A non-writer friend once told me that I seem to enjoy making my characters suffer. I disagree. Sure, portraying pain can be an exciting challenge, but I don’t relish putting my characters through trials. If their hearts are breaking, so is mine. Despite this, I realize that characters, like people, grow through adversity, and oftentimes they experience the greatest change when their circumstances can’t get any worse.
In storytelling terminology, this hopeless moment is known as the low point, and it happens shortly before the climax. The protagonist considers giving up. He’s already failed over and over again. Maybe he’s lost a loved one or his job. And the antagonist’s victory seems inevitable.
Some writers are wary of including grim situations in their stories because they don’t want to glorify sin or its effects. Others glut their stories with nightmarish scenarios because life in a fallen world can’t be anything less than miserable. Neither of these views are healthy.
We shouldn’t allow gloom to overflow our stories, but we also need to remember that we understand light by contrasting it with darkness. This is as true in reality as it is in fiction. If a conflict carries no consequences, it’s a sham. We can’t present a solution without first introducing a problem.
A well-structured story will contain a few scenes where tragedy both advances the plot and nudges readers toward truth. Instead of avoiding these valleys, we need to learn how to accentuate the light and healing of Christ amid the darkness and anguish. But before we can improve our execution of the low point, we must examine how it connects to the rest of the story.
How Does the Low Point Affect a Story?
The low point can have a wide impact, but it serves two primary purposes: raising the stakes and leading into the climax.
During the low point, the protagonist’s troubles should multiply so that the climax can test the values or skills he’s acquired. In a romance, the relationship is in jeopardy. The guy and girl might argue or break up. In a war story, the hero’s life and his country’s freedom are threatened. Perhaps the enemy launches an unexpected attack or captures the city that’s home to the hero’s family.
Once the risks have been established, the protagonist rushes forward with disaster on his heels. He recognizes the danger, his past mistakes, and why he must keep fighting, which motivates him to act.
To see how the transition between the low point and the climax can play out, look at Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Meg and Charles Murry, along with their friend Calvin O’Keefe, travel through space and time to rescue Mr. Murry, who is held captive by a mysterious being called IT. In the low point, IT hypnotizes Charles, stripping away his free will and the ability to love. If left undefeated, IT will seize control of the whole universe. After Meg is exposed to IT’s intentions and power, she’s determined to stop the evil.
Another example can be found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” A woman in the late 1800s is diagnosed with a “temporary nervous depression” that only rest can cure. Her husband, who is a doctor, insists that she remove all stimulation, including her friends, her newborn, and her writing. While in solitude, she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in her room and hallucinates that a woman is trapped inside of it. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time, the low point focuses on the protagonist’s deteriorating mental health rather than an event. As she descends into insanity, she comes to identify with the imprisoned woman and tears down the wallpaper in an attempt to liberate them both.
How Can the Low Point Be More Effective?
The low point must fit the story or it will lack significance. Each major component needs to be shaken up. Otherwise the characters might cry, but readers won’t.
The low point should directly and noticeably influence the protagonist’s arc. Coping mechanisms will vary, but certain reactions are common, such as the temptation to quit. She may wrestle with doubts and mistrust that manifest as angry outbursts or withdrawal from others. Worst-case scenarios may flood her mind and send her into a state of paralysis. Regardless of how she responds to the low point, though, it should drag her into an emotional sinkhole.
If the low point impoverishes a side character who appears in only one scene, readers won’t care. If the low point is the death of the protagonist’s second cousin who has no role in the story, readers won’t care either. A low point won’t be compelling unless it’s tailored to the protagonist and other prominent characters.
In A Wrinkle in Time, the low point upsets all three of the main characters: Charles can’t escape IT’s control, so Meg and Calvin must help him. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the low point is a result of the protagonist’s mental breakdown, and her behavior eventually disturbs her husband as well, causing him to faint.
As I touched on earlier in this article, the low point should compound the struggles the protagonist is facing. Neither the passing of a distant relative nor the plight of a forgettable side character will have any relevance. However, both those incidents can be pivotal if you lay the groundwork for them.
Perhaps the protagonist is a young assistant detective, and his cousin is also his roommate. Now the cousin’s death will disrupt the protagonist’s everyday life. The crisis can be rooted even deeper in the plot if the cousin is murdered by the serial killer the assistant detective has been pursuing. The protagonist will blame himself for not catching the killer sooner, which will make the low point much more devastating for him and readers alike.
In A Wrinkle in Time, the low point is the outcome of the central conflict. When Charles tries to reach his father, IT hypnotizes him, and the shift in his personality pushes Meg toward a higher goal. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the conflict is subtler. The protagonist believes that fresh air and social interaction would benefit her health, but her husband advises her to remain inside a room with creepy wallpaper that becomes her undoing.
Tying the protagonist and the conflict to the low point increases its intensity, but theme is what will strike the hardest. As Gabrielle explains in her article on the relation between character development and the low point, “If readers don’t notice the protagonist’s pattern of growth, they won’t understand the theme—which means the story won’t outshine thousands of unremarkable novels.”
During the low point, the heart of your theme should be absent, disregarded, or damaged. If your theme is that power leads to corruption, the low point should show the government’s degeneration and force the protagonist to confront it. If your theme is courage, the low point should leave the protagonist feeling helpless against her fears. And if your theme is that everyone needs love, the low point should demonstrate the chaos that ensues when people treat each other with hate. When readers and characters glimpse what life would be like without morality, courage, or love, they’ll realize why those virtues must be defended.
A Wrinkle in Time revolves around the dilemma of logic versus love. At the low point, Charles loses the capacity to love, proving to Meg and the audience that a world devoid of human warmth and affection would be dismal.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be interpreted as having multiple themes: the friction between creativity and rationality, the oppression of women in the nineteenth century, and the inefficacy of the rest cure. But freedom—of self-expression, women in society, and medical care—is at the core of each one. During the low point, the protagonist is locked inside a room against her will and forbidden from participating in any activities, supposedly for her own good. Instead, the lack of freedom destroys her mental health.
How Can the Low Point Enhance the Light of Christ?
A low point that’s integral to the story will ensure that readers are engaged. But our mission as Christian writers is broader than simply mastering a particular plot point. Whether our approach is subtle or explicit, we’re called to guide readers toward God.
As the Christian Storytellers Manifesto implies, we appreciate Christ’s righteousness and victory because we’re surrounded by depravity and defeat. Darkness and light are intertwined, and light is, by nature, stronger. If we minimize the darkness of a low point, we also weaken the light. But if the darkness deepens, the light blazes brighter.
Without the low point of A Wrinkle in Time, the resolution would have only been Mr. Murry’s rescue. Although the reunion between the children and their father is touching, the overthrow of IT is more thrilling because readers have witnessed the harm that the disembodied brain can cause. The darkness of IT’s control contrasts with the light of Meg’s triumph, emphasizing the themes of hope and love.
To be clear, I’m not saying you should pour excessive or unnecessary darkness into your story. Rather than strengthening the light of Christ, that could detract from it. Instead, you should pay attention to the darkness that’s already built into your story and use it to underscore your theme.
The low point allows you to step back from all the details of your story and dwell on its larger messages. Are you adding suffering just to keep readers on edge, or are you shaping your characters into better people through it? By carefully evaluating the amount of darkness in moments such as the low point, you can create stories that are as powerful as they are entertaining.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.