The ‘all-is-lost’ story beat is obligatory in just about every story structure from the Hero’s Journey to Save the Cat.
It comes at the end of Act Two, into the beginning of Act Three, when the protagonist’s efforts fail dismally, or the antagonist gains an unassailable advantage. Staring into the void of defeat, this ‘dark night of the soul’ finds the protagonist at their lowest point. It’s quite often triggered by the Death of the Mentor plot-point, as in Fellowship of the Ring, Star Wars and Eragon. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s the ruin arising from Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.
Great Expectations, reveals Magwitch as Pip’s patron. Just before the convict’s fatal injury and arrest. In Star Wars, it’s the death of Obi-Wan. Most super-hero stories have an ‘all-is-lost.’ For the Dark Night Rises, Bruce Wayne has to recover from a broken back and literally climb out of the hole he’s buried in. No one says it has to be subtle.
The all-is-lost story beat brings the characters to the lowest low, the furthest from their wants and desires. It should also be an expression of the theme of the story. Luke’s loss of family; again. Pip reduced to poverty (again) with added social stigma.
Ingredients of All-is-Lost
For this story beat to work it has to include:
- some raw emotional pain
- a revelation or discovery (usually the protagonist finding ‘I’m the source of the problem’)
- no obvious way back or way out for the character
On the positive side, this incident is the trigger for character growth, change or transformation. They necessarily have to find a way to uncover and respond to truth, adjust their world view and begin the fightback.
Importantly, the all-is-lost has to serve two purposes:
- it must be an isolating experience for the protagonist that teaches them to stand on their own two feet or pass from childhood to adulthood
- it has to deliver an emotional punch to the reader/viewer in the downward story arc.
Without this, the character’s gaping wound (as H.R. Costa frames it) is a mere paper cut and deprives the story of its emotional impact.
All-is-lost in Practice
Revising my manuscript for Book One got me examining both the low point and the turnaround. This dovetails neatly into a previous post on completing the character arc.
Originally, my protagonist was grumpy sword-slinger Varla. Around the two-thirds mark he sets off to ‘cut the head off the snake’ and take out the lead villain, only to discover the lead and second villain joined forces. A very bad outcome.
However, I switched protagonist to our headstrong psychic heroine Jo. After a premonition of Varla’s death, she has to go on The Stupid Suicide Mission in his place, via a serious breach of trust. It’s a high-risk mission she’s hardly qualified for, with faulty Second Sight, no backup and a low chance of escape. And the same team-up of the two antagonists. An even worse outcome.
It raises the stakes right at the critical point in the story.
This gave me two dramatic scenes to work with; Jo’s vision of Varla’s death, which then sets up her re-worked version of The Stupid Suicide Mission.
The Stupid Suicide Mission, not surprisingly, fails. First and Second villain team up and she can’t take out both of them. Even if she escapes alive, it ruins the relationship with Varla. And the bad guys are on their tail in full force. For all her psychic ability, she didn’t see that coming.
How does she come back from this when the antagonists are closing in? That’s for the turnaround in the fightback and climactic final act.