Seeing Theme in the Dark Night of the Soul
Finding the “math” of a story – the connections between the beats, and how all of the parts work together – is one of my favorite things to do. And I find that, even with a level of familiarity with the Save the Cat!® beats and their functions, good stories are layered with so much connective tissue that there’s always more to explore and discover.
While re-reading some movie beat sheets recently, I noticed something that I was surprised had not been noted before. And I promptly began putting these observations together to share with you today.
First, the backstory:
Good movies are “about something,” as Blake told us. Anyone who’s studied up on Save the Cat!® is familiar with how we see that ‘something’ set up in the Theme Stated beat. We then often see the theme further examined through the B Story, where the main character learns the lesson he needs to triumph in or give meaning to the A Story. These are ideas we’re pretty well-versed in.
Then, the lightbulb in the dark (night of the soul):
What I was surprised to notice for the first time was the relationship between the Theme Stated and the Dark Night of the Soul beats. Looking at beat sheets I’d seen a million times, it suddenly became apparent that the Dark Night of the Soul often reflects back the theme to the main character.
Once you consider the story functions of these two beats, it’s no wonder at all that they’re so strongly connected. After all, the Dark Night of the Soul beat answers the question of how the main character feels about all that’s going on in the story. Specifically, it’s a reaction to the All Is Lost beat that came just before. But we can think about it as reacting to the journey thus far.
And if the journey of the story is really an argument around the thematic premise, then the Dark Night of the Soul is, in effect, how the main character feels about the theme, now that he/she has seen its implications.
Does that sound like a bunch of academic theory mumbo jumbo? Let’s look at some examples and see if it becomes more clear.
In the Theme Stated beat, Ned Racine (William Hurt), a lawyer who represents small-time con men and petty criminals, goes before a judge who tells Ned he needs either “a better defense, or a better class of client.”
This statement nicely sums up Ned’s situation in this movie, as he’ll be out of his depth when he meets and begins an affair with Matty, and they embark on a scheme to kill off her husband in order to get their hands on his sizable estate. This double-crossing thriller deals in themes of lust, trust, and betrayal. You might say the thematic premise of the story is, “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”
Through the planning, execution, and aftermath of their plan, by the time the All Is Lost beat comes, Ned is questioning Matty’s loyalty. Has she been playing him all along?
In the Dark Night of the Soul beat, a shady former client reveals to Ned that Matty came to him to learn how to rig a bomb to the opening of a door. When Matty then calls Ned and tells him where to recover a piece of evidence they need to bury, a suspicious Ned goes to the boathouse late at night and sees through the window a long twisted wire attached to the door.
Ned’s suspicions culminate here, as he realizes Matty has betrayed him; she intends to kill him and walk away with all the money. He absorbs the meaning of the journey: he’s trusted the wrong person. His reputation and livelihood are both ruined, not to mention he may end up dead before this is all over. Armed with that knowledge and forever changed, he’ll embark on Act 3.
Still not convinced of the Theme Stated – Dark Night of the Soul connection? Let’s look at one more example:
In the Theme Stated beat, six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) tells a stranger at the grocery store that he doesn’t have a father. We learn here that a car crash en route to Samuel’s own delivery was the cause of his father’s death. The stranger responds, “Well your mum is very lucky to have you then, isn’t she?”
This is the question that Samuel’s mother Amelia (Essie Davis) will explore throughout the journey. The story is very much about Amelia’s struggle to deal with her grief over losing her husband, and how she lets it continue to affect her relationship with her son. The theme essentially says, “Here’s what happens when we let grief consume us and overshadow the good in our lives.”
We watch as Amelia and Samuel’s lives are invaded by the Babadook, the “monster” to their literal and figurative “house.” Strange events escalate and the dark presence seems to have more and more control over Amelia.
In the Dark Night of the Soul, Amelia (staring almost comatose at the TV) sees a news report about a woman who stabbed her child with a kitchen knife. Eerily, Amelia sees her own face in a window at the crime scene. What is happening to her?
In the basement, she is relieved to see her husband… until she realizes it’s not really him. She runs through the house and barricades herself into her bedroom, but the Babadook is inside. As he attacks her, she tries to tell herself it’s not real.
This beat shows Amelia, in no uncertain terms, what the story is all about: by refusing to accept that her husband is gone – and denying that she’s doing so – she’s allowing the darkness of her grief and resentment to control her, and it’s harming both her and her son.
As Blake also wrote in Save the Cat!®, describing the Dark Night of the Soul: “We must be beaten and know it to get the lesson.”
So when you’re considering how to fill in the Dark Night of the Soul section of your beat sheet, keep these points in mind:
1. How could the theme be reflected back to the main character?
2. What specific event or moment could trigger the realization in the main character?
3. How could the main character react to the journey they’ve taken thus far?
By making sure the Theme Stated – Dark Night of the Soul connective tissue is strong, your story will feel more cohesive – and meaningful, since the ‘something’ that it’s about will show up throughout the story.
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