Why Every Story Needs Its Own Pit of Snakes

How to Make Your Character’s Lowest Moment Truly Nerve Wracking

Every story should have a tragedy. Even stories with happy endings need at least one.

Disney’s animated classic Cinderella has three. The first two tragedies happen during the opening narration. Cinderella’s mother dies. Her father marries the wicked step mother and dies shortly after. Cinderella is forced into a life of servitude. The third tragedy happens when Cinderella’s step-sisters tear her dress apart. That tragedy seems inconsequential compared to everything Cinderella has been through, but we’ll see why of all these events the destruction of the dress is the most important one.

The death of Cinderella’s parents make us sympathetic to her plight. Its a life altering event sure to rock anyone’s foundation. So why is it so much more tragic when the wicked stepsisters tear up her dress? After all it’s a garment, meant to be worn once, while Cinderella’s parents were her entire support system.

We don’t spend much time with Cinderella’s parents in the opening scene. Her mother has no screen time and her father has no dialogue. We’re told he was a good man, but we’re not given much to mourn. It’s Cinderella’s newfound circumstances that are given weight.

The shredding of Cinderella’s gown breaks our hearts because we see all the hope that goes into it.

Cinderella struggles to sew her dress between chores. Then her mice friends decide she deserves something nice for a change. They run through the walls on covert missions to gather materials. They cut the fabric, even though the scissors are a two mouse operation. Why even the birds help measure the hemline.

When Cinderella sees the dress her dream finally comes true. She’s awash with gratitude. It’s her starry eyed anticipation of the night’s events that makes her stepsister’s assault so gut wrenching.

This isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to Cinderella, but it’s the worst thing we’ve witnessed. It’s this low moment that makes the eventual ‘Happily Ever After’ feel earned.

I’ve written a lot about the virtues of introducing characters in humbling situations, but I want to talk about the importance of those tragedies that happen later on.

Why Every Hero Needs to Be Tossed into A Pit of Snakes

It’s when our backs are up against the wall that we’re forced to get clever. It’s when the chips are down that we realize how good of gambler we really are. It’s when the going gets tough that the tough put on a mech suit and blow the alien queen out the airlock.

Every story needs one of these moments at the end of the second act. When the only thing the hero has left is the lesson their journey has taught them. When they realize the goal that set their quest into motion isn’t what they really want. When they reach the tipping point of a major life change.

The greater the hero’s fall the more meaningful their rise will be.

Ra’s al Ghul needs to burn down Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne’s last connection to his parents, for Bruce to find the resolve he needs for their final confrontation. Kirk needs to be marooned on an ice planet before he can earn the respect of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. 99.9% of the cast of Game of Thrones needs to die brutal agonizing deaths before Daenerys Targaryen can fry the white walkers with her dragons (that’s not a spoiler, it’s an educated guess).

Do an inventory of every film you’ve ever seen and you’ll find the greater the second act tragedy the more rewarding the victory. This is why Joss Whedon is so notorious for killing beloved characters. The second act demands sacrifices.

2. Snake

Why Raiders of the Lost Ark is a Master Class in Plot Structure

(SPOILERS for the Indiana Jones series)

Indiana Jones spends most of Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to find the Ark of the Covenant. When he finally does it’s taken by the Nazis. To make matters worse they leave him in a pit of snakes. Indy hates snakes.

The Nazis dump Marion Ravenwood into the same pit before sealing it shut. This is Indy’s lowest possible moment, but it’s also where he realizes that the thing he’s wanted all along was a human connection. His goal changes and he evolves in time for the climactic confrontation.

In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Indy finds three of the Sankara stones that promise fortune and glory to whoever possesses them. When Indy’s in a pinch he utters an incantation that superheats the rocks. Two of them fall into the river while one burns Indy’s pursuer. Indy reacquires this stone, but returns it to its rightful owners.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy has to choose between staying to acquire the cup of Christ or leaving the temple with his father. In the end Indy always chooses his human connections over material MacGuffins.

One of the problems with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that the titular hero suffers so few losses. He’s never pushed to his breaking point, he rebounds too fast, and he’s never forced to make a choice. His goal stays the same the entire time. Sure, reconnecting with Marion Ravenwood and learning Mutt is his son distracts him, but he’s never forced to choose between his family and the adventure he’s on. They’re along for the ride. In the end the film feels like it has no stakes.

(END SPOILERS)

Hit Your Audience in the Feels Before Going for the Smiles

I’m a fan of hard won happy endings: those stories with all of the foreshadowing of tragedies that somehow end in victory. I’m also a fan of the reverse: those stories where the heroes victory seems like a forgone conclusion until everything ends in ruin.

I like twists that take risks, but they’re not always palatable for general audiences. Audiences tend to be more forgiving of tonal shifts when they happen before the third act.

