Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Hitting rock bottom. The whiff of death. The point of no return. Whatever term you prefer to describe it, you’ll certainly have come across countless ‘All Is Lost’ moments in fiction.
It’s the moment when Frodo loses his nerve to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The moment when Charlie Bucket is told by an enraged Willy Wonka that he “gets nothing”. The moment when Snape Avada Kedavaras Dumbledore. (Needless to say, big plot spoilers in this article are unavoidable, so I’ll stick to ones we should all be familiar with.)
As a writer, an ‘All Is Lost’ moment is the most hellish trial your character will have to go through; the build-up to, and subsequent resolution of, which needs to feel earned and rewarding for the reader. You recognize it, you watch it unfold, and – if it’s done well – you feel it with that character.
What’s the point of an ‘All Is Lost’ moment?
Arguably, the point lies in the aftermath rather than in the event itself. If the heroes’ journey is about finding balance in a world of chaos, this moment should be the final and most difficult hurdle they have to overcome in order to achieve their goal. Bonus points if your reader doesn’t see it coming. The harder that hurdle is to overcome, and the further it seems to separate your character from their goal, the more satisfying the feeling of relief and success will be at the end when they claw their way back to victory.The darker you make the night, the brighter the dawn.Click To Tweet
Do you have to have an ‘All Is Lost’ moment?
No, you don’t. But the benefits might persuade you.
Your character’s journey through an ‘All Is Lost’ moment can be extremely effective because failure is relatable and overcoming failure is inspirational. You can leave your reader with a real sense of cathartic satisfaction by the end of your novel.
Planning this moment in advance might also help you work through that tricky middle section of your book by giving you something you know you have to build up to.
How can you create an effective ‘All Is Lost’ moment?
The best advice I’ve found on this comes from the Scribe Meets World blog in the form of three essential tips: pain, emotion and paradox.
Just what it says on the tin. You need to put your character through some serious pain – be it physical, psychological, emotional or otherwise. Whether you’re writing about a dystopian future plunged into war or a kitten getting lost on its way home, think of what the stakes are in your novel and raise them as high as possible.
Whatever pain you inflict on your poor character, it must resonate with your reader. And you shouldn’t assume that the pain your character goes through would automatically create this. It’s very important to establish empathy for your character in the build up to this moment or the weight of what has happened to them will be lost on your reader.
This is the clever part. Remember when I talked about separating your character as much as possible from their goal? Well, the trick is making that gap look like it’s insurmountable, when really you know they’re just a few pages away from being home and dry. Think of it as that bit of perception wizardry in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. You know, that bit when Indiana (or ‘Junior’, if you ask Sean Connery) has to quite literally make a leap of faith across a chasm separating him from the Holy Grail.The ‘All Is Lost’ moment depends on pain, emotion and paradox.Click To Tweet
As he makes that surely fatal jump, his foot seems to magically hit solid ground, the camera pivots and suddenly we can see that a cleverly disguised bridge was there the whole time. The tension that felt so real mere seconds ago is relieved, and we chuckle to ourselves along with Indy for being so easily fooled.
Another key part of the paradox is the idea that something must be lost in order for something else to be found. A sacrifice big enough to galvanize your character to make that last push towards victory.
This is something J.K Rowling uses to great effect throughout the Harry Potter series. Every book in the series (bar Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban) climaxes with a face-off between the eponymous bespectacled hero and Lord Voldemort (or his stand-ins), and in the build-up to this, Rowling is always sure to dispatch (either temporarily or permanently) Harry’s support systems to leave him as depleted as possible right before his final test.
In Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, Ron and Hermione are left behind in the chess room.
In Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets, Hagrid is sent to Azkaban, the Basilisk petrifies Hermione and Ron is separated from Harry by a rockslide.
In Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, Harry teleports into a trap and Voldemort kills Cedric Diggory.
In Harry Potter And The Order of The Phoenix, Bellatrix Lestrange kills Sirius Black.
In Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, Snape kills Dumbledore.
In Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Ron abandons Harry and Hermione and Voldemort kills Snape.
If you strung the series into one continuous epic, the ‘All Is Lost’ moment for the entire saga would be at the end of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, in which Dumbledore is killed, Voldemort rises to power and Hogwarts falls under Death Eater control.
Where should you place your ‘All Is Lost’ moment?
Conventional wisdom – along with J.K. Rowling – dictates that the logical time to have your ‘All Is Lost’ moment is close to the end of your story. If you follow the three-act structure, it would be the climax of act two, and the tips I mentioned in the previous section are specific to this structure. If you were writing a screenplay, it would be between pages 75 and 90. If you were writing a teleplay, it would be just before the penultimate commercial break.
Isn’t that too formulaic?
Yes, the broad structure and pacing of setting up, having and then recovering from an ‘All Is Lost’ moment is nearly always the same. The reason for which is simple – it works. That said, there’s still plenty of room to experiment.The ‘All Is Lost’ moment may sound formulaic, but it’s a formula that works.Click To Tweet
For example, ‘All Is Lost’ moments are the backbone of most superhero origin stories, and as such, they traditionally take place very early in the narrative. A jittery mugger in a back alley guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him. Peter Parker’s kindly Uncle Ben is shot while trying to apprehend a burglar. Kal-El is jettisoned into space by his Kryptonian parents, just before their planet explodes. Rather than set up the concluding chapter, these moments of extreme tragedy instead become the prologue for the real story – channeling grief into the pursuit of justice.
It could also happen in the middle of your story. Mufasa’s death in The Lion King happens at the climax of act one, creating a power vacuum that Scar eagerly fills and motivating his attempts to assassinate Simba. Simba’s stunted emotional maturity from this trauma then becomes an internal hurdle he must overcome during acts two and three.
And then there’s the horror/comedy film, The Cabin In The Woods, which deliberately sticks two fingers up at the traditional three-step ‘All Is Lost’ formula by choosing to opt out of the traditional resolution. By the end, the film’s ‘heroes’ choose to literally watch the world burn because nothing they’ve experienced has given them enough motivation to save it. Depending on how you present this, it will either leave your reader frustrated and dissatisfied or pleasantly surprised.
The darker the night, the brighter the dawn
Unless you have as amicable a relationship with death and torture as George R.R. Martin, putting your character through hell might feel difficult, like purposefully hurting a close friend – especially if you subscribe to the belief that we put a bit of ourselves into all of our characters. The point, however, is in the recovery rather than the pain itself. Ultimately, you’re doing it for their own good. “What doesn’t kill you…” and all that.
Use an ‘All Is Lost’ moment as your dramatic act 2 spanner-in-the-works to set up your big finish, or try using it as more of character-building origin story. Raise the stakes, create the pain, heighten the emotional intensity and then reveal the narrow, not-so-invisible bridge over the bottomless chasm that was secretly just inches away from their feet the whole time. You’ll be glad you did (though Harvey Dent might not be).
For what comes after the ‘All Is Lost’ moment, check out Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb and Here’s How To Write A Killer Climax That Leaves Readers Breathless. Or, for more lessons cribbed from The Lion King, check out How To Create New Stories By Adapting Famous Books. Do you love a devastating ‘All Is Lost’ moment, or do you find the device too formulaic? Have your say in the comments!