Everyday, we make mundane decisions. What will we have for breakfast? What clothes should we wear? What book should we read next?
Some decisions we make might feel like major life decisions at the time, but they’re really not that big of a deal, like if we should go on a date with someone we’re not sure we like that much.
Occasionally, we make major life decisions, like what college we should attend or what career path we should take, but in real life, we don’t often have major crisis moments upon which our life hangs in the balance.
However, fiction is different.
Your characters need crisis moment after crisis moment. This is what moves the story forward.
But what is The Crisis Moment in a plot? It’s the moment your character makes the decision that will direct the rest of the scene. It’s the result of tension from the initial conflicts/Inciting Incident and Rising Action. Every single scene must have a crisis moment. Further, the decisions your character makes must be unpredictable.
This may sound overly dramatic, but it’s not, it’s why we read. Have you ever read a book and wondered what you would do in the same situation? Of course you have! It’s a great way to explore ourselves, life, and another world.
There are several types of crisis moments you can add to your stories:
1) Life and Death Decisions
Summer blockbuster movies have 95% of these types of crisis moments. I just saw the film San Andreas, and the life/death decisions are non-stop. Should the character jump for the helicopter or stay on the swaying high rise? Should they steal the car from the guy with the gun or stay in a dangerous area?
Lots of YA books have life/death crisis moments as well, though they tend to be a little more subtle than an action adventure movie. In A Fault in Our Stars, Hazel has to decide if she really wants to risk her life by going to Amsterdam or by climbing the stairs at the Anne Frank house.
In the YA mystery Girl, Stolen, Cheyenne Wilder who is blind is accidentally kidnapped. Her big crisis throughout the story is to decide if she can escape even without her sight, and if they catch her, will the kidnappers kill her? That’s the big crisis moment in the whole entire plot, but she has crisis moments in each and every scene as well.
Almost every YA novel that I can think of has some sort of life/death crisis moment at least once. Can you add one to your story?
2) Ethical/Moral Dilemmas
These are the kind of decisions that we must make in which there is no clear cut answer OR the right answer has some terrible consequences. For example, the decision might be great for us but terrible for everyone of our friends. In that case, the character has to choose the lesser of two evils. This type of conflict is the most common when a character has to make the best bad choice.
In Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is faced with these types of choices on just about every page. Is it worse to let her sister die or her to die? Does she choose Gale and let Peeta die? Or does she choose Peeta so he can live, but then she must betray Gale, her true love?
A character might also have to choose between two good things, but each of those good choices have negative consequences. For example in The Perks of Being a Wallflower main character, Charlie, goes to a party where he’s dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room. He does, but the girl he kisses isn’t his girlfriend who is understandably upset. He had a few great choices – who’s the prettiest girl? He chooses to follow his heart and kiss the girl he loves with some pretty serious social consequences.
Have you give your main character choices like this? Where they must choose the least bad choice or two good choices both with negative consequences? If not, how can you add that kind of dilemma to a scene?
3) Social Identity Decisions
This last category could fit under the moral dilemma or life/death one, but it’s so common in YA and teen writing that it deserves its own category. So many adolescent characters (like real life teens) struggle to figure out who they are and where they fit in, and the decisions they make can be a sort of social “life or death” situation.
If a character struggles socially during adolescence, they’re bullied, depressed, isolated, or different in any way, often their entire life can become a life/death type situation if they go so far as getting suicidal or they completely isolate themselves.
For example, in the novel Speak, the main character goes to a party, drinks, and gets assaulted. This incident makes her a social pariah at school, and she is unable to recover from it. Almost all of her decisions relate, somehow, to fitting in and figuring out who she is. Her initial choice is to stop speaking, hence the title, and she wonders if her life is worth anything at all, to anyone.
Charlie from Wallflower also struggles with who he is and how he fits in following his friend’s and his aunt’s deaths the year prior. Many of his crisis moments deal with either following his heart or fitting in with his friends.
When does the Crisis Moment occur?
The Crisis Moment in any scene is the turning point; it’s the decision that forces the climax. In some scenes, it will be a quieter moment, when a character, after much inner searching, will decide on the next best course of action, setting up the next scene.
When does it happen? It might be quite a bit prior to the climax in a scene, or it might be just seconds before the climax, almost becoming part of the climax. In any case, you need that crisis moment which forces the turning point for the character and keeps the story moving forward.
So far in this series on basic plot elements, we’ve covered the Inciting Incident, Rising Action, and now, the Crisis Moment. Do you use these moments in your scenes, chapters, Acts, and entire story?
One of the keys to writing great fiction is to use great story structure which can be both super helpful and a little bit frustrating
Before you go, let me know how you feel about using story structure in your writing. Do you do it consciously? Do you go back and add elements as you revise? Does it just happen automatically as you write?