(SPOILERS for The Dark Knight below)

Batman catches the Joker two thirds of the way into The Dark Knight. It’s a hard won victory that took last minute heroics on the part of Batman and scheming on behalf of Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon. Their victory is short lived when the mob kills the love of Bruce Wayne’s life and gravely injures his greatest ally. Meanwhile the Joker reduces Gotham Central to ruins, eliminates Batman’s leverage over the mob, and escapes.

It’s this series of terrible losses that makes Batman’s plight so compelling.

(END SPOILERS)

Writers should ask themselves what’s the worst possible thing that can happen to my hero? Now how close can I get to that without emotionally exhausting my audience? There is such a thing as too much dread, just remember to balance it out will a little hope. Cinderella didn’t have to sulk too long before her Fairy Godmother showed up.

Hit your characters as hard as you can without betraying the tone of your story. Have some awareness of genre expectations. If you’re writing a children’s book your hero can get swallowed up by a wolf provided we know they’re alive the entire time. If you’re writing a horror story the wolf can devour your hero’s limbs one at a time. If you’re writing a romantic comedy your character can suffer a forgivable betrayal. Perhaps they discover they’ve been dating a wolf the entire time.

1. Snakes

Where I Use Plot Structure to Predict How Game of Thrones Ends

I believe Game of Thrones is so consistently shocking because George R.R. Martin has no intention of ending his saga on a note of futility and pain. He’s going for a bittersweet ending, that will be heavy on the casualties, but will ultimately leave the kingdom of Westeros in better shape then he’d conceived it.

If I had to guess, each of the players vying for the iron throne will realize the kingdom needs generals to protect it from the white walkers more than it needs a ceremonial monarch. Either the victor of this war ends up as the ruler of Westeros or the title goes to their second in command. What matters is that Daenerys owns everyone with her dragons.

•••

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28 thoughts on “Why Every Story Needs Its Own Pit of Snakes”

  1. Spot on, Drew. I know that the 2015 live action version of Disney’s Cinderella got some flack (“too predictable,” some said; um … yeah? So was Titanic). But I actually thought they did a good job with it (even got a tear out of me, if I’m being honest). For me, the most compelling scene wasn’t even the tearing of the dress; it was a point where Cinderella simply drops a plate and it breaks. Up until then, she had been stalwart and dealt with each new level of mistreatment with grace; but this one dropped dish – a seemingly inconsequential even, as you point out – served perfectly as the proverbial “last straw.” And we – or at least I – felt it.

    The major battle for any writer is to get the audience to care about the characters. And you’re right – that just doesn’t happen in stories where the victory is not hard-earned. An untried hero is no hero at all.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I haven’t seen the new live action Cinderella. I’ve heard good things from people who usually only see super hero movies. I referenced the animated version because I’d watched it so many times as a kid. It struck me as a good subtle example of a character’s lowest moment.

      You’re right. I like hard earned victories. Audiences don’t want things to get as bad as they need to get, but they’re usually grateful when things do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Drew. Just had a light bulb moment for act 3. Yes I left my hero at his lowest at the end of act 2, but need to spring him out of the hole now. This has made me think about how what’s happened to him changes his goal and his motivation to make him the hero. I had an idea but reading through this post has given me clarity on how to move forward. Great stuff as always, thanks 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s great! That beat that comes between Plot Point 2 and the Climax of the story is my favorite part of western storytelling. It’s where we see our hero at their most strained, heartbroken, and confused, but somehow they’re not defeated. It’s that audacity to keep going that we carry into our own lives.

      Again, thanks so much for reading.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The fate of Cinderella’s dress is a perfect example of a lesson Hollywood has long forgotten: that stakes needn’t be end-of-the-world-level dire so long as they are important to a protagonist with whom we empathize.

    Drew is right: A “pit of snakes” that doesn’t challenge the hero emotionally — that doesn’t in some way forcibly push him a notch further along on his transformational arc — is boring. That’s what David Freeman calls Michael Bay Syndrome — action for action’s sake. When we first meet him in Raiders, Indy is very much a man who appreciates the historical and cultural significance of the Ark, but he has no respect whatsoever for its spiritual value (watch the movie again and make note of how often he is dismissive of its divine power); but, in the end, he comes to respect its thaumaturgy and is thusly spared from its wrath. (Indy has the same arc in Temple, oddly enough. Repeating an arc in a sequel is usually ill-advised — just as Bridget Jones — but in the cases of both Indiana Jones and Shrek, it inexplicably worked.)

