I’d better love him. Right? And then I’d contemplate the next forty or fifty years living with this stranger next to me and the breath would leave my lungs. I felt like someone had dropped a cement block in the middle of my chest.

What I didn’t know then, but would come to realize when I started writing fiction, is that on our wedding day my husband and I had not yet reached the end of the story. The Happily Ever After required of romance novels was not yet ours. We had only reached Help! And on that November day, my personal Black Moment was about to invade my life.

Let’s back up a bit, so you get a bit of context.

Life: I prepared dinner in the duplex apartment I shared with three other university students when the doorbell rang.

Inciting Incident: One roommate dashed to the door. “I forgot to tell you I invited this poor guy to stay. He’s stuck working out in Podunk for four months, so I offered him our spare room any time he wanted to come to the city.”

A few minutes later a tall, lean man with round glasses introduced himself as Andrew. He was shy, cute in a nerdy way, and not at all my usual type. But something happened when my gaze met his and he politely shook my hand. I wanted him to be my type!

Nobel Quest: Three months later Andrew was about to leave Canada to return to his home in South Africa. He’d been conscripted into the South Africa Defense Force and could not avoid the call unless he was willing to say goodbye to South Africa for good. We sat up talking, and talking, and talking. By morning both of us were stunned. Not only did we share a lapsed faith, we shared common desires for our lives. He left and the letters (no email back then) started. Was our relationship ordained to be?

Disappointments: Over the next eighteen months, we corresponded almost daily. While I was working in London, England, I took a month to travel to South Africa (one of those Y’s—I gave up biking Australia). We fell in love. But I had to complete two more classes to finish my degree and had a job commitment in Canada’s arctic from May to August. Andrew was stuck in the army, facing service at the Angolan border. I returned home, finished my classes, and went to a remote community at the Arctic Circle.

I had numerous opportunities in the Arctic in my field (Political Studies) and while there someone else who was wooing me with determination. And I had no commitment from Andrew. Just a request issued months before that I move to South Africa to see if our relationship had a future. Remembering our shared Noble Quest, I booked tickets for a six-month stay in South Africa. My parents and brother used every argument in their power to dissuade me from going.

With the unraveling of Apartheid, Andrew had his National Service shortened to 18 months. By the time I arrived, Andrew was out of the army and had set up a digs (a shared house) with one other female and two other guys. I was welcomed into the fold.

I had no trouble securing a work permit, and despite my lack of Afrikaans, had a dream job at an Art Museum. We began to plan our wedding, to take place in Canada in July, almost a year after my arrival in South Africa. We were young, in love, and confident. We shared our faith and common goals. We knew love was a decision, and were both committed to living that out in our married life.

Help!: We returned to South Africa and my doubts crept in. I don’t know if it was Andrew, or the enormity of our commitment, or being so alone and so far from home again, but I was in a low grade crisis.

And then, that day. My Black Moment.

I came home from work to find my husband there ahead of me. Not unusual in itself, except he sat on the couch, his expression bleak. He pulled me to his side, swallowed so hard I saw his Adams apple work while he gathered the courage to tell me what happened.

That day at the township hospital where he worked as a staff physician in the pediatric ward, he had a needle stick injury. The baby was HIV positive.

This was 1991. At the time, HIV infection was an automatic death sentence. Treatments were in their infancy and data on transmission in a healthcare setting was limited.

Not only was my life potentially at stake, so many of my dreams were too. Could we have a family if Andrew contracted AIDS? Could I support us both if he became sick? Would it be possible for him to immigrate to Canada? I faced these questions: Do I stay in this marriage that is so new, and I’m so unsure about? Or do I go, now?
Overhaul: The decision I made that day has impacted every part of our lives since. There have been lots of times when marriage hasn’t been easy. We’ve had plenty of setbacks along the way. But because of my black moment, I KNOW what matters in this life. I KNOW that no matter what the risk or the cost, I love my husband. And I trust God with my future.

