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Monday, April 8, 2024

"All is Lost" vs. "Dark Night of the Soul"

Recently at a conference I attended, an audience member asked what the difference was between the "All is Lost" beat and the "Dark Night of the Soul" beat. The speaker gave her answer, but I found myself itching to answer as well (of course I didn't--the question wasn't directed at me). And one of the reasons I wanted to answer, was because I used to wonder this same thing.

In the writing community, "All is Lost" and "Dark Night of the Soul" are story beats that come from the Save the Cat! approach to writing. People in the community, though, sometimes use these terms interchangeably with each other or other terms, and some use them at different places in a story. And even if you look directly at Save the Cat!, it can be a bit tricky to differentiate them. Are they kind of the same? Are they not the same? If they are not the same, what's the difference? And do they show up in Act II? Act III? The climax? These are some of the questions that come up.

First off, if you are unfamiliar with the term, a story "beat" is basically a moment in a story. Often these are scenes--one scene or multiple scenes. But it's possible it's a moment smaller than a scene. Honestly, part of me dislikes the term "beat" because it's rather ambiguous. Not only is the term used to reference these moments in the overall story (narrative arc), but the term "beat" also gets used at the microscopic line level, which can make everything rather confusing when you are new to writing and trying to understand the terms. But I digress a bit. 

If you aren't familiar with Save the Cat!, it's a popular approach to writing that originates from Blake Snyder's book by the same name. Snyder was a screenwriter, and while his book contains other things related to writing, it's best known for its beat sheet--which outlines common story beats. And now when people say, "Save the Cat!" it's pretty much a given that they are referencing the beat sheet, specifically. (I've already gone over the Save the Cat! beats here.)

With that out of the way, let's go over these two major moments . . . 

The "All is Lost" Beat

To understand the "All is Lost" beat, it can be helpful to back up a bit and talk about the prior beat, which Snyder calls "Bad Guys Close In." In the Save the Cat! approach to writing, the protagonist will have likely had a victory (or seeming victory) at the midpoint (halfway mark) of the story. After that, the antagonistic forces begin to resurface and the "bad guys" regroup and start to close in.

This will lead to the next major turning point in the story, which is the "All is Lost" beat. The antagonists do close in, and there is a major conflict. As the term alludes to, this usually results in a major defeat (or seeming failure) for the protagonist. It seems like everything is lost. The protagonist is seemingly never going to succeed in besting the antagonist.

Snyder adds that there is usually what he calls a "Whiff of Death." Something or someone dies, or the concept of death is brought up. Someone may actually die, like Obi-Wan in Star Wars, someone may think of dying, like Buddy in Elf, or a flower or goldfish may be shown to be dead. The protagonist may get a phone call saying her aunt in another city is dead. The "Whiff of Death" usually shows up near the end of "All is Lost" and transitions us into the "Dark Night of the Soul" moment.

When we look at basic act structure, the "All is Lost" moment, is essentially the third "peak." It's the "climax" of Act II (the middle). It's the third major plot turn (turning point) in a story. This commonly hits about 75% into the story (though Snyder wants you to hit it a little earlier). In other approaches to story structure, this is called different things. In 7 Point Story Structure, this is called "Plot Point 2." In the Hero's Journey, this is called "The Ordeal."

In any case, all of these are this climactic peak at the end of Act II. 

It's a major turn, and it will take us into the Act II's falling action. . . .

The "Dark Night of the Soul" Beat

The "Dark Night of the Soul" beat is the falling action, or even "valley," of Act II. 

Usually the falling action of nearly any structural unit, is made up of the character's reaction to the major turn, the climactic "peak," that just happened. 

This particular beat usually feels like the biggest "valley" in the story. Commonly, the story lulls significantly. The pacing slows; the protagonist reacts emotionally to what was probably a major loss. 

With that said, this moment can actually be very short, even half a sentence. 

In structure, writers always have the option to cut short or even cut off the falling action. How long this moment is, will depend on how much falling action you include. Snyder argues, though, that this beat needs to be there.

In Star Wars, this is rather short. After Obi-Wan dies, Luke reacts by simply saying, "I just can't believe he's gone."

In Elf, this feels quite a bit longer.

In any case, this is where you show the protagonist (and maybe other characters) expressing their dismal feelings. Everything feels lost and/or the character feels lost as a person. This is a time for the character to lick her wounds. She may also logically consider how bleak her future looks.

