On love songs, black moments and emotional intensity

I don’t have much time to dedicate to leisure reading nowadays, alas—I need to get through readings about personal jurisdiction and promissory estoppel before I can allow myself the time to read stories about virgins learning the joys of buttsecks or homoerotically charged gangsta-wannabe vhampyre thugs. (Oh, if only those homoerotic shitkicking Ludacris-lovin’ vhampz would learn about the joys of buttsecks with each other—those books would become so much better—well, I’d like ‘em better, at any rate.) I do, however, have as much time as ever to listen to music, and I’ve discovered several excellent bands in the past month or so.

One of them is the Archie Bronson Outfit; I got Derdang Derdang a couple of weeks ago, and it’s compelling stuff. Two songs in particular have captured my attention: “Cherry Lips” and “Dart for my Sweetheart.” I’m going to talk about “Cherry Lips” today and save “Dart for my Sweetheart” for tomorrow—and I swear this is related to romance novels. F’real. Just keep reading.

And it’s YouTube to the rescue so you can know what the hell I’m talking about with this band. Crappy compressed files cannot do justice to their sound. I highly recommend listening to them on a decent stereo system with the volume on LOUD. The video for “Cherry Lips” isn’t all that great, either, so close your eyes or read through the rest of this article as you listen to it.

“OK, Candy,” sez you, “Your taste in music is brilliant and all (as is your taste in just about everything, but that just goes without saying), but what does this have sweet-fuck-all to do with trashy books? Because really, we read this blog mostly so we can blather on about romance novels and romance novel tropes, not so’s you can inflict your musical preferences on all and sundry.”

Aha, sez I, that’s true, but see how I cleverly tie this song to romance novels and the bitching thereof!

“Cherry Lips” caught my ear because of a certain raw intensity in their sound, and as I listened and got caught up in the lead singer wailing “It’s so fun to love someone,  just try try to get get over it,” I thought of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and how that book managed to capture that same sort emotional pitch, both from the way Nick and Norah feel about their exes, and in the way they feel about each other. (Insofar as the musical preferences for fictional characters can be ascertained, I think the two kids would appreciate the Archie Bronson Outfit.)

You know what? I miss that intensity. Not just any sort of intensity; I’m talking about the delicious angsty tastiness of loss—or the strong possibility of loss. We romance readers know there’s an HEA waiting for us, which serves as both limitation and comfort. That doesn’t necessarily mean the story is de-fanged. We may know that the hero and heroine will end up with each other, but that doesn’t mean that the author can’t create one hell of a Black Moment for us. The trick isn’t so much convincing us that they’ve really, truly lost each other—the trick is convincing us that the characters are convinced that they’ve really, truly lost each other, and giving us a glimpse of the hell they’re going through.

I’m not really getting this big, satisfying black moment with the romance novels I’ve read lately. Part of it’s because most of the romances I’ve read in recent months haven’t been especially good. But that dark “Holy shit, I’ve fucked it up and I’m not sure it’s fixable and OH GOD WHAT DO I DO?” moment is either absent, or so contrived it makes me laugh instead of commiserate.

And that’s the other thing. The Black Moment is incredibly easy to fuck up. The tried-n-true method for Ye Olde Bodice Riperre was the Big Misunderstanding, which, if done well, can be satisfying, but more often than not just burnssss, oh god it burns. The Big Secret, the Big Misunderstanding’s subtler, less shouty, less stupid cousin, has often been employed to good effect, too. And then there’s also the “Hero Becomes a Raging Asshole Because of Past Trauma,” which can also be good, but can also result in burnination. There’s this sweet zone in which the Black Moment is near-magical and engulfs us in the drama of the situation; outside this zone lies limp, ineffectual pathos on one side, and comic melodrama on the other.

Most of my favorite authors are very, very good at writing Black Moments. Laura Kinsale, Sharon and Tom Curtis, Patricia Gaffney and Golden Age Lisa Kleypas… Actually, it’s funny to refer to Kleypas that way, when she’s so young—but there was a time in the early to mid 90s when every book she released was excellent, and she wrote the hell out of those Black Moments. Everyone remember that scene in Dreaming of You when the whore visits Sara and tells her what Derek did? Yes, it’s kind of contrived and a touch melodramatic, but admit it, you cried like a bitch. (At least, I did.) Her more recent releases are somewhat more polished than those twelve-year-old books, but they’re not intense in the same way. And I miss it. *tiny tear*

Anybody else notice this dimming in intensity of the Black Moment, too? Anybody want it back?


Random Musings

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  1. 1
    RT says:

    Ya know.  This was a huge eye opener for me.  I’ve known that the books I’ve been reading lately have been leaving me feeling flat rather than exhilarated.  I couldn’t put a finger on you until today.

