Part 1: Tumperkin explores their significance and structure, focusing on Gaffney, Carlyle and Balogh.
Part 2: Jessica, never one to lose an opportunity to Create a List, does so, and throws in some contemp and paranormal.
As usual with us, you will need a 3 day supply of food, a sleeping bag, and a flashlight to get through this post. Edited to add: now with a Darcylicious reward at the end.
Part 1: by Tumperkin
One of my favourite elements of romance is the Excruciating Moment. This is a common device but it’s not easy to do well. It’s a moment of high emotion and deep conflict and is often one in which one of the protagonists – the hero usually – has not behaved well.
Probably my favourite Excruciating Moment is to be found in To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney. No, I’m not revisiting the forced seduction again. I’m talking about the scene in which Sebastian lets his horrible friends interrogate Rachel about her period of imprisonment. They are cruel and intrusive, amused and titillated by her suffering. And through it all, Sebastian is on their side. He knows he’s being appalling but he just lets this happen; lets his inaction act as their permission. The discussion turns to the crime Rachel was accused of and why it happened. It culminates in a question of shocking prurience that makes Rachel finally run from the room and leads one of her questioners to believe Sebastian won’t even care if he forces himself on Rachel. The resultant events are climatic and change the course of the whole story.
The scene is written from Sebastian’s POV and it’s the absolutely key moment in the novel in terms of his eventual redemption. For me, this is the Excruciating Moment at its best. The root conflict is beautifully served by the way the scene is set up, the way the action parses out is believable and well-realised. The whole is perfectly paced, building and building beyond what seems bearable until a crescendo is reached; a trigger flipped that re-animates Sebastian’s humanity.
Pacing is crucial with a scene like this. The longer it goes on, the worse – and hence better! – it can become. But it ought not to become a pantomime. An earlier Gaffney book, Lily (which I have a bewildered sort of love for) falls slightly foul of this line at times.
Very few Excruciating Moments have the depth of the THATH scene I’ve just described. One of the most prevalent – and arguably laziest – is the straightforward set up where the hero makes assumptions about the heroine that she chooses not to contradict for some reason. I’ll admit though, that I can enjoy even quite cheap shots in this respect. I have a particular fondness for a category I read some years ago in which the amnesiac heroine was unable to protest her innocence over a supposed affair. There were several scenes in which the hero said awful things to her that she was (conveniently) unable to rebut. And yes, on one level: asshat. On another? *Shivers*. After all, I know this guy’s going to have to eat his words…
Is that the attraction? Part of it perhaps. Not every Excruciating Moment features a hero being a dick but certainly the ones that do provide the pleasurable anticipation of grovelling later. There’s probably a mysterious mathematical formula that describes the exact degree of grovelling that is required for each unit of asshattedness. I know this, because the ones that are light on grovelling make me frown.
Another type of Excruciating Moment features the hero who is unfaithful (or rather *almost* unfaithful). One of my favourite Liz Carlyle books is the little-mentioned The Devil To Pay. The hero has been very sexually active for a long time, for reasons that are eventually explained. There’s a pillow-biting little scene where he kisses a maidservant and is caught at it by the heroine. It’s great because it’s a proper lusty kiss and she has every right to be upset but it really doesn’t mean what she thinks it does. And the reason for that is all about the hero’s particular internal conflict. So again, a traumatic moment that actually serves the plot.
Then there are the Excruciating Moments that don’t require any help from the hero. These are very difficult to bring off. But for my money Mary Balogh did it brilliantly in One Night for Love. ONFL has a particularly angsty set up. The hero and heroine are a mismatch. He was an officer in the same regiment as the heroine’s sergeant major father. They were friends but knew that was all it could be. However, when their unit got into trouble and there was a danger of Lily being caught by the French, the hero, Neville, married her to protect her since, as an officer’s wife, she would be treated well. They shared one perfect night together and the next day were ambushed. Neville saw her being shot and – as he believed – killed in front of him just as he was also being almost fatally wounded. When the book starts, he is back in England and just about to marry another woman. Lily arrives in the church as the wedding is about to take place.
Almost half of this book is an endless Excruciating Moment. It’s just – virtuoso. First Balogh gives us the wedding, then the back-story, then we learn about what Lily has suffered (the marriage did not protect her after her capture). Then we watch as Lily – an illiterate girl with no idea of society – tries, unsuccessfully, to fit into a completely alien world. And through all of this, Neville is – lovely. All the problems facing this couple are externally imposed and overwhelming. While the events in the story strain credulity at times, the reactions of the characters are spot on.
Essentially it is the emotional power of these excruciating scenes that ices my cake. If they are also rooted into the core conflict, I am mightily pleased. If the characters’ reactions are believable, I am delighted. But even altogether, these things are not enough for me. One last thing is needed: they require to be matched in resolution.
I absorb these moments in good faith, trusting the author to deliver a proportionate amount regret for past deeds, apologies for wrongs done and happiness to counteract the sufferings that have gone before.
If I don’t get that, I may feel cheated.
Part 2: by Jessica
We all read romance at least in part for the happily ever after. But the HEA is that much sweeter when we have been put through an Excruciating Moment. Tumperkin and I are in total agreement in THATH we have the most excruciating moment in romance. But I can think of a few more examples worthy of mention. So here goes (thar be spoilers ahead!):
Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm:
This one comes right before the HEA. For me, it’s the closest to the Gaffney in pure excruciation.
