Monday, 21 March 2011

The darkest hour

When the hero has lost everything. When the villain has temporarily triumphed, with nothing left to stop him. When the apocalypse has arrived. Most stories have that moment. That darkest hour.

Does yours?

The importance of losing everything

Think of any action television show – as the season comes to a close, the hero is often close to losing everything. The end of the second season of Buffy is a great example – she’s been kicked out of home, kicked out of school, and the love of her life, Angel, is evil and has begun to unleash hell on earth.

When the climax of your story draws nearer, it’s time for your hero to fail. He needs to lose, at least for part of the story. He needs to know the depths of his darkest hour.


1. The hero’s darkest hour allows time for reflection, for both the hero, and the reader

If you watch the audio commentary for How to Train Your Dragon, the creators admit that they had skipped that darkest hour, where Hiccup mourns Toothless after he's captured and taken away. Instead, they had Hiccup immediately jumping up, ready to get back into fight. The creators realised this was a mistake – that moment of reflection was needed. They let Hiccup experience the impact of his loss, let him feel hopeless. It’s a time all of us go through in life, and it’s an important progression in the story.

When the hero endures the worst of the worst, readers learn from his strength. They follow him to his darkest hour, and celebrate his glory when he finds his way back. If you’re looking for a reader who will truly love rereading your book, give them inspiration by slamming your hero to rock bottom and let him climb back up again.

2. The harder you fall, the higher you climb

You only need to watch J.K. Rowling’s speech on failure to understand that. When you strip a character down to the barest essentials, you’re left with his true nature. When your hero has nothing left, it’s this moment that defines him. It gives readers an insight into his spirit, his strength, and his endurance. Kill his family, turn his friends against him, let his arch nemesis triumph, and see what he does. Give him the greatest obstacles of all to overcome, and show your readers why he is the hero.

Rising from the ashes

Getting your hero out of his darkest hour is not easy. Usually he’s caught in a moment of self-doubt, and it’s not believable for him to just flick a mental switch and come at the problem again with newfound determination.

Sometimes a secondary character needs to come in and slap some sense into him. Choose that secondary character wisely. Who would be the most surprising character to help your hero in a time of need? Could it be someone who’s been a pain for the protagonist in the past? Could it be someone who used to be a threat, but has decided to work together with the protagonist against a common enemy? Could it be someone the hero had previously written off as useless?

Sometimes, however, the hero is alone in this moment of need. He must find an inner strength, but it takes a motivating factor to get him to move. Perhaps he solves a riddle or figures out a weak point that will help take down the villain. Perhaps he realises what more he might lose if he lets the villain win. Perhaps he needs that moment when he can choose to give up and die, but instead hauls himself to his feet.

Let’s go back to the scenario in Buffy. She’s lost almost everything. Angel is about to kill her, and asks (more or less) what she has left. He tries to impale her with his sword, and at the last second, she slams her hands together to stop the blade, and answers, “Me.” Who wouldn’t root for a character like that?

What are some of your favourite stories with a darkest hour? Did you find yourself rooting for the protagonist more because they struggled up from rock bottom?

How would your story differ if the villain took control, and the protagonist experienced that darkest hour?


  1. E. Lockhart's Ruby Oliver books basically start with the protagonist hitting rock bottom, and for nearly three books she keeps trying to get out of it and keeps hitting it again and again, each time harder than the next. Personally, it made me love her more.

  2. This is an excellent entry, and one that truly makes me sit back and think. I'm not far enough into my WIP to have come across this yet, but I'll have to keep it in the back of my mind!

    As far as favorites are concerned...I'm not sure. I've never thought about it quite like that before. I guess books that leave an impact, ones that stay with you long after you finish them because you have that emotional connection with the character. I can't think of anything offhand...I should go drink coffee, lol.

    I should also watch the commentary on HTTYD. I never knew that! I love that movie so much. One of my favorite animations!

  3. @Katya - Wow, that sounds emotionally intense. The protagonist of that story must be quite an inspiration!

    @A Backwards Story - Oh, it's my favourite movie of all time! And true about character leaving more of an impact. But sometimes it's because of that character's strength during their darkest hour that I remember them (eg Buffy).

  4. I...really need to watch Buffy now.

    The darkest hour in Deathly Hallows gets me every time. It's that moment when Harry realizes he is going to die, that Dumbledore has been using him as a pawn, that all along he was living on borrowed time and he will not get to say good bye to his friends or to Ginny. :((( so sad

    I haven't written my own darkest hour, but I will be sure to include one now that I know that 1. they exist XD and 2. how important they are! <3

  5. Meg - I'm so glad to have helped! And you're right, Harry Potter definitely had an emotional darkest hour. I used HP as an example when I first wrote this blog post, but it didn't fit in the way I wanted it to, so I took it out.

    And yes, you must watch Buffy!

  6. Ah, Miss Felsinger! Let me tell you! This post was so helpful in helping me come to a better grip at the end of E1. Right after Erin's been captured and Uncle Max is revealing the master plan (by the way, is that too cheesy? Or would you have to read it and see? Saying it so boldly like that makes it sound cheesy now.) to her and Isla, I didn't really give her that hopeless moment. More like Erin doesn't give up, and she just fights her way out without really stopping to think. And whilst I haven't seen Buffy (but you described it well enough that I understood - especially about season 2's finale), you reminded me of examples in Harry Potter. It's always, always, always life-or-death/heart-stopping-pages/the-big-revelation-or-appearance-of-a-particular-character-makes-Harry-and-I-want-to-keel-over-right-there-and-then. So tense. And so gripping. But it shows character growth! My favourite quote from this post was When you strip a character down to the barest essentials, you’re left with his true nature. When your hero has nothing left, it’s this moment that defines him. Actually, no, that whole paragraph under The Harder You Fall... was excellent/my favourite part.

    A very, very, very appealing post. I will be forwarding this to friends tonight. Yay!

    /end essay-length response. Sorry

  7. I'm so glad I could help!

    I'm not sure if that scene is cheesy or not - it always depends on the execution, and the reason behind the villain monologue.

    Thank you so much for the comment!

  8. What SailorEm said. Second drafts are haaaard. Article, article! :S