In my last few posts I’ve been talking about structure (here on overall structure, here on the midpoint). Today I want to focus on the plot point often referred to as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” It’s the turning point that comes at about 75% of the way through a story — the demarcation between Act 2 and Act 3.* You might also hear people refer to this point as the “Crisis Point,” or “All is Lost” or “Whiff of Death” (as you can tell, it’s rarely stuffed with rainbows and happiness – lol).
If the midpoint (50% mark) of the story is where things get much much worse and where the bridge is burned, the Dark Night of the Soul is where the goal seems as far away as possible. At the midpoint, things are tough, but there’s still hope that the characters can achieve what they want and/or need. That’s no longer the case here — hence the term “All is Lost.”
Essentially, at this point in the story the hero has failed — the plan to reach the goal is no longer working, the obstacles are insurmountable, and the goal is out of reach. This is when you think, “There’s absolutely no way this is going to work out.” In a romance, there’s no way the hero and heroine can get together. In a mystery, there’s no way the mystery can be solved. In a thriller, the evil plot can’t be thwarted. It’s not just that the goal is difficult, it’s that it has become impossible.
And on top of everything else, because the hero burned the bridge earlier at the midpoint, there’s no retreating or going back. Which means the only way is forward. Ultimately, this drives the hero to decide that they want the goal at any cost and therefore they’ll give it one last shot.
Just like with the midpoint, this beat should be intensely personal; but whereas the hero may have had allies or a support system before, here they’re left all on their own. There’s nothing left in their arsenal. Blake Snyder refers to this point as the “Whiff of Death,” and if someone’s going to die in your story, this is often the place for it. Even if it’s not a literal death, you’ll frequently find reference to death here — scenes that take place in a cemetery, an image of a dead plant, mention of a hospital or accident, etc.
For me as a reader, the more impossible the goal seems at this point, the more rewarding the end tends to be. Unfortunately that means that as the author I often hit those moments of, “Excellent! There’s absolutely no way out of this mess! Except – %*@&#! – I’m the one who has to figure it out!” This is often the part of the book that sends me out brooding on long walks in a slight panic – lol.
When plotting or drafting the Dark Night of the Soul, I often ask myself, “How can I make this worse? What else can I take away from the character?” Does she still have hope? Dash it. Does she still have friends and allies? Get rid of them. Does she have a plan? Thwart it. Does she have weapons, skills, advantages? Undercut them.
And this applies to lighter books as well as darker ones. Think about how often in a romantic comedy the hero has somehow ticked off their friends or pushed them away, how there’s nothing they can say to win back the love interest.
The real driving force behind the Dark Night of the Soul is the interplay between the three core components of story: character, goal, conflict. For the Crisis Point to work, the character must have a goal that they absolutely need — that they can’t turn away from. Likewise, there has to be a substantial enough conflict or obstacle to that goal to keep the character from it. So if you feel like your Crisis Point isn’t personal enough or deep enough or dire enough, revisit the character, goal, and conflict to make sure they’re balanced.
I tend to think of the Dark Night of the Soul as the moment that creates the momentum for the final push of the book. This is where the hero resolves, “I will reach my goal or die trying,” and then makes one last grab for it. The tension for the reader is that by this point you’re invested in this character, you’re on board with their need to achieve the goal… and you have no idea how it’s going to work out. That’s what keeps you turning pages.
*Just a note that these percentages aren’t absolute. They tend to draw a lot from screenwriting which has a much more rigid structure; novels and stories are allowed more freedom.