Thursday, June 21, 2012

The dark night of the soul

The phrase "dark night of the soul" comes from Christian theology and refers to those dark times when you wrestle with doubt and despair. It's in the same vein as "it's darkest just before dawn." Dramatically, it's applied to when the characters are handed a major setback and all seems lost. Often, this is just before the climax of the story.

"Moon and trees 3" by Subtitled. Available free at sxc.hu
It's difficult to pull these off, since genre expectations may have already dictated the ending. If a happy ending is required -- romances, most notoriously -- the crisis is a fake-out. Plain and simple. Everyone knows the couple will overcome whatever personality clash the writer threw out, it's just a question of what contortions they need to go through.

If your genre requires a mass slaughter of the cast -- horror, darker thriller/action stories, etc. -- then the crisis is also something of a fake-out because the question of "Will this work out?" still has its answer. The answer is no.

Since it's easier to point out how things go wrong, some more things to worry about in your plotting:

Bullshit arguments
We've all seen stories where the conflict was based on something that five minutes of real conversation could have cleared up. In a similar vein, sometimes the crisis is invoked by the characters suddenly turning into idiots and misunderstanding, getting angry for poorly defined reasons, or suddenly clamming up.  This makes for a less than convincing "dark night of the soul" because, again, five minutes could clear it up. 

Another situation where this happens is when the writer forgets/overlooks an obvious solution to the supposedly traumatic problem. For example, let me pick on Prometheus for a moment since I've kept mum on my opinions... at one point, Dr. Boyfriend stood there insisting he be set on fire to protect the crew. He could have just taken his helmet off and suffocated in the atmosphere. And then been burned, once dead. But no, we have to go with the horribleness of someone burning to death. 

Legitimate complaints
On the other hand, sometimes the crisis is a result of completely legitimate character conflicts. Then, the problem is getting the relationship back on track without invoking the modern reader's gag reflex.
  • Woman deciding she loves this asshole because... well, if he's an asshole, no excuse will do. 
  • Guy deciding he loves this bitch because... oh, come on, she's a bitch. Again, no excuse will do.
  • The leopard changes his spots at will. This is something that must be earned over the course of the story. It can't be pulled out of a hat. Seriously, did anybody believe that Danny's switcheroo at the end of Grease was going to stick? Or Sandy's, for that matter?
In terms of action/adventure situations, this manifests as the Godzilla vs. Bambi problem. The characters are facing the destruction of the universe with just their moxie and a bent spoon. Either they've been beaten down so hard or the enemy is so well prepared that there's no light at the end of the tunnel. The writer is going to have to:
  • Invoke serendipity, which means the characters didn't earn their success.
  • Call in the cavalry at the last moment, which the characters might have earned but it's still not their win.
  • Make an otherwise competent enemy screw up and ruin himself, which the characters didn't earn.
None of these are good solutions.

Which of these annoys you the most when you see it in a movie or a book?

5 comments:

Charity Bradford said...

Very well put! You found the words to describe what I've been trying to get at when it comes to a satisfying end. The MCs really do need to earn it. Let it be there's and not some fluke win at the end.

Great post!

Alicia C. said...

I hate it when the characters suddenly go stupid. That Drives me BATTY.

Liz said...

I hate it when all it would take is just a real conversation for the problem to be solved. I mean, come on!

Lexa Cain said...

I'd say what annoys me the most is when the win is too easy. I need last minute twists, not that the hero/good guys have formulated a plan and it comes off relatively easily, with no real upping of the stakes. *yawn*

mshatch said...

I agree, characters have to earn the win or it doesn't mean much - just like in real life those things you work hardest for mean the most.

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