The darkest part of every story is also the most essential.
There comes a time in every story, about 75% of the way through, where the heroine gives up. She feels utterly defeated because try as she might, she can’t find a way to achieve her goal. She’s beaten and knows she’s beaten.
This is called the all-is-lost moment.
It’s the moment in ET: The Extra-terrestrial when the little alien dies. It’s the moment in Inside Out when Joy is lost in the memory dump. It’s the moment in Mad Max Fury Road when Furiosa discovers the Green Place is gone.
It’s in every novel, every movie, every short story. Even children’s books include it. Three-quarters of the way through Where the Wild Things Are, Max discovers that being with the monsters doesn’t make him happy, and he longs to be where someone loves him most of all.
This is a necessary part of every story. It’s the dark before the dawn. There is an important reason the heroine needs to be brought to this low, low point. She has tried, and failed (so far) in her quest because she hasn’t changed. She’s still trying to solve her problems using old methods, and they aren’t working anymore. She can’t achieve victory until she learns the lessons the plot is trying to teach her. Heroes don’t want to change. All-is-lost moments force them to change.
Can you imagine a novel or movie without the all-is-lost moment? It would be terrible. The heroine would either achieve her goal without any self-reflection or internal change, which would be trite, or she’d keep using the same old methods and never get anywhere, which would be pointless. In fact, the entire story would be pointless without that crucial moment of character change.
And of course, right after this dark night of the soul, a plot twist happens, the heroine finds a new way of dealing with the problem, and faces it head-on. The more horrible the all-is-lost moment feels, the better the climax of the book. Overcoming that failure is huge. It means the victory wasn’t handed to the heroine. She earned it.
I’ve been experiencing an all-is-lost moment myself lately. Here we are 75% of the way through the year, so it’s arrived right on schedule. I made an ambitious goal for myself this year: I would write 2017 pages in the year 2017 (which is 504,250 words). And for the first and second quarters, I was right on track. And then I tried to shoehorn a bunch of big projects into my already-full life. I took on several freelance editing jobs at once, ramped up hours at my volunteer job, tried to edit a couple of my own manuscripts, all while doing home improvement and social activism and working around my kids’ strange summer schedules and staying glued to the 24/7 news cycle.
And, like any plucky fictional heroine, I decided I could do that without making any changes to my life. In addition to writing, I would edit, teach, volunteer, and parent. I would also still have coffee with my friends and socialize on the internet and read the newspaper and ride my unicycle. I’m not exactly sure where I thought the extra hours would come from. Something had to give, and I stole time from the two places that could least afford to lose it: writing and sleep.
I got cranky, and my daily word counts got smaller and smaller. I slid further from my writing goals with every passing day. My editing jobs went really well and I’m proud of the other work I did but the cost was high because I gave up the wrong things in order to achieve it. I should have cut down on house cleaning and Twitter, not on writing and sleep.
I’m staring my quarterly word count total in the face and I don’t like what I see. I only wrote 458 pages this quarter, which is 46 pages short. 458 pages is a ton of writing, and I know I should be proud (I am!) but I also know I could have made my goal if I’d spent my time wisely.
Things aren’t hopeless. I still have three months to make up the difference. But I’m seeing what a blessing the all-is-lost moment can be. It’s forcing me to change. The next time a big project comes in, I’ll have to make better choices, because the world keeps turning and we all have 24 hours in a day. How I use those hours is up to me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is learning how to prioritize writing and sleep.
[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures and Harper & Row]