    In Last Crusade, his arc is to learn to forgive his father, so all the action is tailored to force him to confront that emotionally uncomfortable facet of his psychological constitution (note the way Harrison Ford visibly stiffens at the first mention of the elder Jones). One of the (many) things wrong with Kingdom is that Indy has no character arc, so all the action is hollow, meaningless — it’s just a bunch of “things” happening, a series of 1950s tropes writ large. In Frank Darabont’s 2003 draft of Indy IV, titled Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods (a very different treatment of the same basic story as the one they eventually filmed), Indy does have an arc: He needs to learn to get back in the game. (At the beginning of the story, Indy is wistfully aware that his most productive days are behind him — there’s a wonderful scene of him drunkenly surveying a museum rotunda with all the little relics from the previous films, like the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol and the Cross of Coronado, on display — and I wonder if that perhaps hit a little too close to home for an aging Lucas and Spielberg…?)

    What I would’ve done — not that anyone asked me! — was jettisoned that ill-conceived strategy of keeping Indy and Mutt’s true relationship to one another a secret. Instead, I would have tried this: Indy and Mutt were the kind of father and son who never saw eye-to-eye (shades of Last Crusade), and when Mutt decided to drop out of high school, that was the last straw for Indy, who kicked him out of the house — and the two haven’t spoken since. (Perhaps it even put a strain on Indy and Marion’s marriage.) But, then Marion gets kidnapped, and estranged father and son now have no choice but to put aside their differences to rescue her. And on the course of their adventure, they work out their issues. Now Indy’s got an arc (learn to accept his son for who he is) as does Mutt (learn to forgive Indy). That would have been a more emotionally resonant story than what they wound up with, which was pinned on a momentary “surprise” that wasn’t really a surprise to anyone. There was an opportunity to effectively recreate the dynamic from the previous film (by far the most emotionally fulfilling of the series) by putting Indy in the paternal role this time around, but what they wound up with instead was a series of set pieces Frankensteined together and devoid of emotional engagement (save any nostalgic love we had for Indy from the previous three outings). The stakes in Crystal Skull were enormous — the fate of the Cold War hung in the balance — yet they didn’t have the impact of Cinderella’s shredded dress because there was nothing in jeopardy for the hero himself.

    Every set piece or turn of event that I devise in my own stories is always put to this test: “How will this force the character to grow — to push through his arc, if only even a little bit?” A hero can’t reach his breaking point if there isn’t something at stake for him emotionally. After all, Indiana Jones habitually went home empty-handed, and yet the adventures were (almost) always worth the trouble anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thanks for this post, Drew! I’m a first time visitor to your blog, and I love it!! Your post has given me insight into my writing, helping solidify a chapter I was hesitating about. I’m curious what advice you’d give in regards to a memoir, as that is the genre of what I hope will be my future novel. Do you feel memoirs should have a similar low moment at the end of the “second act”, a snake pit, if you will, that needs resolution in the end?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jen, I know you are specifically asking Drew here. But I’ll chime in. A memoir is what it is. Fabricating events is typically frowned upon, even if it adds to the drama (though this is exactly what movie versions of memoirs usually do). If there happens to be a “low moment” that is real, you can certainly plan your book’s “character arc” around that; but it does somewhat dictate the timeline (i.e., you can’t give too much information afterward, and you may have to limit otherwise “cool” information that does not serve the arc you chose).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. To elaborate on what Erik is saying, I wouldn’t fabricate events to give a memoir an emotional low point. We all saw what happened when the author of A Million Little Pieces got caught doing that.

      I’d still recommend framing a memoir with the same three act structure of a film. Me personally, I’m not a fan of cradle to the grave memoirs. I’m more interested in the subject’s most significant personal change. With Johnny Cash in Walk the Line the focus was on how he beat drug addiction. In the case of that film the screenwriter found real life events and framed them to fit the narrative template.

      If you’re a human being you’re bound to have a few pits of snakes in your life story. It’s not uncommon in memoirs for the narrator’s worst moment to come up front during the break of the routine. If at all possible try to recall a shortfall before your personal victory and place it just before act 3.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thank you, Drew and Erik! No worries about fabricated low points, as the Universe has presented many obstacles and “snake pits” for me to write about and include in a memoir. 🙂
        My blog so far is a loose version of what I hope to weave into a manuscript. Although I had a story arc in mind when I began, I had not considered it in terms of 3 acts. As I’ve neared what I consider an ending point, I’ve struggled with a way to bring to a close a story that is still unfolding in real life…especially when “they lived happily ever after” doesn’t fit. But there are, in fact, events and low points that were important but maybe not “blog-worthy” (if that makes sense). Reading your post made me realize that the events I felt were not “blog-worthy” were still vital to the plot of my overall story and its conclusion. I have often thought of my story as sharing my personal “hero’s journey”, but I didn’t consider framing it in acts like an actual adventure story. I guess this is my “aha!” moment!

        Liked by 2 people

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