Over the past month, I’ve been fortunate to work with the very talented (and very patient) Karma Brown, my mentor for Pitch Wars. One of the benefits of being a Pitch Wars mentee is that we have our full manuscripts read and critiqued by an experienced writer. Karma was very speedy with her critique, so I was able to start my revisions right away. At first, the workload was manageable. I felt challenged and excited, but not overwhelmed.
That was until Karma got to the ending of my novel and informed me that my stakes weren’t high enough. Not even close. In order to revise the ending, I was going to have to dig deeper and make things a lot worse for my heroine.
But here’s the thing—I’m a wimp when it comes to my characters. Yes, I like tormenting them, but only a little bit. I don’t want to make them miserable because I feel sorry for them! This was one of my biggest flaws with the first novel I queried (a young adult fantasy). By the end of the book, the heroine was convinced she’d never be with the guy she loved, but her crisis was resolved in a brief conversation with her cousin and even briefer confrontation with her uncle! She barely suffered. I could have made things so much worse for her, but I wimped out.
So, as I dug in to revise the ending of my manuscript, I went back to one of my favorite writing books, Save the Cat, in which the author, Blake Snyder, breaks down stories into sections, or “beats.” According to his formula, two of the most important beats towards the end of any screenplay/novel are: the“ All is Lost” moment and “The Dark Night of the Soul.” If you’ve ever used The Hero’s Journey to plot your novel, these beats are similar to “the Supreme Ordeal” that the hero/heroine face. At this point of the story, the protagonists have hit bottom. All hope is lost. They’re going to die or lose the person they love. Or somehow lose the ability to throw that evil ring into the fires of Mount Doom when the entire fate of Middle Earth depends on them (come on, Frodo, you had one job–get it together!).
Some examples of “All is Lost” moments include (I’m using Disney examples, since I watch a lot of animated movies):
- Mulan: Shang discovers Mulan is a woman, and she’s ejected from the army. She’s left, alone and miserable in the snow, having brought dishonor to her family and lost her friends.
- Toy Story 3: The toys are trapped in the junk yard, about to be incinerated and there’s no way out.
- Tangled: Mother Gothal “rescues” Rapunzel and takes her back to her tower, convincing her that Flynn has betrayed her (while Flynn is captured and thrown in prison).
- Hercules: Hercules gives up his strength to save Meg, only to be tricked by Hades, who reveals Meg’s been working for him; Hades subsequently unleashes the Titans to destroy Ancient Greece.
My kids are so used to me analyzing movies this way that they’ll even call out: “There it is, Mom! Dark-Night-of-the-Soul!”
As a writer, the best way to approach the All-Is-Lost moment is to imagine the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist and put them at risk for it. In real life, I think many people fear death more than anything—either their own or the death of someone they love—but not every story needs to be that dramatic. If you’re writing a light, contemporary romance, threatening the heroine with sudden death might seem out of place! But there are other ways you can make your character suffer—you can put their careers, romantic relationships, or friendships at risk. For example, for someone in middle school, the thought of losing their best friend might seem like the worst crisis ever. In high school, it could be the fear of failing or being publicly humiliated.
After I reviewed the too-soft ending of my novel, I realized I had to make things a lot bleaker for my heroine. I had to break her heart and send her into a spiral of despair and frustration. Resolving her crisis was a trickier, since I’d painted her into a tight corner. Fortunately, I had a couple of “light bulb” ideas and the story came together.
In the end, what I’ve taken away from this revision is that it’s okay to torment your protagonist. Make them suffer. Make them cry. Make them curse their fate. Because if you do, their happy ending will be even more rewarding.
What about you? Do enjoy tormenting your protagonists?