The Darkest Moment: The key to every great story

dark moment

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

I love this quote from Sam in The Two Towers, because it really sums of the crux of the one thing every great story has: The Darkest Moment.

In the darkest moment, it doesn’t seem like there can be a happy ending. The worst has happened. The villain is cackling on their throne as they smite the hero. Our main character has finally succumbed to their weakness or addiction. The battle is lost. The end is near. How can there be a happy ending now?

Yet typically, there is.

This scene is often one of the most impactful and memorable throughout the entire story. Because it’s dark, dramatic, and terrible? Partially, yes, but it’s important and memorable because this is the moment that our main character (MC) goes through the most change. They will not leave the darkest moment the same as they went in. They can’t, otherwise they would not make it to their happy ending. Though if you’re not aiming for a happy ending, the darkest moment is likely when they fail (because they could not change and overcome their opposition) and solidify their fall to the end.

Within or as a result of the darkest moment, our MC is forced to confront their greatest fear, overcome their biggest obstacle, face down their addition, weakness, or misbelieve. Maybe it’s an external force, like the big bad evil character they’ve been facing off against, or maybe it’s a more internal and personal struggle that they must overcome within. The point is, they have to deal with it in this moment, or all will truly be lost. The darkest moment should push our character (or characters) to the breaking point and force them to grow in a way that nothing else within the story has thus far.  This is the moment they change, they grow, and they become the person they are at the end of the tale.

If your darkest moment doesn’t force your character to change, it’s not doing its job.

While the darkest moment is a scene in and of its self (i.e. a specific moment in the story that you should be able to point to), it doesn’t mean it’s the only dark moment.  Typically, a story has many smaller dark moments leading up to the darkest moment. After all, it wouldn’t be very entertaining if every single thing goes right for our characters throughout the whole story up until that darkest moment. Frankly, most people would never make it to the darkest moment because the story up until that scene would lack tension, stakes, and excitement.

So what separates the darkest moment from any other dark moment? Two things: Intensity and change.

All of the dark moments leading up to the darkest moment are usually not quite as dark, life threatening, or world altering as the darkest moment. They should create obstacles and challenges for the characters. They should make the journey more difficult. However, they most likely are not inciting the level of change within our characters that the darkest moment will (or should). Perhaps a single dark moment can be resolved without the MC changing or growing. Maybe its something they can walk away from or temporarily avoid. It might cause them to question themselves or their journey, but not enough that they have to change yet. In fact, a character’s handling or avoidance of earlier dark moments could directly lead into the disaster that is the darkest moment. Think of these as regular season football games. Our characters can win or lose, and some of them may be nail-biters, but none of them carry the weight of the Super Bowl (i.e. our darkest moment), which will define the entire season/story.

When the darkest moment comes, it will be something our characters cannot avoid or overcome without dramatic change and growth, and it will vastly affect how the story ultimately ends. Did they win and make it to a happily ever after? Or did they lose and succumb to their weakness/adversary?

While the darkest moment comes near the end of the story, it may or may not occur during the climax. Sometimes the darkest moment needs to occur before the climax in order for the character to grow into the person they need to be to deal with that final climatic situation. In other stories, the two happen simultaneously as the climax and dark moment are one in the same and must be overcome together. Each story is unique and only you know the journey that your characters will take.

I leave with a quote from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:

“Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.
Bilbo Baggins: You can promise that I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”