This structural event comes at the end of Act II. During the first seventy-five percent of our story, nothing is as bad for our protagonist. The third plot point is also known as the ‘all is lost’ moment, or the ‘black moment,’ to name two. The title/label I like best is H.R. D’Costa’s, ‘the trough of hell.’
Before looking at this final plot point, let’s step back and review. Recall that Act II comprises half of our novel. During the first half, what I refer to as Act IIA, our protagonist is reacting to what happened at the end of Act I (the first plot point). The midpoint changes everything by its new reveal and shifts our hero into action mode. Throughout Act IIB, he is aggressively pursuing his story goal and continues to battle the antagonist and/or the antagonist’s helpers. Our guy has had some success with the greatest one coming a few pages before he encounters ‘the trough of hell.’ After this event (series of events) is over, our protagonist is barely alive, assuming we have done our job. We have to make it the worst ordeal of his life. Why is that? To set-up our hero’s ascent to the climax in Act III.
In her excellent craft book, Story Structure for the Win, D’Costa argues the ‘trough of hell’ includes three key characteristics: pain, emotion, and paradox. Let’s look at each of these.
D’Costa quotes Kurt Vonnegut to describe our task as authors: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
D’Costa provides an excellent example where the heroine is hit with a multitude of “awful things.” In Bridesmaids, “[a] t the end of Act Two, Annie:
is demoted from her position as Lillian’s maid of honor,
wrecks her blossoming romance with Officer Rhodes,
gets fired from her job at the jewelry store,
is ousted from her apartment by her two comically creepy roommates, [and]
completely ruins her friendship with Lillian.”
Would you agree, Annie has had a bad day?
Now, let’s look at D’Costa’s example where the hero is hit with ONE ‘awful thing .” At the end of Act II in Speed, “Jack Traven experiences… [t]he death of [his] best friend and police partner, Harry….” Again, enough pain to knock Jack’s feet out from under him.
The ‘trough of hell’ must trigger an emotional reaction in our audience. But, it’s not just any emotional reaction; it’s one that perpetuates the audience’s love and support for our hero. Their desire for him to succeed is heightened.
It’s important to choose the right type of tragedy, one that connects to our protagonist. Before looking at an example, it’s important to note that the events that comprise the ‘trough of hell’ can include bad things happening to others, not just our hero.
Look at D’Costa’s example taken from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). “Toward the end of the second act, Watson is seriously injured in a factory explosion. Obviously, he’s in a great deal of pain. But Watson’s suffering doesn’t automatically produce a moment of emotional resonance for audiences. This event has resonance specifically because the film took the time to show how meaningful Watson’s friendship is to Holmes.” In sum, our audience has to care deeply about the well-being of our hero.
Let’s start with the definition. Paradox is “a statement that contradicts itself.” Here’s the example given by Dictionary: “’I always lie’ is a paradox because if it is true it must be false.”
Looking at the ‘trough of hell’ convinces us that our hero is in BAD shape. We are convinced he is the furthest he could be from reaching his story goal. But, D’Costa contends this is merely a paradox: “[i] t just looks like he is.” What’s just happened “is exactly what your protagonist needs to push past his demons; give up his crutches; [or] overcome his innate resistance to change.” Why? “… [because now] he’s desperate enough to take the path of most resistance—and confront the very thing he’s been trying to avoid….”
Authentically, fiction mirrors life. Each of us starts off in our ordinary world. I hope that you, like me, grew up in a loving home with two parents who sacrificed that I might have a better life.
At age eighteen or so things change radically. High school is over and it’s time for college, trade school, or maybe the military. Whatever it is, we leave our ordinary world and embark on a lifelong journey of pursuing a goal (might be a series of goals). One thing is for certain, the new world is radically different from the ordinary world.
For many, this next quarter of life (twenty or twenty-five years?) is a reactionary phase. We’re reacting to what happened when we left home. It’s a reaction to the college degree we earned. For example, it’s years of working as an accountant.
Then comes our story’s (our life’s) midpoint. This is our life’s second plot point. For me, it was a return to law school. For you, it might an early retirement and opening your own shop. It could be anything that sends you off in a new direction. The dominoes of your life turn hard right (or left).
We’re now in Act IIB of our lives. The midpoint change, whether self-created or outside imposed, triggers our own need to be proactive. It’s time to investigate, plot, plan, a time to focus on giving your life meaning.
At the end of Act IIB (let’s say, around age 65 or 70) no matter who we are or what we’ve accomplished, our ‘trough of hell’ arrives. One word is all it takes to sum up this life event: BAD. It might be a bitter divorce, the terminal illness of a spouse or other loved-one. It could be a criminal indictment. It could be an investment loss (a BIG one).
But, there is hope. You and I will survive our individual troughs of hell. How do I know this? Because you are the hero/protagonist of your own life, and we haven’t gotten to the Climax. That’s the time you have to worry about, because, unlike fiction, you already know how your story ends.
I don’t say this to cause you sadness or depression. It’s a fact of life, we are all going to die. Here’s what a famous astronomer wrote, “[o]ur planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
Although I said the Climax of each of our lives is fixed and worrisome, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to live for. The world is full of beauty, wonder, and joy. And, it is meaningful, if we make it that way.
It is up to each of us to make our own meaning. It isn’t something given by some supernatural being. Yes, of course, you can believe differently, but for me, I’m interested in the truth. And, so far, there isn’t sufficient credible evidence that there is some being holding us in the palms of his hand. Rather, everything points to Sagan’s conclusion: “… there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us….”
But, in the meantime, you and I, as living human beings, and writers, have antagonists to defeat, so let’s get to it. We are in Act III you know.
A writer’s job is to tell the truth.Andy Rooney