As we work our way through the month-long blogging bonanza celebrating the launch on Tuesday (Tuesday! Two days, people!) of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982, we’ll begin each week with Structure Sunday where I’ll share some important elements to consider when writing a memoir. Today, I’m examining an important plot point: The dark night of the soul.
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The dark night of the soul is defined as a period of spiritual desolation that originated with a 16th century poem by St. John of the Cross. It’s also a crucial plot point of any memoir.
As regular readers this month will recall, I’m a fan of Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. One of the “beats” every successful screenplay requires is a “dark night of the soul,” when your hero (you, in a memoir) is in the midst of the darkness right before the dawn. “It’s the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him,” Snyder writes. “But at the moment, that idea is nowhere in sight.”
I saw a great “dark night of the soul” last week when I watched Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow.” Cruise is a soldier who dies hundreds of times over while fighting time-shifting aliens. Each time he relives the last day of his life, he learns something he carries over to the next opportunity. At the “dark night of the soul” point in the story, he realizes he can’t both save the world from the attacking aliens and save his mentor/girlfriend. He’s died 50 different ways trying to figure out this conundrum and he realizes: She has to die in order for him to save the world. It’s a dark moment, and viewers see this sorrow (and determination) on his face. We’re determined, too, to hang in there until he figures this thing out. It’s an effective storytelling trick.
Memoirs need this moment, too. Memoirists can’t skip over it. There is always a moment when you’re certain you’re defeated. When the bad guys aren’t just closing in but winning. If you’re effective in describing this moment, your readers will be rooting for you to overcome.
In Rise: How a House Built a Family (reviewed here last week), Brookins’ black night of the soul is the moment about a week before the house inspector will arrive to approve the family’s construction methods. They’re working long days and struggling with all kinds of finishing details when Brookins’ tackles an application of xylene finish to the basement floor and almost dies. A dark moment, but she overcomes and readers breathe easier now, feeling she’s over the hump.
In my first memoir The Percussionist’s Wife, the “dark moment of the soul” is when my cat dies. My life and marriage is literally falling apart around me, and then the pet I loved for 17 years dies in my arms. My description included the impromptu funeral attended by my brother-in-law and nephews. It was a dark day in my life, and including it in my memoir helped readers root for me to put things back together.
Look for the “dark night of the soul” in the next movie you see or book you read. If it’s a good movie or book, it’s there, probably somewhere around three-quarters or seven-eighths through the story. Now look at your own story: When was the “dark night of the soul” for you? How did it look? What did it feel like? Get it down on paper, and you’ll have readers rooting for you.
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Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982 is coming out on Tuesday. Look for it on Amazon!