Monday, October 5, 2015

Why Your Novel Needs An "All Is Lost" Moment

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

This will be my last post until late November since by the end of this week, I'll have a baby. (Yikes!) We'll hit the pause button on talking about first drafts until I return on November 23rd. Between now and then, Jill and I have lots of great guests lined up, so I don't think you'll even notice I'm gone.

If there's one scene you need to set up a satisfying conclusion for your story, it's your main character's "all is lost" moment. This is a scene that goes by many namesthe black moment, a whiff of death, the dark night of the soul, and probably many othersbut whatever you call it, the feeling you want to evoke is that the character has lost what mattered most and they can't carry on like they were.

Let's look briefly at a few examples of All Is Lost moments. I've purposely picked older or extremely popular stories because sharing the black moment often gives away a lot about the story, and I don't want to ruin anything.

In Frozen, the All Is Lost moment is when Anna discovers Hans's true motives and that what she thought was love really wasn't. He leaves her in the room to freeze to death.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth comes to realize how good of a man Mr. Darcy actually is and what a mistake it was to turn down his proposal. This realization comes right as her family's name has been destroyed and there's now no hope that a man like him would stoop to marry her.

In the romantic comedy You've Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly loses the bookstore she inherited from her mother, which is what she fought the entire movie to save.

In Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, it's when Buckbeak is executed.

Even Charlie Brown Christmas has a black momentwhen Charlie's Christmas tree fails and everyone laughs at him.

Why is this scene so vital? If the reader doesn't feel like things have truly gone bad, they won't be as excited when things turn out good for the character at the end. Making things bad for your character needs to be in the context with the genre and target audience. We don't need to feel like Charlie Brown's life is in jeopardy, right? It's sufficient that he fails yet again and is publicly humiliated.

In order for the All Is Lost moment to work well, there are a few elements it needs to have:

A death of some kind.

That's why some people refer to this scene as the "whiff of death." For some stories, a death of a character is a very fitting black moment. Or the threat of death to the main character, like in Frozen.

But the death of something else—a dream, a belief, a relationship, a purpose—can be just as effective. Again, it's dependent on the mood of your story.

Your main character is depleted.

Whatever happens needs to knock your character flat. They can't carry on like this. The road is too hard, too costly. They're giving up—they just can't see any other way.

Maybe it's a loss of physical strength. Like in Frozen, where Anna is locked in a room, freezing to death.

Or in the case of You've Got Mail, Kathleen has spent the entire movie fighting for her bookstore only to lose it. She has nothing to fight for and no clear direction moving forward.

It's bigger than your character.

The All Is Lost moment is most effective when the event is something too big for your character to solve on their own. Someone else needs to reach out and provide the tools to give the character hope. (This is sometimes referred to as "Bringing in the cavalry.")

Sometimes the character knows exactly what they need. Think Charlie Brown crying out, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" He realizes he's at the end of himself and that he needs someone to step in and help.

This is different than Frozen where Anna is too weak to find help and Olaf finds her instead. Or Pride and Prejudice where, in an odd turn of events, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, accidentally sets the wheels in motion for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to be together.

If the All Is Lost moment has been done well, you wind up with a character who is strong enough to fight through to the end of the book. They've survived what they thought they couldn't. They've even managed towith the help of someone elsefind enough strength to carry on.

That makes for a very formidable opponent as we head into the final chapters of the story!

If you've written the All Is Lost moment in your book, what is it your character loses, and why did you choose that? If you haven't, what's something your character thinks they could never survive losing? How can you convince them they've lost it?


  1. Hmm... In my first draft I'm planning an All Is Lost moment when one of my characters goes into a deep sleep and the other characters figure out it's a coma when it's too late, unable to wake her up. I chose it because to me it's kind of a plot twist in a sense and I think it's a good way to get to the end the story. :) (now this seems to not make any sense but if I'd try to make sense this would be a very long comment that would end up like a ramble so... Never mind)

    1. A lot of times it only makes sense when you're deep in the story, so I know what you mean :)

  2. In one of the novels I'm working on, the black moment is when my MC's father is killed in battle. I know it sounds cliche and I may change it later.
    Congratulations on having another baby, Stephanie! That must be exciting!