Pious Quaker Maddie and her husband Jervaulx, the rakish duke who has been in recovery from a stroke for most of the book, finally appear kaput when she goes to a Friends Meeting to make her confession and leave him for good. It becomes excruciating when we hear Maddie call their wondrous relationship a sinful one, describe their lovemaking as fornication, and claim that what she thought was love, was actually “an illusion of the imagination”. Jervaulx hears all of this – again, excruciating. Then he, who has avoided speaking in public thanks to his speech disorder, stands before the meetinghouse and argues passionately that Maddie must stay with him. Watching, in my mind’s eye, this proud man drag words out haltingly from the depths of his soul, baring his deepest feelings and pure need to a roomful of strangers whose approval he couldn’t care less about, was bad enough. But when he issues Maddie a five minute ultimatum and walks out, an excruciating wait begins. She doesn’t come in five minutes, or ten. I was new to romance when I read this one, and I honestly thought that was it. I thought I was going to die of heartbreak. I am so glad I was wrong.
Megan Hart, Broken:
This one doesn’t involve bad behavior on the part of a hero or heroine, but I found it excruciating anyway.
Sadie and Joe have been meeting for lunch. They have developed an odd sort of intimacy as he recounts his sexual exploits with other women. Unbeknownst to Joe, Sadie’s husband Adam has been a quadriplegic since a skiing accident years prior, and Joe’s lusty stories provide a safe, albeit morally compromising, way for Sadie to meet some of her unfilled sexual needs. Eventually, Sadie ends her relationship with Joe. Some time later, as Sadie and Adam are trying to make their way out of a crowded restaurant, Sadie realizes it is Joe and his new fiance whose table is blocking their exit, and Joe realizes what led Sadie to engage in their mental affair. What gets me is that there’s no big scene or purple prose or huge internal monologue. Joe and Sadie barely exchange a glance. Joe simply rises and efficiently helps clear the way for Adam’s wheelchair, grabbing a napkin off the floor while he’s at it. It’s these little gestures that make the moment so heartbreaking for me. It’s not a long scene — just a few paragraphs — but I had to hold my breath while I read it. Broken is a book about tragedy in many ways and this moment was, for me, the most painfully tragic.
Julia Quinn, The Duke and I:
Daphne and Simon have the not terribly uncommon “let’s pretend we’re engaged to get the ton off our backs — oops we cannot keep our hands off each other — now we must get married” trajectory. For most authors, that would be the entire book. But Simon, thanks to an abusive childhood, refuses to bear children (ok, not the most compelling motive, but let’s move on), and misleads Daphne into thinking he is infertile. Daphne is crushed when she realizes Simon has lied, and decides to withhold herself from him, moving her things out of their shared bedroom. The scene when Daphne confronts Simon is fantastic, but it’s the next scene that is the killer. Simon goes out and gets flaming drunk, and when he comes home, he begs Daphne to stay the night with him. They begin to make love, and I swear I read this like I watch horror movies, with one hand over my eyes. I just knew what Daphne was going to do — the excruciating part was the lead up. She hadn’t planned it, but she couldn’t help it. Then the situation becomes like the one Tumperkin describes in the Carlyle book, because Simon immediately sobers up and accuses Daphne of planning the seduction. But wait — it gets even more excruciating: he starts to stutter, the very childhood disability for which his father abused him. Suffice to say, it is another few chapters before these two get their HEA.
Sherry Thomas, Private Arrangements:
Gig and Camden fell wonderfully in love. Then Gigi deceived Camden, in a kind of morally ambiguous case similar to Daphne’s. He found out and left her, ruthlessly, the morning after their wedding. That scene had its share of anticipatory excruciation (?), since the reader knows, even during their physically blissful wedding night, the revenge that Camden has planned. They have lived separate lives for a decade, when Camden suddenly shows up to demand an heir. Slowly the reader is filled in on what each of them has been up to in the intervening years. It turns out there was a very near miss, 5 years into their separation, when Camden and Gigi were both in Copenhagen. They are both boating in the canal when Camden sees Gigi. She jumps up and runs down the length of the boat, tripping hard, picking herself back up and staring at him from the stern. She looks pale, awful. Camden’s companion chooses that moment to caress his arm. Gigi stares at him, “stunned, her composure flayed”, until he is out of sight. It foreshadows the next morning when Camden attempts to find her, only to be told her ship has sailed. The reader knows it hasn’t. It’s just awful to read this, knowing that they belong together and could have been together but for these near misses.
Diana Gabaldon, Voyager:
Claire and Jamie have been separated for 20 years when she returns to him in his 18th century Scotland. Their reunion is breathtaking, emotional, and powerful. But only a few chapters later, the other shoe drops. We discover that Jamie has married Loaghaire (!!!!!), Claire’s bitchy rival for Jamie’s affections way back when. How does the reader, and Claire find out? A child runs into the bedroom where a naked Jamie and Claire are resting and yells “Daddy!” Ugh. Talk about a sucker punch. I think I took this harder than Claire. I put the book down for at least a week after that scene.
JR Ward, Lover Awakened:
Say what you want about Ward, but at least in the first few BDB books, she knew how to pull emotional strings. The moment I find excruciating in this book is the one when vamp Zsadist, who has all along been telling vamp Bella he is not good enough for her, decides to do something that will alienate her forever. What, you ask? In front of Bella, he feeds from a prostitute. There’s a moment in the alley when Bella pleads with him not to do it, and you think he might just listen. He stares at her with misery in his eyes, as the hooker eggs him on … then he bites. Oh Zsadist!
Ok, you’ve heard enough from us. What’s on your list of excruciating moments in romance?
ps. For Sarah, click on the link to view Darcy’s First Proposal