    So Yes…  I heartily agree with everything you said.  And I loved the music (not so much the video, but you warned us.)

  2. 2
    Teddy Pig says:

    Anyone see that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Movie commercial? Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter!!!

    YES! I am sooooo there.

  3. 3
    jb says:

    Totally agree! My first romances were Judith McNaughts, which hurt my teenage heart with all the angst and acheyness, in a good way. It got to be that all her novels fell into the same rhythm, but at least the plot devices (eliciting the Black Moment) were different enough in each book that I enjoyed them. She had a great way of bringing about the Big Misunderstanding that was earned, which wasn’t just sheer coincidence or contrivance. I miss old-school Judith McNaught. Is she still writing?

    The romances I’ve been reading these days feel flightier somehow, which I’d just attributed to a different kind of story. Not all Julia Quinns or (later) Lisa Kleypases are gonna rip your heart out, and I thought it was just the books I was picking up. But I think there’s also a general lack of great “Oh fuck how do we fix this Great Lurve of All Time?” points in many romances now.

  4. 4
    Marianne McA says:

    Teddy Pig – a girl who was at my daughters’ school is in it. They’re all excited. Looking at the trailers on YouTube to spot her.

    Imagine getting to work with Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman… Sigh.

  5. 5
    Jami Alden says:

    I totally agree! even the books I love don’t seem to have that “I love him so much but he just made my heart explode” moments anymore.  One I can remember in recent history is Shannon McKenna’s last book – Edge of Midnight. Don’t want to drop any spoilers, but after they vanquish the villain, there’s still a compelling reason for the hero to ditch the heroine, and it’s really well done. 

    Oh, and Monica McCarty does it to
    but yeah, I really miss old school Judith McNaught and Lisa Kleypas.

  6. 6
    Liz C. says:

    I’m not sure I miss the Black Moment because I read so many novels where the Big Misunderstanding, the Big Secret or, the Big Past Trauma Comes Back To Bite Them in the Ass (after they’ve seen each other’s naughty bits and professed love, of course) that created the Black Moment was so badly done.

    Or maybe I just read too many period (one summer all I read were my mom’s old romance novels from the 70s and 80s. There were a lot) and I got burnt out.

    2 recent books that I can recommend that lack the Big Misunderstanding and even lack a well defined Black Moment, but still had me reading the book through my fingers because I was just so uncertain that they’d get the HEA are The Dream Thief and Dark Angels. The latter had me so worried for the characters that I may have squealed out loud and done a little happy dance when they got the HEA.

  7. 7
    darlynne says:

    The trick isn’t so much convincing us that they’ve really, truly lost each other—the trick is convincing us that the characters are convinced that they’ve really, truly lost each other, and giving us a glimpse of the hell they’re going through.

    So rare, but those are true squee moments when I find myself thinking, “OMG, the author is really going to let him/her die/leave.” The truly good ones had ME believing it, however briefly and in spite of the obligatory HEA. But still, that flash of shivery possibility … whoo!

    When a favorite author pulls out the Big Misunderstanding, I feel as though I’ve been thrown under the bus by someone I trusted, the outrage runs that deep. Toss in the TSTL heroine and I’m howling in frustration.

    Black Moments? Bring ‘em on.

  8. 8
    Mel L. says:

    Ah, the Black Moment. The one thing I crave above all others when reading a romance novel. My friends make fun of me because I need that one heart wrenching/gut wrenching moment in a book or else I don’t want to read it. I need a book to take me to the depths of despair, to make me really truly believe in the possibily of loss and then, and just when my tears have lessened and my breath has returned,I need it to take me to the heights of passion and love and the HEA.I want to read about the past abusive relationship, the disfiguring ailment, the rape, the emotional abuse…I could go on, but you get my point. I need the drama.

    I used to love Catherine Anderson, and two of my favorite books of all time are Baby Love and Sweet Nothings. Lately though, her books have become trite, sappy, and almost silly.

    But any book suggestions with these Dark Moments (that I crave!) would be welcomed.

  9. 9
    Elyssa says:

    I read Untouched, Anna Campbell’s latest, and you just need to read it alone because of the Black Moment.  That novel is a masterpiece in that every time you don’t think it can get worse, it does.  I didn’t know how she was going to pull of a happily-ever-after, but she did.  It’s sooo good.

    And I loved Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You and old Judith McKnaught.  Sigh.

  10. 10

    I’m not sure which is the black moment in my own book, so that probably disqualifies me for this discussion.

