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