Finding Truth in The Dark Night of the Soul
Writing

Finding Truth in The Dark Night of the Soul

Characters must hit rock bottom. Only then will they find the hard truth.

How far can you run into the woods? The answer is halfway because after you reach the midpoint, you’re running out of the woods.

A screenplay works in the same way: you establish your main protagonist, including who they are, what matters to them, and what comprises their normal world. You then introduce the antagonist force, which becomes the conflict (or question) of the story. The main character is then pursuing a goal — they run into the woods. By doing so, they are choosing to face their antagonistic force. The journey can either be internal or external, but at some point, they have gone so far that they can’t go back and they must continue to push themselves to get out of the woods.

In the third act of a screenplay, there is a point when the protagonist feels they have passed their last chance at success. This is after many attempts, false victories, and minor setbacks. It feels like the end of the line — the final barrier they can’t overcome. They are suffering, and it’s difficult to imagine anything will work out. They feel alone, confused, scared, and hopeless. This is called The Dark Night of the Soul moment. The roots of the phrase are religious. St. John of the Cross first wrote about this in the 16th Century. In essence, it detailed a crisis of faith, a personal spiritual struggle that leads to a transformation.

Image via Brooks Reynolds

When a character has a “dark night of the soul” moment, it is the beginning of shedding false perceptions of experiences and gaining a new perspective that will change their lives. It is, to paraphrase author Anais Nin, the moment in time when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom. Although it is the character’s lowest moment, for the audience, it can often feel like a breath of air. We will finally witness a hard-earned truth and find hope for healing. We see how it might be possible for our protagonist to escape the woods and find their ultimate truth.

The Marriage Story

One of the most gut-wrenching examples of a dark night of the soul moment is in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. The film explores the dissolution of a marriage when a child is involved and the raw, emotional toll of ending a relationship but keeping a family together.  

For Adam Driver’s character, Charley, his emotional unraveling comes in a verbally violent confrontation with Scarlett Johanson’s Nicole. Up until this point in the film, he has seen himself as a victim of the circumstances. Nicole is the one who is upending their world, and he is paying the price. The moment in the film when he crosses the line and exposes an ugly desire allows him to honestly transition into remorse and seek forgiveness.

Get Out

In Jordan Peele’s masterpiece film Get Out, a young photographer, Chris Washington, spends an uncomfortable weekend with his girlfriend Rose’s strange family. It soon spirals into something much more sinister. The film is a deconstruction of racism and wokeism. Chris’ anxiety of meeting Rose’s family is taken to a diabolical extreme. His dark night of the soul moment has him literally waking up in the middle of a nightmare, tied to a chair, a pawn in some disturbing secret hypnosis cult. The stage is set for an incredible third act where Chris has found the truth and must, pun intended, get out.

The Godfather

Another reason that the dark night of the soul moment is so significant in storytelling is that it often reveals why the story exists. It’s at a character’s low point, where the growth occurs and where the centralized, unifying theme appears.  

In The Godfather, family is everything, and Michael’s goal is to honor his father. At first, he believes that means achieving the American dream and carving out a legit, non-criminal life.  However, at his dark night of the soul moment, when his brother Sonny and his Italian bride are both killed, he has a shift of perspective. He will come back to America and honor his father by being an even more brutal mafia don. 

Euphoria

Television is different. Since a show may go on for several seasons, and there is no guarantee that it will be renewed, a protagonist may have several dark night of the soul moments as their character’s storyline evolves throughout the run of the series.  

HBO’s Euphoria is a harrowing account of teen depression, identity, and drug addiction with a standout performance by Zendaya as Rue. Season two starts with an absolutely low dark night of the soul moment for Rue as she tears the house apart looking for drugs and screaming “You fucking hate me? So do I.”  Her admission of self-loathing is perhaps the first step toward healing.

The season ends with a post-dark night of the soul-like autopsy and perhaps clues us into the meaning of the whole series. In this scene with Lexi, Rue bemoans that when her dad died, everyone told her that “he died for a reason,” which infuriated her. But then she reveals her fresh perspective: that what they may actually be saying is that “you have to give it a reason.”  Because she knows she can’t hold on to the grief and anger forever. She will eventually break under the weight. If she hadn’t hit bottom in that earlier scene, she couldn’t have lifted herself up to the surface in this one.

Creating Your Own Dark Night of the Soul

In any good drama, the character’s core wounds and flawed strategies guide their pursuit of a goal. When writing your dark night of the soul moment, you must earn it. Here are a few things to consider:

Get Rid of the Safety Net

Embrace the uncomfortable, impossible situation. This has to be the point of no return emotionally. It’s the moment when Charley screams at Nicole that he wishes she would die; it’s the moment when Rue’s mother tells her she’s not a good person. In the clip above, it’s the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Emotionally, it’s the thing that can’t be taken back. Don’t be afraid to write in the ugly place and let your character endure the consequences, pain and the eventual reward.

Make Them The Hero of Their Own Story

No one else can save your protagonist; they must save themselves. They can have allies, but they must drive their own solution to the problem. This low point needs to bring them clarity, a fresh perspective, and a new (and hopefully) winning strategy to overcome their conflict. 

Get in the Ring

If Rocky started out as a down-and-out, washed-up fighter and ended up that way, no one would care. The theme of a film is tied to the character’s evolution. With Rocky, it didn’t matter if he won the fight at the end (spoiler alert — he didn’t); what mattered was that he tried. He got in the ring. Metaphorically, whatever the theme of your film (for example, love, forgiveness, grief, overcoming addiction) give your character the tools to get in the ring and slay their demons.

Be Brave

You’ve put them in an uncomfortable, seemingly impossible situation. No one is tossing a life raft; they must figure a way out on their own. Instead of giving in, they face the situation. Now, the character has to show courage, expose their truth, and grow from the experience.

Armed to Succeed

When the character emerges from the dark night of the soul, the viewer should feel confident that the character may get what they want, overcome their antagonistic force, be rewarded, and gain contentment. It may not happen. Sometimes a truthful ending is not a happy ending, but if you craft a character in a complex way that feels authentic, it will feel earned and logical.

Pacing Is Important

Crafting a dark night of the soul that will move your audience doesn’t only happen in the script or an acting performance. The pacing of your entire project leading to that moment matters. Think about how it’s playing out for your character — their DNoS moment might require quick cuts and a chaotic feel or a subdued and slow pace if the revelation is more internal. It might require flashbacks or glimpses into the future. Details matter when editing this scene, and it’s often one of the most important scenes of a film. Spend more time with it.


Feature image via John Carrington.

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