    1. Thank you! We're excited and a bit nervous :)

      I'm sure it could be cliche to have the father die in battle, but it certainly doesn't need to be. I think you'll do great with it!

  3. My character comes to a point where he seems to have lost everything. The Chosen One of the story, and the MC's best friend, has failed in every attempt to fulfill what he has been chosen to do. The last attempt resulted in the capture and soon-to-be execution of that friend, and my main character feels that all is lost--the cause he believed in and his friend's life.

    I chose this because my MC is actually the true hero, the real Chosen One, but he is blinded to this because both he and the world see his friend as the fulfillment of that prophecy. In order for my MC to discover his own ability and worth, he has to see his friend fail completely. --Savannah McPhail

    1. I like that a lot, Savannah! Very creative.

  4. Oo, oo! I very rarely label my scenes like this, but in The Lost Heiress, I did purposefully create an All Is Lost moment. My heroine thinks someone very important to her is dead and proceeds to lose it. By losing it, she inadvertently sets in motion the actions needed to get her out of the bad situation and to the happily ever after.

    1. This is one of the few scenes in a story that I think there's tremendous value in being able to label, even if it's after you've written the first draft. If I can't point to the All Is Lost moment in my novel, chances are I haven't sent up my climax well.

  5. I've never thought about this! Thanks for the amazing idea. I can definitely put this to work! (oh and congratulations on your baby!)

    1. Thank you, Emma! And I'm glad you found it helpful :)

  6. Congratulations on the Baby!!! ;)
    In my WIP, the All Is Lost moment comes when my Main Character is captured and put in prison. She's depleted physically and spiritually, and is scheduled for execution. Funny thing is, schedules often go wrong...
    Thanks for the post!

  7. Congratulations on the baby!

    And thank you for this helpful post. My current WIP has an 'all is lost' moment in the middle of a battle, when the antagonist reveals her real plan, which makes it impossible for my main character to win. Or so they think...

    I wrote this first draft with less planning than usual - I had no idea how my main character could get out of this situation, but being forced to write myself out of that corner worked out well. It even turned earlier events of the story into foreshadowing, which made the resolution of the story more satisfying :)

  8. yes! i love planning dark moments! in my current WIP the dark moment is when the prince finds out the MC is a fraud and dumps her on the side of the road to turn around and marry her sister (its a cinderella retelling from the step sisters POV) In my NaNo project, the MC literally dies and won't come back to life until seven years later by magic. when i first started plotting, this was the scene that i worked off of

    congrats on the baby and good luck!


  9. Good last post before your break! Congratulations on the baby!

    In my current WIP, though it's hard to tell, I think it's when my MC, Immi'Re, is betrayed, nearly mauled (the attacker isn't entirely human), and thrown in prison by her boyfriend's father. He's played the trusty bodyguard for years, and the double-cross leaves her trapped in an inescapable prison with her powerless boyfriend who can do nothing but watch.

  10. Congratulations on the baby! Children are such huge blessings. We'll miss your posts, but a baby is more important. :-)

    *nods* In the story I just finished, the dark night of the soul is major spoiler-y. :-P So I won't share it.
    I agree, though, this scene is very much important for the story and the character's journey.

  11. Mine is more of a "main character is depleted" moment. She has Chronic Lyme disease, which is a disease in which, if you give up, you're not going to live. Her black moment is when she is overwhelmed by everything and she gives up.

    Can you post pics of your baby? Congrats! I love babies!

  12. CONGRATULATIONS ON THE BABY!! Ahhh that is so, so awesome and beautiful. Absolutely incredible. Wow.

  13. Hmm...let's see. In my story, the mentor/adult who's been helping them along disappears, the MC and his friends are attacked, and one of his best friends is almost killed in said attack.
    Not to mention everyone in the town hates him, but he's kind of used to that, so I don't think it adds too much tension to the All Is Lost, even though it does help keep things wound tight.
    Oh, and congratulations!

    1. I just realized that doesn't sound like an All is Lost moment. There's a lot of little details going on which are MASSIVE spoilers, and even though they are what truly make up the All Is Lost moment, I'm not giving them away. Sorry!