The “All Is Lost” Moment
I’ve never posted an interview in this Writing Wednesdays slot (see “The Creative Process” series below on this page), but the following confab with story expert Jen Grisanti seemed to fit so perfectly that I thought I’d feature it up here “above the fold.” Today is Part One of a two-part interview.
Jen Grisanti is a Hollywood story consultant and the author of the upcoming Story Line—a book that is sure to become an instant classic and rock the worlds of a boatload of screenwriters, novelists and other storytellers. Jen made her bones in the ‘90s, working for Aaron Spelling and as a VP at CBS/Paramount. She has since gone on to create her own very successful independent consultancy, working one-on-one with screenwriters and novelists, teaching, speaking and in general opening the eyes of us struggling storysmiths to the gold in our own lives and in the tales we tell.
In this interview, I seek wisdom from Jen on the “All Is Lost” moment—a beat that seems to appear again and again in our stories and in our real lives.
SP: Jen, what exactly is the “all is lost” moment? Where does it come in the story, and why is it so important?
JG: In film, the “all is lost” moment happens between pages 75 and 90 of the screenplay. The “all is lost” moment is when our central character is as far away as possible from achieving his or her goal.
The “all is lost” moment in television comes at the second-to-last act break of the episode.
SP: What is the “all is lost” moment’s function in the story?
JG: The function of this moment is to create, heighten and escalate the stakes and create a moment of what appears to be a point of no return.
SP: What is the “all is lost” moment’s function for the character?
JG: The function of the “all is lost” moment for the character is to trigger him or her into action to achieve his or her goal. Sometimes we need to hit rock bottom before we see the light.
SP: Does only the protagonist get to have an “all is lost” moment? Can secondary characters have one too?
JG: You can have “all is lost” moments in other storylines as well. When there is an “all is lost” moment in the B story, it often serves to elevate thematically the “all is lost” moment in the A story.
SP: Some writers might be reading this and thinking, “Man, this is so formulaic! I hate to think that something so varied and endlessly inventive as story can be reduced to predictable, formula-driven beats?” How would you answer that, Jen?
JG: I am all for spontaneity in writing. However, I do feel that the writer can be spontaneous and a free thinker within a broad structure. Story is about when your central character’s world gets turned upside down. The journey is to bring life back into balance. Just like in life, when we hit rock bottom is the time when we see what we’re really made of. It’s the same in story. We need to have our character or characters hit a breaking point before launching into the final action and going after their goal.
SP: One of the things I loved about your book Story Line is that you emphasize the connection between moments in stories and moments in our real lives. What about the “all is lost” moment? Can we use our real-life crises to enrich our stories and, turning it around, what can story principles teach us about how to handle “all is lost” moments in our real lives?
JG: If we look at our lives, we will see that we all hit “all is lost” moments over and over. If we think back to the major goals and accomplishments in our lives, we can often find a breaking point that happened right before the achievement. Since we all know and connect with this life experience, when we see it fictionalized in story, we root for it. We root for it because we understand it. We’ve been there and we know what it is to fall before we succeed. It makes succeeding that much more rewarding.
We can use real-life crises to enrich the stories we tell as writers. Think about the moments we’ve all experienced when it looked like there was no way possible for us to succeed at what we had set out to do. As writers, we need to plumb the emotions of these moments. If we have suffered a broken heart, we may fear that we will never find love again. Yet it is often because our heart was broken that we do find love again. Our broken heart leads us to take inventory and to heal. We become more whole. This in turn can lead us in a healthier direction when it comes to love.
I believe that when we watch a story and see characters hit their “all is lost” moment and then rise above it to achieve their goal, we become empowered in our own lives. It makes us feel less isolated because we see that there are others out there who know how we feel. It also makes us feel that anything is possible. Story resonates into life and vice versa.
SP: I was watching the movie Frost/Nixon the other night (which I loved, and which I Netflixed based on your recommendation in Story Line) and it had a great “all is lost” moment. Can you break that moment down for us? What did it do for the story and why was it so important?
JG: The “all is lost” moment is often a series of moments that leads up to the breaking point. In Frost/Nixon, I would interpret it in the following way:
[Note from SP: The story thus far is that David Frost is doing an extended interview with ex-President Nixon, who has retired to his home in southern California in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. The interview is proceeding in three parts, over a series of days. The first two segments are over and Frost hasn’t made a dent in Nixon; he hasn’t come close to getting the ex-Prez to reveal anything or confess anything. Now is the eve of the third interview, when Watergate will at last be discussed.]
JG: The second interview session is over. David Frost goes back to his hotel.
Nixon has continued to keep control of the interviews, rambling genially and revealing nothing. The second day of the interviews is another disaster for David Frost.
David is in his darkest moment when he invites his friends to his birthday party (another downer).
David finds out that he’s lost his job in Australia.
It’s night; David is alone in his hotel room. He slumps in despair.
The phone rings. It’s Nixon calling David, a totally unexpected and out-of-character turn of events. (PIVOTAL MOMENT) Nixon has had a few drinks. He tells David he knows this is the last day of the interview, in which they’ll be covering Watergate, and that this final session will determine which of the two antagonists–Frost or Nixon–has “won.” Session Three will be an interesting and critical moment for both of the men because, as Nixon now observes over the phone, he and David are in identical situations. Both have had huge success and then lost it–Nixon as president, Frost as a TV personality. This evens the playing field. Both men, Nixon says, are desperately seeking a way back into the winner’s circle, knowing that only one of them can get there. Nixon says, “I shall by your fiercest adversary. There’s only room for one to be in the limelight.”
This scene lights a fire under David. It triggers him into achieving his goal.
David realizes he has taken this battle far too lightly. He galvanizes himself to work without sleep, researching Watergate. He sends his associate Jim to do the deep research that Jim has been begging him for permission to do, following up on a hunch that Jim had, which, in the third and final session with the ex-President, will catch Nixon off-guard and make him reveal himself on-camera.
[We’ll finish our interview with Jen Grisanti next week. More from her on the “all is lost” moment in the movie Up In The Air and in a specific episode of the TV drama The Good Wife.]