Perfect Ending: Andrew took a course of AZT, a new treatment then, and was ill every day for the next four weeks. We decided to start a family right away, we immigrated to Canada, and embarked on a challenging and rewarding life together. Two years after the initial injury we knew Andrew wasn’t HIV positive, and were relieved and thankful. (For South Africa, HIV and AIDS continues its devastating rampage.)

Many people assume that the Happily Ever After in a romance is unrealistic, but what critics often miss is that a HEA is only possible if the heroine and hero first experience their Help! Black Moment. The best stories imitate life. The best stories recognize that Happily Ever After isn’t a final event, like Cinderella’s wedding, it is a decision that is won by trial by fire. And I also want to acknowledge that in life, not every HELP! Black Moment leads to a fairy tale romantic ending.

The formula in a modern romance can be a mirror in which we glance to make sense of the patterns in our lives. We read fiction not just to escape, but to see characters wrestle with life and win their reward.

I encourage you to look at your own life and apply the above fiction formula to it. Can you see how art imitates life? If so, or if not, drop a comment and share your thoughts on the “formula.”

Any comment, related to the topic or not, will be entered to win a $10 Amazon gift voucher if you leave your email address. Use a format that won’t invite spammers i.e. name [at] domain [dot] com.


  1. Wow! What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it!

  2. Well, I've read brilliant posts on here, but the personal story sends this one soaring near the top of the list!

    What a poignant way to enliven "THE FORMULA." You have changed my day with your story, Wenda.


  3. Wow--your vulnerability, the story, the insight into fiction. Thanks for sharing them all with us!

  4. WOW. This is a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.Blessings

  5. Amazing story, Wenda! Thanks so much for sharing. And thanks for reminding me of the Warren-Hauck book! It's sitting right beside me, and that list will help me write the synopsis I need to write today. :)

    missytippens [at]

  6. Wendy, thank you for sharing this amazing testimony.

    My heart aches for all the affected lives that suffering from illness with cure. God is able even in this.

  7. Wenda,
    What a wonderful illustration from life. Thank you for sharing.


  8. Wenda,

    I love it when people willingly admit that their lives aren't perfect, when so many out there are always trying to portray the image of "perfect". THere is no such thing and I agree with you, happiness is a choice. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. It's my first time to this blog and I'm happy I picked today to visit! WEll done!

  9. Wenda, what a poignant post. Thank you for sharing!

    I've not tried this formula, but want to see if my stories fit into it.

  10. Great story, Wenda! And I appreciate the writing insights as well!

  11. Wonderful story, wonderful illustration of what All good writing must be.
    thanks! Marcia

  12. We always think of the end of a romance novel being the wedding or promise of a wedding. in real life, it's often only the beginning. The real happy ending comes much later.

    Thank you for sharing your inspirational story.

  13. I want to echo my 'thanks for sharing' moment. I write romance too and I've tried to tell people that the HEA isn't really an ever after moment. I end the story at the moment when things come together for the characters. But like you so aptly said, HEA is a step by step process. Thanks for showing us this from your own life!

  14. I think that is so smart and true to show how for most of us the blackest moment actually comes after the wedding. Way to go Wenda.

    I laughed when you talked about waking up and wondering what you had done. So many days in the first year of my marriage I woke up and thought, "Who is this person, and what is he doing in my house?"

    Thanks so much for this awesome post.


  15. To add to all the comments and well-deserved kudos, I'd like to say that having the opportunity to live in different parts of the world gives people such a deeper experience than those of us who 'stay put'. I know, that's off topic but it has given you such a rich background and made you and your husband people who can serve God in a capacity that few of us share.

    You had a frightening experience-thankfully that had a good ending but also gives you an empathy and a wisdom you wouldn't know otherwise.

    Thanks for giving us the inside story on your black moment. Good thoughts about the parallels between our plot points and real life.

  16. Awesome post! I especially enjoyed how you spoke of getting married and then waking up and wondering what you had done. I am glad to not be the only one. There were times I felt like that the first year.