    On the other hand, it could be because I don’t recognize it since it is neither limp, ineffectual pathos or comic melodrama.  ::hopes hard::

    Even when I used to read romances by the gross, I rarely read the last 1/3 of them, as that’s usually just external troubles come home to roost.  So my understanding of the romance black moment is completely lacking.

    But I’ve frankly had enough of movie black moments, cuz most of them are so manufactured (I watch a lot of action movies), you can see ‘em coming from a the middle of the second act.

    What’s wrong with the old literary paradigm, whereby you start with a status quo, have action, climax, denouement, and a new status quo?  Why do we HAVE to have a moment of all is lost?  Not that it isn’t nice, but not all stories are such stories and not all stories with a black moment must happen fifteen pages from the end.

    passed28: says who?  I don’t look a day over 25.

  11. 11
    Shannon says:

    I like the black moments because for me its (when done well) a moment that you can truly connect with the characters. If the scene was written well, and the characters were well developed, then you feel their pain and you cry for them and commiserate with them and you are so drawn in by their problems that for a moment you forget that what is happening is a book, and not reality.

    Those moments are the best. To me, if you can make me forget that the characters are made up people, you are an amazing author. I want to be sucked in to the point that I feel like my own chest is being gouged open when the heroine says hers feels that way. And Black Moments typically seem to be that moment where all that comes together the best.

    If you get it wrong though, then you’re just shoving my out of the story more, which is always a bad thing. Its one of those thing, I think, that if you write it well then it is amazing and perfect and just what your story needed, but if you’re off in delivery or concept then it can ruin a perfectly good book.

    Lover Unbound, for example. (**Spoilers**)

    When Jane died I was so thrilled. It was going to completely redeem that book in my eyes, because here was a genuine Black Moment with actual valid blackness, and I could feel Vs pain and cry with him and it would be awesome and amazing. But then she got turned into a ghost, and that just negated the Black Moment for me.

    (**End Spoilers**)

    A good book that had a god awful, delicious, horrible, amazing Black Moment is Requim for the Devil by Jerri Smith-Ready. An absolutely amazing novel.

  12. 12
    willaful says:

    I want the Black Moment because I loves to suffer. Seriously, I rate books by how much they made my stomach hurt. 5 Gut Clenches is a top book. And I agree, they are becoming fewer and further between.

  13. 13
    Aemelia` says:

    It seems that everything I pick up new lately is just fluff…fluff is ok, but I miss the gut-wrenching feeling I used to get…I miss getting so pissed at the hero for wronging the heronie, that I would cry…and how good I would feel when he’d grovel.  Now I am just not feeling it.  Guess that is why I have been re-reading so many of my old books lately.

  14. 14
    Sarah Frantz says:

    I’ve pimped him before and I’ll do it again.  Matthew Haldeman-Time does an incredible black moment in his novel, Off the Record.  Yes, it’s a self-published POD, but it’s totally one of the best romances I’ve ever read.  A true black moment, when everyone’s convinced they’re NOT going to get back together.  And then they do, because they forgive and communicate and compromise and move on.  And then he’s got “extras” on his website that are so totally worth it too!

  15. 15

    I LOVE the Black Moment. I agree with wilaful, I love a book that tears my guts out. For me, nobody writes them better than Mary Balogh. The scene near the end of The Secret Pearl, where the lovers have to part after one night together because it’s the right thing to…OMG, that still rips my heart out, and I’ve read that book approximately 157 times already.

  16. 16
    michelle says:

    Ok to pimp one of my favorite authors-Megan Whalen Turner.  In The Queen of Attolia, near the beginning there is an OMG/WTF no she ABSOLUTELY CANNOT DO what she is going to do moment.  My heart actually stopped, and I cried.  Then she slowly weaves the rest of the book, and you finally see why she did what she did and you see the toll it took on her. 

    Her books are technically YA Fantasy, but really they are some of the most romantic books EVAH.  The Thief is the start of the series but the romance doesn’t really hit till Queen of Attolia. You could actually start with The Queen of Attolia. The next The King of Attolia is excellent, and has some wonderful moments.  But the Black Moment is really in the Queen of Attolia.

  17. 17
    Candy says:

    Just in case I didn’t make it clear: not all good romance novels require a big, crushing black moment to be effective. Jennifer Crusie’s black moments, for example, are generally not that big or black, and I still love the shit out of her books. But damn, it’s hard to beat a good, juicy black moment.

    What’s wrong with the old literary paradigm, whereby you start with a status quo, have action, climax, denouement, and a new status quo?

