The Darkest Hour: Non-Fiction Writer’s Series to The Hero’s Journey

It’s a truism we’ve all heard before: the only constant is change. In the adventure of life, who among us has faced not only change but the push towards total transformation driven by the darkest hour of our life? Desired or not! It’s something to which we all can relate.

Your heart pounds. Your palms sweat. You try to see what lies in wait for you around the next bend in the road, but all you can see is the pavement. You’re face to face with the hard reality that whatever happens next, the past is gone, and everything is about to shift.

Whether it’s a family crisis, a car accident, a health scare, or a lost job, we all can relate to that pivotal moment when we no longer look at life in quite the same way. That moment, that attitude adjustment, is often the catalyst to galvanize our strongest opinions. It will strengthen our resolve, and shape a new philosophy in life.

If you’re a non-fiction author using a storytelling framework to illustrate your material, your hero must also face this same moment of truth. This transformation is at the heart of what a hero must confront when telling the story of his journey. It’s the catalyst that compels him farther along his travels and helps him through the coming Road of Trials.

That hour of darkness leads the story’s central character into a sphere re-birth. Like Jonah being swallowed by the whale, the hero is swallowed by circumstances and thrust into the unknown. He emerges with renewed faith and vigor – a whole new perspective.

Whether the action is literal and the hero appears to have died, or it’s figurative, and the hero faces an hour of darkness, his spirit is literally reborn once he exits the situation. Transformed by the experience.

This transformation – this new attitude – is what strengthens him and compels him further on his journey. The higher the stakes, the bigger the transformation. The more memorable the transformation, the more popular your writing becomes!

Escaping the Eternal Sleep

As we’ve talked about the Hero’s Journey in this series, we’ve also been looking at how it evolves in the popular classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” written by L. Frank Baum. Dorothy’s quest to get back home to Kansas from the Land of Oz is a great example of how the Hero’s Journey may be played out in a simple but colorful story that everyone loves.

Dorothy and her companions – her dog Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion – all travel together along the yellow brick road. Soon the terrain becomes rugged through the deep forest, they have trouble getting through, especially when they must cross a deep ditch with steep sides. It’s only through their cooperation that they manage to cross.

It isn’t long before they encounter another ditch that severs the yellow brick road, and this time they’re nearly overtaken by strange beasts that threaten to attack them. Once again, the companions only manage to escape by working together.

As the party move along and make their way out of the dense forest, they come to a river that is too deep and swift for them to wade across. The Tin Man uses his axe to build a raft for them. As they cross the river, the Scarecrow’s pole becomes stuck in the mud, and he is pulled off the raft while the rest of the party are swept away in the current.

Each of these incidents is progressively more and more perilous, and they build tension as the story develops. This time, the Scarecrow is rescued when the rest of the party asks for help from a passing crane. The bird hoists the straw man into the air and carries him to shore.

This build is essential in the story. It creates tension and raises the stakes, making the hero’s triumph that much more meaningful in the end. It pulls the reader in and makes them more emotionally involved in the characters.

It also serves as a bridge between the introduction of these characters and their darkest hour, which lies just ahead. Without the build in tension, an abrupt introduction of danger would be jarring.

What happens next in Dorothy’s story is truly a metaphor for death and rebirth. As the companions travel, trying to get back to the yellow brick road, their steps lead them irrevocably through a field of bright red poppies. The flowers are said to cause a sleep so deep that it is impossible for anyone to awaken and leave the field.

As fate would have it, Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion all succumb to the power of the poppies, and they fall asleep. Scarecrow and the Tin Man are immune to the flowers’ potent potion, and together they carry Dorothy and Toto to safety. Once there, they enlist the aid of an army of field mice to haul the Lion out on a litter. All three of them awaken from their deep slumber only after quite some time in the open air.

Though this is a story for all ages, the hero – Dorothy – faces death and nearly doesn’t pull through. Falling victim to the poppies creates a clear line of demarcation, where the past is left behind, and there’s no going back. The companions must go forward. Dorothy’s resolve is strengthened as they journey ever closer to the Emerald City and the hope of fulfilling their unique missions.

5 Steps to Defining the Darkest Hour

In defining your hero’s darkest hour, you can follow these five steps to build tension and affect transformation.

  1. Be clear on your hero’s goal, and define what weakness is most likely to stop progress.
  2. Foreshadow the clues that will make the darkest hour believable.
  3. Pepper your story with challenges for the hero that build in intensity, leading up to the darkest hour.
  4. Place your hero in the situation that is impossible to retreat from, making the only exit the way through the struggle.
  5. Free your hero from the situation, and reveal how the situation has transformed him or her.

In the chronicle of our successes, each of us faces our own trials which transform our lives. Drawing from your own experience, you can lend a measure of inspiration to your writing which leads your readers to their own growth.

Bryan Heathman is the President of Made for Success Publishing and the host of the Book Publishing Success podcast show. Bryan works with best-selling business authors, including NYT best-selling authors Chris Widener and Tom Hopkins, plus up-and-coming authors including Johnny Covey. Bryan is the author of Conversion Marketing, a marketing book on converting website visitors into buyers. Bryan’s Fortune 500 experience includes Microsoft, Eastman Kodak and Xerox.