Let's look at some examples of both beats.

"All is Lost" and "Dark Night of the Soul" Examples

So, we have explained these moments like this:

"All is Lost" is a "peak" turn in the story, where there is a major conflict between the character and antagonist, and most commonly, the antagonist wins. --> 

The "Whiff of Death" usually happens near the end of this encounter, and typically acts as a transition into the next beat. --> 

"Dark Night of the Soul" is the falling action or "valley" of Act II and includes the protagonist's emotional reaction to what just happened.

In Star Wars:

"All is Lost"--With enemies all around, the gang manages to make it back to the Millennium Falcon, but Obi-Wan and Darth Vader are dueling. -->

"Whiff of Death"--Darth Vader strikes Obi-Wan, who then dies, disappearing into the Force. -->

"Dark Night of the Soul"--Luke reacts: "I just can't believe he's gone."

This example does have some variation and complexity; for example, the gang does successfully make it back to the Falcon, but it still has a loss for Luke. It's still the third peak. And it still largely fulfills these beats.

In The Hunger Games:

"All is Lost"--Katniss destroys the Careers' supplies and runs to save Rue, who has been ensnared. -->

"Whiff of Death"--a Career spears Rue. Katniss takes out the Career, but Rue dies in her arms. -->

"Dark Night of the Soul"--Katniss loses it, cries, breaks down. It seems like nothing good can survive this world, and she can't save the innocent. Everything seems terrible.

In Into the Spider-Verse:

"All is Lost"--Miles accidentally leads the antagonists to Aunt May's house, and a major fight between heroes and villains breaks out. -->

"Whiff of Death"--At the end of the fight, Uncle Aaron dies. The other spider people tell Miles he's not ready to be a superhero. -->

"Dark Night of the Soul"--Tied up, Miles is at his lowest low. He's alone and even more alienated from his dad. He seems to have failed in every way.

Is There an "All is Lost" Moment at the Climax?

Some in the community feel that the "All is Lost" moment happens in Act III, usually during the climax. 

As far as I know, Blake Snyder is the one who labeled the beat that, in Save the Cat!, and he clearly states it happens at the end of Act II.

This isn't to say, though, that you can't also have another all-is-lost-like moment (usually shorter) in Act III or near the story's climax. Some stories have a similar moment there (on a smaller scale), and that's fine.

You also don't technically need the climactic peak of Act II (Part II) to feel as if "all is lost." It's possible to craft it as a victory or what's called a "hollow victory" (the protagonist seems to succeed, but actually hasn't yet, or at least hasn't succeeded on the personal level).

So, not every single story has to follow the things in this post, exactly. It's possible to craft a good story that doesn't have a "Whiff of Death," as well.

There are other ways you can flesh these moments out, but it's very common for them to show up like this. And this is how these things show up in the Save the Cat! approach to story structure. 


Looking for a writing group where you can get professional help?

Recently Ben from Apex Writers Group reached out to me and invited me to be a monthly guest on Apex's Zoom calls.

About Apex: Apex offers an incredible set of resources for writers, regardless of your stage of development. Whether you want to break into the publishing field, level up to bestseller, or begin selling more books than before. Apex members get access to the training, motivational tools, and supporting community that they need to achieve their personal goals.

Apex was founded by one of my writing mentors, David Farland, who taught bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, James Dashner, Brandon Mull, Stephenie Meyer, and more.

While Ben and I are still ironing out my schedule, you may want to check out the group, which hosts Zoom calls with professionals in the industry twice a week. 

Speaking of David Farland . . . 

The Sum of All Writers Anthology

David passed away in 2022, and Apex has put together an anthology in his honor, The Sum of All Writers. Contributing authors include Kevin J. Anderson, Monique Bucheger, Shawn P. Butler, Kary English, C.D. Lombardi, Rebecca Moesta, D.T. Read, and more. 

The book has a variety of stories, from sci-fi to fantasy, and even something for a younger audience. The book also contains advice and tips on improving your writing.

There is a BackerKit fundraiser going on, and after the anthology expenses are covered, the remaining money will be donated to the David Farland Endowment Scholarship fund for the Superstars Writing Seminar. To learn more about the project and get updates, go here.

. . . And even though David is no longer with us, when you join Apex, you get access to his recorded courses and lectures, and can learn the same writing lessons his successful students did.

Until next time . . . 

Happy Writing!


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