    I’d argue that the climax is often the Black Moment, Sherry, and the denouement is the resolution of the circumstances that brought it about, and the new status quo = happy couple wheeyay.

    willaful: Hellz yeah I love to suffer, too. I’ve mentioned before that I’m somewhat of a masochist when it comes to my reading. It hurts, but it hurts soooo good.

    However, I have a very low gag threshold. This is why Catherine Anderson just doesn’t work for me—her black moments are big, but also a little bit too cloying for my palate.

    Hey, you know who else wrote a mean Black Moment back in the day? Shelly Thacker. Some of Teresa Medeiros’ earlier work also made my heart seize up and stop.

  18. 18
    Narcissa says:

    I totally miss the intensity and the Black Moments.  I used to think maybe my tastes had changed and that is why books were no longer making my heart ache when I read them…but I went back and re-read some of the older romances and it isn’t me.  Fluff and candy is nice every now and then but I really long for the intensity of the older romances.

    I agree with those who mentioned the older McNaughts.  Also Laurie McBain…I guess I’m rather glad in retrospect that she just stopped publishing and disappeared than turned to writing fluffy non emotional books.

  19. 19
    Wry Hag says:

    Love that stuff.  Just love it.  But then again, I don’t require HEA’s, either.

    It bugs the snot out of me that publishers seem to presume readers don’t want too big a dose of emotional bleakness in their romances.  Hey, [I want to shout at them] nearly all of us have faltered beneath that soggy, bereft feeling at one time or another.  So give us something we can relate to! 

    In this age of Mary Sueism and boinkety bliss from the first compression of the mattress springs, I’ve REALLY come to appreciate flawed and occasionally tortured protagonists who can’t get no satisfaction—at least for a long, lonely while.

  20. 20
    Vanessa says:

    Oh man, I thought I was alone in craving that Black Moment. Old school Judith Mcnaught is excellent, and I hunt for books that give me this emotional kick. I do need it to end happy, cause otherwise I feel like that kick was worth nothing if it all ends in shit anyway.

    As an aside, my nieces have recently been reading more and more romance, and they devoured Mcnaught like it was going out of style lol I wish I could get that first time read feeling again

  21. 21
    Chrissy says:

    I dislike the new, tepid, phone-it-in style.  I guess part of me assumed that publishers were insisting on a trade-off of sorts.  Ok, you get less rape and more realistic characters, but if we can’t have rape romance with cookie cutter bimbos and himbos you’re not getting the angsty over-the-toppishness you secretly crave.

    I can love The Black Lion without the rape scene.  Honest!  OMG just give me that moment when Ranulf roars and they have to peel Leonine off the arrow that has pinned her to his chest.

    Screw the rest of it, let me live in that moment and his tears at her bedside.  I’ll just be over here, in the corner, fetal, whimpering joyfully.

  22. 22
    June says:

    That is why “Dreaming of You” is my very favorite Kleypas.  I LOVE the Black Moment.

    Someone in the Bitchery turned mentioned the Kresley Cole books and I’m currently glomming them up.  The first one I read “A Hunger Like No Other” started with the immortal hero being endlessly burned alive by Hellfire. I knew there were Black Moments ahead!

  23. 23
    Deena says:

    I recently read Chaos Magic by Jay Lygon and it was a perfect example of the black moment done really well.

    It may not be to some people’s taste because it’s a gay BDSM urban fantasy e-book romance with a supremely abused (in a bad way) protagonist, which I didn’t know I’d like until I was reading it, but the characters are compelling, the plot is interesting, you don’t know for sure if he’ll get his HEA (or HEA for now because it’s the first in a series and the whole BDSM thing kind of made everything off kilter, because his HEA is certainly not mine) and it’s really brilliant. I have no idea how kosher it is to post a link but it’s available at Fictionwise.

  24. 24

    Oh I love it dark and it wouldn’t have it any other way. I love to read, and strive to write, what you might call the dubious HEA, one reached only after the characters take a twisted, thorny path getting there. It seems, however, that many modern readers of both romance and erotic romance want feel good stories that don’t step outside of their comfort zones, not just in terms of sensuality but with other plot elements (such as romance readers who will throw a book across the room the couple temporarily breaks-up, a character cheats on their partner, the hero commits murder, etc). In turn some editors and publishers aren’t inclined to take on stories with those thought-provoking, heart-wrenching Black Moments, or what I, myself, call Black Coffee moments. Such fare is available out here in e-pub land for the Black Coffee reader, but there is admittedly the chore of sifting through the lighter, fluffier fare to find the more daring authors at any given e-house.

  25. 25
    closetcrafter says:

    No one has mentioned Diana Gabaldon.Or the Kushiel series. I love me some Phadre, no one does it blacker, as far as I’m concerned. Actually I think John Irving is great for Black Moments in Love.

