The Dark Night of the Soul

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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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.

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7 comments to The Dark Night of the Soul

  • Thanks, Carrie, for these structure posts. This morning, before I even saw this, I sat down with your first post and the three-act structure model you’d adapted from . . . someone. A friend of yours, I think? Anyway, I read back through my draft over the weekend, didn’t like the flow at all, and sitting down this morning with the structure you had and especially the post about the midpoint showed me where I’d gone wrong: the midpoint. I realized that the event I had as the midpoint wasn’t big enough or personal enough. I switched some things around, some more ideas fell into place, and I think I’m back on track! At the very least, I got myself excited about the possibilities again:) So thanks again!

  • Yes, what SiSi said! I really, really like having terms for this, actual designations to help clarify what I’m doing. I’m pretty sure I have this happen in one of my works, yay, but I’m really looking forward to being able to apply this and the previous two posts to the other stuff I’m working on, to give it stronger structure.

    One thing that came up in discussion with a writing friend today after reading this: does the one main character have to be alone, or can this apply to a group, too? Where all seems lost for the four or five people on the quest to save their people from the machinations of the Evil Giant Teddy Bear of Doom? I would think so, and have seen that sort of thing happen in a few movies, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • SiSi — so glad it helped! I’ve had that happen before where something has felt off and I’ve realized that one of the larger plot points isn’t as big/deep/personal as it needs to be. I agree — being excited about the project is priceless!

    Laura — that’s a great question! I’m interested to hear what others think. I don’t think the MC has to be alone at this point, I just think that the entire endeavor has to feel dire. That being said, I also think that most books, even with an ensemble cast, have characters that are more the central focus than others and it’s those characters who I’d really focus on for this point. Even if they’re physically with other people they can be emotionally alone. I think a good “goal” is one that will affect the MC emotionally (as well as physically if need be) and therefore, the prospect of failure will hit them emotionally.

    So that you can have a group “we’re all going to fail” commiseration moment, but you might also have one of the MC’s thinking, “I promised my brother I wouldn’t let his Teddy Bear destroy the world and I’m failing him, I’m a horrible person!” I think what makes a book different from a movie in this point is that in a movie you’re almost necessarily outside any one character’s head and that’s much harder to pull off in a book — especially for the pivotal moments, there’s going to be a character who is the focus of the scene and therefore, we’re going to experience it all through his/her lens.

    For example, in my WIP I have that exact scenario — a group of characters trying to save the world from an Evil Dude. It’s third person told from alternating POVs and while both POV MCs have the same goal, “Stop Evil Dude,” the way they think about and frame that goal is different. Plus, they both have their own motivations beyond just “Stop Evil Dude,” and those are frustrated at the Crisis Point as well. So it becomes, “Not only is Evil Dude going to destroy the world, I’m never going to learn the truth about X.” To me, that first part is dealing with the more external plot, and the second is dealing with the internal. And the crisis point is where both the external and internal goals appear impossible — it’s that combo that helps make it personal and extra-dire.

  • My WIP has a clearly defined Dark Night of the Soul, but what bothers me is how my hero gets out of it. He ends up in the Dark Night by making a brave, self-sacrificial decison that he will absolutely not go back on, but he knows the choice will cost him his life. He gets saved from this situation when his friends, for whom he has frequently risked his life before, come unexpectedly to the rescue – he doesn’t get *himself* out of it, at least not directly.

  • I have so appreciated all of these posts; they’ve been terrific. Thanks, Carrie. I know you say that the percentages for books are much, much more flexible, and I think that’s especially important with this stage. It seems to me that in most novels this moment comes very, very close to the end. It certainly has in my books. That doesn’t diminish its power in any way, but I think it does point to a difference between books and movies. In movies, that 75% mark allows the hero time to marshal their forces and make that final push. It allows the Rebel fighters to make their assault on the Death Star, or it allows the Avengers to pull together and fight as a unit, putting aside their differences. In a book, it seems to me, this is a much more private moment, a time for the hero or heroine to find that last bit of strength or that last flash of insight he or she didn’t know was possible. Does that make any sense?

  • Carrie, so late to your party. (Hands you a bottle of virtual Cabernet as apology.)
    This is a stellar set of posts, and I am saving and bookmarking then like mad!

    Like SiSi, when a book fails for me, it’s because the middle falls flat. It has to *matter*!

  • quillet

    Super extra late to your party. (Hands you some virtual brie to go with the cabernet as apology.)
    This is so helpful. I’ve often seen advice telling writers to take off the kid gloves and put their characters in hell, which is good advice, but a bit vague. This is so much more specific, because it gives a direction and progression to to the “hell,” something we can aim for. Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s so helpful!