There’s this one scene that appears in pretty much every longform story ever written. It’s the scene where everything is totally FUBAR. Your hero is hanging by his wrists in a dark dungeon. His best friend has been shot. His girlfriend has been taken off to who-knows-where. It’s a bad time.
There are names for this scene. The All Is Lost scene. The Dark Night of the Soul scene. I call it the Warren Zevon scene.
This is the lowest part of the story. It can’t get any worse than this.
They happen in real life, these Dark Night scenes.
I know a guy who got shot in the chest. He has a scar as big around as the palm of my hand. It’s a pit in his chest, fleshy and concave, big enough you could eat breakfast cereal out of it (gross). That was his Dark Night.
Warren Zevon found out he had lung cancer. That was his Dark Night.
One time I ruined my life. I ran out of money and friends in the same day. I was living in a shitty apartment and trying to be a writer, even though I didn’t really have enough money for food. I remember lying in bed one night looking at the ceiling. I thought I could hear cockroaches crawling in the walls. Maybe I’d lost my mind, I don’t know, but I could hear them. And while I was lying there in my shitty apartment I thought to myself, Maybe I should kill myself. I wasn’t depressed; I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t think I could solve my problems. I thought my shit was too fucked up to fix. It felt like my only option was to kill myself.
That was my Dark Night.
But I haven’t said everything about the Dark Night scene yet.
There’s also the end of the scene.
At the end of the scene, the madman villain has come down into the dungeon to torture the hero and finally kill him. The madman villain laughs in the hero’s face. You’re all mine, now, this monster says. And after I’m finished destroying you, I’m going to kill your best friend and your girlfriend, too.
And the hero looks up from the depths of his despondency. If the villain is threatening the people he loves — then they must still be alive.
So the hero lets out a mighty roar and does something insane. Something stupid. Like, he breaks his own thumbs to free himself from his manacles, or he runs barefoot over broken glass.
The hero, armed with nothing but his bare hands, he goes running off to face down the madman villain’s entire faceless army.
Will he win?
But then, maybe he will.
I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: if he doesn’t do anything, if he gives up in the dungeon, he definitely loses.
If he does something, though, maybe he wins.
I know that’s not very motivational. I’m sorry. I write novels, not self-help books. I’m just saying that it’s better not to give up.
My friend got shot in the chest. He lived through it. He got a college degree and went on with his life.
Warren Zevon kept playing music until he died. The cancer got him in the end, but so what? That doesn’t mean he lost. No one lives forever.
I’m still here. My Dark Night didn’t last forever.
I think that’s why the Dark Night is in so many stories: because it’s a moment we all live through and have to survive. And I think we recognize and admire something in the hero — his courage, his mettle, whatever. And I think it’s good to be reminded, through the stories we read and watch, that it’s better to try and fail than to never try.
Or we just like to see a guy break his own thumbs and walk on broken glass. What do I know?