    I think I also don’t get to enjoy as many Black moments because I’m older. And my prefrontal cortex is fully developed.

    As a teen in the early/mid 80’s, I sobbed so hard after I saw the Outsiders , my best friend thought there was something seriously wrong with me. How ‘bout Liar’s Moon? Anyone remember that one?

    I need more suggestions people….

    Ha!  Verif. word “future85”—Summer of my most angsty relationship with hot, troubled black haired, green eyed 17 yr old. Ah, the hormones………

  26. 26
    YorkshireLass says:

    I also like books which contain a black moment.  Sometimes though the book can be a bit too black.  I’ve just recently read “Flowers From the Storm” by Laura Kinsale (yes I know I’m a bit behind everyone else here!) and the whole book was black.  Just as I thought it couldn’t get any blacker, it did.  I’m still not entirely convinced that the HEA was worth all the emotional unheaval!  It took me quite a while to read because I had to gird my loins before I could bring myself to pick it up!

  27. 27
    Cat Marsters says:

    Yanno, I have this weird physical reaction to a really intense black moment where my right hand really aches.  I do not know why (there’s a word for a physical reaction to emotional stimulus, and no, I don’t mean that one, dirty minds).

    Anyway, I’m trying to remember the last time I felt it.  I’m actually looking around at all my books now and it’s not triggering a relapse.

    No, wait, Julie Cohen’s Spirit Willing, Flesh Weak did, and so I think did Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep A Secret, when the hero, who already knows what a giant ball of crazy the heroine is, goes ahead and tells everyone else.

    I think I also got it years ago when I read Jude Deveraux’s Remembrance, which I luuurved as a teenager and am too frightened to read again in case I was wrong and it sucked.

    Speaking as a writer, really intense Black Moments are hard to do because you’ve got to create something that rips apart the two lovers and makes them suicidal with despair, which you can’t convincingly do unless there are big, huge fundamental differences in their lives and goals.  And then you have to patch it all up in a rather short space and have these gigantic problems just… go away?

    Of course, I can talk.  I’ve more than once created a black moment by killing the heroine.  Got to stop doing that.

  28. 28
    runswithscissors says:

    Hmm, the bitchery has uncovered a new phenomenon.  I also have a physical response to black moments.  My insides do a funny – and very specific – roll and if it’s a really good ‘un I get a pain in my arm as well.  I’m a bit worried that if I ever get a heart attack I won’t know the difference.  Anyway, it’s a long time since I’ve had this response.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Mills and Boon/Harlequins lately – could be some weird iron-deficiency craving thing, but I think it’s in part because I’m looking for my black moment fix.  You still get the Big Mis more often in M&B – heroes behave much more badly, heroines put up with it.  There’s something about the hero plumbing new depths of fuckwittedness and the heroine taking stiff-upp-er-lippedness to extremes … I don’t know.  I wonder if newer-school romances, where heroines are more active and have more self-respect than of old, have fewer black moments because well, if we insist on heroines behaving with more spine we cancel out the possibility of the hero behaving that badly.  And yes, I know heroes-behaving-badly isn’t the only cause of the black moment – but often I find it helps

    What will still bring it out, for me, in newer-school romance, is not when the hero/heroine behaves particularly badly, or reveals some very black secret, but when one of them behaves incredibly well: puts someone or something above the relationship.  I had, if not a black then certainly a grey, moment reading Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer recently.

  29. 29
    Emeline Greene says:

    I second Diana Gabaldon. I have a fierce love for her, and she has no qualms about putting beloved characters through six or seven circles of hell. And the Deux Ex Machina always arrives on time, with reinforcements.

    And though it’s not a book, no one has done it better than Mutant Enemy: Whedon and the writing teams for Buffy, Angel, and Firefly often had “heroes” committing seemingly-unredeemable acts, only to have them come spinning out of the depths (usually wielding shiny weapons) for an intensely satisfying conclusion.

    And I get a wierd torso-tightening belly spiral. Maybe I should WebMD it.

  30. 30
    --E says:

    I’m suffering a similar malaise in my SF/F reading. Where are the books that give me the rush? I thought for a long while that is was because I’m getting older and more jaded, but then I discovered Bujold’s Vorkosigan books.

    Perhaps we’re all getting older and more jaded together.

    Or maybe books suck more. I was never a trade-paperback-chick-lit reader, but at least I could see why other people would want to read them. (And Meg Cabot was fun. Okay.) Now I work on those things and I hate them. I don’t know if it’s one editor in my office who has horrible taste, or if that is really what the market is buying, but the number of insipid, wifty protagonists who overreact to the most mundane things is really getting up my nose.

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