  17. Wow, Wenda. This is a great example of the saying "Truth is stranger than fiction." Glad you and your hubby got your HEA ending! I can always order another book with an amazon card, so sign me up! crmcc at setel dot com

  18. Thanks for sharing, Wenda.

    valerie [at] valeriecomer [dot] com

  19. Wenda, thank you for sharing your story this way! I've struggled with plot points, and outlining, and all those sorts of things writers are "supposed" to know how to do. Your post helped me put all of it in perspective... it's just life! Very good. And such a sweet romance!

  20. I so want to respond to every one of you, but I go to work for an hour and...

    Thank you for stopping in and for each and every comment. I'm humbled by your response to our story and grateful for the chance to share it.

    At the time of Andrew's needle-stick injury, the possibility of HIV and AIDS wasn't something we felt we could talk about. We didn't share this experience with family or friends. We were terrified at Andrew's immigration interview, literally held our breath when we applied for life insurance, and then when we knew Andrew was clear, we slowly moved on.

    We didn't forget, but it became something we shoved deep into the basement storage room of our lives.

    Writing about the experience has reminded me how good God is, not because Andrew didn't contract AIDS, but because God gave us the faith to carry on with our lives.

    We held each other just a little bit tighter last night after I finished posting.

    Sharing the experience, and now having you respond to it, has reminded us that our lives are to be a testimony to God's goodness. We can't do that if we hide the hard or painful parts of our lives from others.

  21. Wenda, what a beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes. Isn't it wonderful and amazing how God uses all things for good? So many have been blessed by the posts this week: the frank discussion of expectations, love and marriage; the help for writers; the reminder of God's power in our lives; and even how much work is still needed to bring God's love to the world. Thank you for sharing your black moment with us. I was blessed, yet again, by your words, sister!

  22. What a beautiful and moving story, Wenda. Thanks for sharing. Your lives sound so complete now, but it's true that no one knows the rocky road we travel to get there. Glad God with with you each step of the way.


  23. I'm so glad you had a HEA ending.


    susanjreinhardt (at) gmail (dot) com

  24. What an inspiring story, Wenda. I'm so glad I stopped by. It sounds like you have a deep well of emotional experiences to draw on as you write your stories. God has turned those challenges into the blessing of a deeper, richer marriage and given you an authentic voice to give hope to others!


  25. Wonderful teaching essay in so many ways. Thank you.

  26. First, let me thank you for your post, Wenda. It moved me deeply.

    Second, I'd like to point out that, when the novel form developed in the seventeenth century, the French called it a romance. It wasn't, as we know romance now, but it was the word for all books we now would consider novels.

    Whether romance or mystery or fantasy or sci/fi, or a combination, western literature follows this pattern. It is the HEA that makes a huge difference, or your definition of the HEA, but those who put down romance really don't know a lot about novel structure and need to pick up a copy of Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which demonstrates the twelve stages to the western story "formula", from The Wizzard of Oz, to Star Wars, to An Officer and A Gentleman, to... Well, he uses movies for demo, but the point is well taken and applies to novels of all forms. Yes, even literature (where, she says snarkily, the HEA is often that the book is over with.)

  27. Wow- Wenda, this is precious! Thank You for sharing your story and encouraging me in love! From a single/divorced mom- you've given me hope, lots of hope! This is what everyone needs.

  28. What a beautiful story. I am single but that is better than any of the fiction books I have read. How nice:)
    I will definitely be watching this blog.
    Thank you so much!

    esterried @

  29. Wenda, what a beautiful love story. Thanks for sharing your romance writing formula by comparing to your life.

    Carol Ann

  30. Wenda, I read this the other day, but couldn't get on the actual computer until now to comment. But I've been thinking of story ever since you posted it. It's an amazing story and I'm so glad you shared.

    I've definitely seen the black moment in my own marriage, but God helped us through. And He's helping me through another black moment that has nothing to do with my marriage (except that my husband has been very supportive in an amazing way-I think God helped him with that!).

    Thank you for being so brave and sharing yours with us.


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