To create dark moments, I usually look to the conflict management style preferred by each character and then figure out how those two styles might create a spiraling tension.
Here’s a recipe for doing that if you want to try it out: First, pick two of the four ingredients below. There are essentially four different choices people make when faced with potential conflict.
Style #1 Avoidance/Accommodation. This style focuses on either ignoring the problem in hopes that it will go away (avoidance) OR setting aside one’s own needs in order to give the other person’s needs priority (accommodation). This style works well in the short term and if it’s not used too often. Used too often and it can lead to low self-esteem and of course it does not lead to real resolution of the serious issues in a relationship.
Style #2 Direct Aggression: This involves threatening verbal or nonverbal behaviors and honestly, it’s not the style of choice except in situations where personal safety is on the line and the situation must be resolved within minutes before harm to one’s person occurs. One consequence to this style is that it creates a growing spiral of defensiveness and hostility. Someone else, the other person yells back, then something gets thrown, and the stakes are upped until someone wins and someone loses.
Style #3 Indirect assertion: This style is focused on resolving issues without directly addressing them and causing the involved parties any outright embarrassment. For instance if my next door neighbor has a barking dog and it’s driving me nuts, I might stop over with a chew toy guaranteed to silence and entertain dogs for hours on end. If I present it as a gift, “Hey I was at petsmart today and saw this. I thought your dog might like it.” The neighbor thinks I am being friendly, the dog stops barking and I’m happy without having a direct discussion over the subject that might be fraught with tension. In the long run, the neighbor might get the clue and he/she might not. That’s the risk here. This style depends on both parties abilities to read between the lines. If not, the clue can get overlooked and then you have to try again.
Style #4 Direct Assertion: This style operates under the premise that the parties involved will address the issue head on in a non hostile way.
Style #5 Passive Aggressive: This style is the choice to maintain an outwardly friendly façade while taking less than friendly actions. A great example is saying “I’m fine.” And then slamming the kitchen cupboard doors.
Different combinations of these styles get different results. There are two types of conflict patterns: complementary and symmetrical. Complementary patterns are patterns where the parties each use a different style; maybe one is indirect and another is direct assertion. This will create a different outcome than being accommodating and indirect. Symmetrical styles are when each party involved is using the same style—both might be indirect or both might be accommodating.
Step two in the recipe is to mix up the styles and see what happens. In Libertine Lord, Pickpocket Miss, Julian and Sophie start out with a symmetrical pattern of indirection. Julian is in Vienna to reclaim a set of missing jewels for the monarchy and Sophie is there is steal the same set of jewels for an Italian count. Neither one of them can tell each other much about their tasks or about themselves without giving away too much that might jeopardize their missions. So what happens is a delicious cat-and-mouse game until the game gets too dangerous. The dark moment happens when Julian realizes if Sophie gets to the jewels first she’s dead. The Italian Count will never let her live and risk her spreading the story about how she took the jewels for him. Concern for Sophie drives Julian to adopt a different tack and he becomes an example of direct assertion, forcing Sophie to change her tactics too.
Another favorite technique with these styles can be seen in my May 2008 release Notorious Rake, Innocent Lady. In the book, Julia Prentiss decides to take matters into her own hands to escape an unwanted marriage to the villain. She models the direct assertion approach but the villain meets that with direct aggression. For every move she makes, he ups the hostility level until it spirals into the ultimate dark moment where Julia is captured and the unwanted wedding looms and the situation has to be resolved.
Have fun mixing and matching and making your own ‘trick or treat’