The “Dark Night of the Soul”

This past spring, I took Anastasia Suen’s wonderful Intensive Picture Book workshop. She has a helpful approach to analyzing picture book texts and breaking down story arcs to understand how writers put stories together.

One thing that stuck with me is a phrase from Blake Snyder’s “beat sheet” – a narrative paradigm or map for movie screenplays which Anastasia uses to help dissect picture book stories. This makes a lot of sense, actually, since both are visual media for storytelling. The phrase is “the dark night of the soul.” Doesn’t that sound intense and grim and send shivers up your spine? Don’t you love the melodrama?

The “dark night of the soul” is the moment in the last third of the story when everything has fallen apart and the character is at an emotional low. It is the darkness before the dawn, the moment when the character knows without a doubt that they have failed in their quest and will never achieve their goal.

Of course, in most movies (and picture books, too) what happens next is that the character rallies to finally achieve their goal for a happy ending.

Not every story follows this narrative arc, but I recently went through some picture books looking for that “dark night of the soul” moment. Frequently, I found, this is the moment when the main character is getting almost exactly the opposite of what it is he or she truly wants (and eventually gets by the end of the story).

Where the Wild Things Are

Dark Night of the Soul: Even though he is King of the Wild things and can be as wild as he wants, Max realizes that he is lonely and just wants to be where someone loves him “best of all.”

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Officer Buckle and Gloria

Dark Night of the Soul: Officer Buckle decides not to give any more safety speeches because he thinks Gloria was getting all the attention.

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Caps for Sale

Dark Night of the Soul: The pedder becomes so angry at the monkeys who stole his caps that he throws his own cap off his head and walks away, giving up on getting his caps back.

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Corduroy

Dark Night of the Soul: Unable to find his lost button, without which he may not get adopted, Corduroy gets put back on the shelf with the other toys by the store security guard.

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Harold and the Purple Crayon

Dark Night of the Soul: Harold, who has been on an adventure with his purple crayon, decides he is tired and wants to be back in his own room, but instead slips over the side of the mountain he’s drawing and falls through thin air.

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After taking this class, I went through some of my manuscripts to see whether a dark night of the soul occurred for my main characters and if it did, whether I could heighten the drama of that moment.

Does your story have a “dark night of the soul?” Does it need one?

I’m excited to have the opportunity to add a poem to Renée LaTulippe‘s video poetry library at No Water River on Friday. Please stop by for your Friday dose of poetry!

20 thoughts on “The “Dark Night of the Soul”

  1. Ooh, that is melodramatic, especially when applied to picture books. I just imagine titles like “The Dark Soul of Snuggles the Kitten.” A good thing to think about if I ever finish a PB ms, especially since it’s the conflict where I always get stuck. I like the idea of the MC getting the opposite of what he wants.

    Can’t wait to see you on Friday! I’m vacuuming and dusting the place now..

  2. I loved this class, too and still use our storyboards or beat sheets. I try to implement this, but it’s helpful to see how other pb authors use this dark night of the soul! Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, it made me much more conscious of those moments while I’m reading now, and I still use the beatsheet and storyboard technique, too. Very helpful. Thanks for stopping by, Tina!

  3. The Taylor swift beat sheet link /example was helpful to pair with your post Carrie – thank you!

    I enjoy reading posts citing online book courses…I’ll have to bite the bullet one day and choose one or two that sound good, like Anastasia’s!

    Looking forward to your NWR video!

  4. Excellent post, Carrie. Love the examples you give. I took Anastasia’s course too. This is a good reminder for me. I think it comes natural for me now to see the dark moments, but sometimes it skates over me too.

  5. Reading the comments, I can see I’m in good company– I took Anastasia’s online intnsive too. When I did, she wasn’t using Beat Sheets yet but we did use the storyboards. I’m going to check out these Beat Sheets and I really like the “dark night of the soul” as a way to test the strength of my stories. Thanks for a great post, Carrie.

  6. Ooooh, yes. I like the melodrama in that phrase. Now that you mention it, every story I can think of has this moment. Some stories have their lowest moment closer to the beginning and others have it nearer the end. I find it more satisfying closer to the end. Some stories have a dim-night-moment and then later a dark-night-moment. That always makes for a delicious happy ending. Thanks, Carrie. I’ll have to check my own manuscripts for this.

    • That’s a really good observation, Hannah! I think there are some stories where that moment happens really early, and then the rest of the story is the character dragging him or herself out of the doldrums.

  7. Pingback: The Dark Night of the Soul | Wanderlusty Writer

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