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Inner Workings of Snyder's (2005) Crisis in Screenplay

All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul are terms coined by a successful Hollywood spec screenwriter, Blake Snyder (2005). In his famous book, Save the Cat! (2005), Snyder proposes a 15-beat sheet to structure any story. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure - Rigidity takes a deep dive into the beat sheet (Praet, 2023). However, the final two beats of the second act, All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul, are glossed over in favor of the overall structure design. Giving an upward and downward shape to structure as opposed to a straight line, was perhaps one of Snyder’s (2005) greatest contributions to the art of screenwriting. It is merely one type of structure, but it was a new perspective for the screenplay design. Similarly, Snyder (2005) brought a new approach to ending Act Two, referred to as All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul. In general, screenwriting theorists named this moment “Crisis” (McKee, 1997, p. 76; Vogler, 2007, p. 155; Trottier, 2014, p. 5; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 101). However, once again applying a new perspective, Snyder (2005) split the Crisis beat into distinct halves, resulting in All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul.

Exploring the nature of the crisis beat is key to understanding why Snyder (2005) split it in two. Many theorists speak of the crisis, but few describe it as accurately as Jill Chamberlain, author of The Nutshell Technique (2016):

It is [during the crisis] that the protagonist will reach their lowest point in an Aristotelian comedy; screenwriters refer to this moment by terms such as Plot Point 2, the Break into Act 3, the Second Reversal, or the term I use, the CRISIS. (p. 102).

Chamberlain (2016) mentions many screenwriting terms for previous authors. Plot Point 2 (or II) is Syd Field’s (1984/2005) concept that leads the second act into the third one. Break into Three, referred to as “Break into Act 3” (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 102), is one of Snyder’s (2005) beats. It follows Dark Night of the Soul in the 15-beat sheet (Snyder, 2005, p. 70). The second reversal is the same as the crisis. These concepts may have different names, but they all have the same function: “[plot point II] is the way to move the story forward, from Act II to Act III.” (Field, 1984/2005, p. 28). In short, the crisis has to prepare and ensure the transition to Act Three. It is usually the final beat of act two (figure 1), but some story structures place it in act three (Brody, 2018, p. 65). “Aristotelian comedy” (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 102) is a term used for any story that showcases a change from bad fortune to good, not a comedy as in genre (p. 8). In fact, Chamberlain (2016) estimates that 95% of all movies are Aristotelian comedies (p. 36). In story structures, Act Three presents a synthesis world where the hero changes, often by incorporating lessons learned throughout Act Two (Snyder, 2005, p. 193). This idea of synthesis is the foundation of the story circles (Campbell, 1949; Harmon, 2003). Chamberlain (2016) notes the same idea, claiming that the protagonist moves away from their original flaw towards their strength during Act Three. It is a moment of death and rebirth for a character (Vogler, 2007, p. 157). Thus, the function of the crisis beat is to ensure this change within a character.

Figure 1: Chamberlain's (2016) interpretation of "The Matrix" structure (p. 177).

To create a death and rebirth situation, a character must first die. They may not die literally, but it must feel as though they did since their previous flawed self dies while a new and stronger version of them is born. To die, metaphorically or not, a hero must reach rock bottom which is their personal lowest point in the whole story (Brody, 2018, pp. 59-60). Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014) is the story of jazz drummer Andrew Neiman working himself to the bone under the abusive leadership of conductor Terence Fletcher. At the start of the crisis, Neiman is in a car accident (Chazelle, 2014). He crawls out of the car, bruised and bloody, before limping to the theater to attend a jazz competition (Chazelle, 2014). Neiman loses everything when he delivers a horrendous performance, unable to follow the tempo and hold his drumsticks (Chazelle, 2014). Fletcher then kicks him out of the stage and Neiman assaults him in retaliation (Chazelle, 2014). Expelled from Shaffer Conservatory, Neiman gives up all his dream of being a jazz drummer (Chazelle, 2014). He tears off posters of his idols, throws out music disks, and trashes his drum set (Chazelle, 2014). Everything is lost for Neiman. That is the first half of the crisis: the All is Lost moment. Snyder (2005) notes that movies often showcase the “whiff of death” where a mentor dies or the hero contemplates death (p. 86). In the case of Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014), Fletcher, the mentor, dies metaphorically as Neiman assaults him after getting kicked from the band. Neiman loses his dream and his mentor simultaneously (Chazelle, 2014). From this pit of despair, the hero must rise to be reborn. Dark Night of the Soul is the beat where the hero digs deep down before finding a solution (Snyder, 2005, pp. 88-89). It is the character’s reaction to the situation found in the All is Lost beat and how they feel about it. Neiman is despondent at first; he accepts to testify anonymously against Fletcher in a lawsuit condemning his abusive teaching methods (Chazelle, 2014). Neiman meets Fletcher who was fired from the Shaffer Conservatory following the lawsuit (Chazelle, 2014). Fletcher invites Neiman to perform at a jazz festival with his band and Neiman accepts and takes up drumming again (Chazelle, 2014).

Figure 2 : Neiman is kicked out of the band. Still from "Whiplash" (Chazelle, 2014).

The Dark Night of the Soul beat greatly varies in length from film to film. In The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999), most of Neo’s crew is killed and Morpheus is held captive by the antagonists. The only way to save everyone is to disconnect Morpheus from the Matrix, killing him (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). That is Snyder’s (2005) whiff of death moment. Morpheus is the mentor and he must now die. However, Neo rejects this outcome and decides to go into the Matrix himself and rescue Morpheus (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). That scene lasts just under 20 seconds, while Whiplash’s (Chazelle, 2014) is 13 minutes long.

Following the Dark Night of the Soul scene is the Break into Three moment (Snyder, 2005, p. 89). The hero finds a solution to the problem from the All is Lost situation (Snyder, 2005, p. 89). The issue with this beat is its inconsistent placement in Act Two or Three. Jessica Brody (2018), author of a sequel of Save the Cat!, places Break into Three in the Third Act (p. 65). If this beat is defined by the moment a solution is found, then it is included in the Dark Night of the Soul scene. In both The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999) and Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014) Break into Three happens during the same scene as Dark Night of the Soul. In The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999), Neo decides to go save Morpheus in the last two minutes of Dark Night of the Soul. In Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014), Neiman accepts Fletcher’s invitation to play for his new band. Finding a solution is merely an extension of Dark Night of the Soul. For example, the hero finds a solution because they dug deep down into their soul. Break into Three may still qualify as its own story beat due to its function as a turning point. Indeed, it might be short and play in the same scene as Dark Night of the Soul, but Break into Three announces a new section to the story through character decisions. Furthermore, protagonists do not always find their own solutions. In Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014), Fletcher asks Neiman to play for him. Neiman did not come up with a solution to take up drumming again, it fell into his lap (Chazelle, 2014). However, he still went through a Dark Night of the Soul moment where he gave up everything he aspired to (Chazelle, 2014). That emotional journey was necessary for the climax of act three where Neiman openly defies Fletcher, playing whatever he wants, instead of following Fletcher’s command as conductor (Chazelle, 2014). Additionally, Fletcher’s invitation is not a solution to his main problem: losing all hope of becoming a star drummer, but rather a chance at picking up the sticks again (Chazelle, 2014). The solution is latent, only emerging at the climax when Neiman defies Fletcher and plays the best drum solo of his career (Chazelle, 2014). That is the solution: defying Fletcher and playing his heart out (Chazelle, 2014). This variation explains why authors tend to refer to All is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul, and Break into Three as “Crisis” (McKee, 1997, p. 76).

Figure 3: Neiman challenges Fletcher's authority. Still from "Whiplash" (Chazelle, 2000).

Regardless of how Break into Three is used in a story, All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul are the two most important elements of the crisis moment. The crisis beat must set the table for the third and final act (Field, 1984/2005, p. 28). Snyder (2005) coined the terms “All is Lost” and “Dark Night of the Soul”, adding accuracy to an otherwise vague beat. By dividing the crisis in two, Snyder (2005) revealed how to transition the action to the third act. In the first movement, the protagonist loses everything. In Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014), that is Neiman’s dream. In the second, the hero has an emotional reaction to this loss. Whether the protagonist finds a solution immediately after Dark Night of the Soul or not depends on the needs of the story. Beak into Three is not a stable beat across every screenplay, which is why authors like Chamberlain (2016), McKee (1997), and Trottier (2014) prefer the more general term “crisis”.

Bibliographical References

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1949).

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

Chazelle, D. (Director). (2014). Whiplash. Bold Films.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Harmon, D. (2003). Story Structure 101. Channel 101.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

Wachowski, L. & L. Wachowski. (Directors). (1999). The Matrix. Warner Bros.

Visual Sources

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Yoran Praet

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