Vito Corleone is dead. Frodo realizes Gollum took the ring. Elliot says goodbye to ET.
This is the moment in every story where all hope seems lost. The hero finds themselves in an impossible situation, reflecting on how they reached the lowest point. A pit of despair apparently impossible to climb out of.
Blake Snyder calls this beat "the dark night of the soul" because it's the moment the character is forced to reflect on how they feel about what happened in the story. They realize their circumstances have changed, they've changed, and they can no longer go back to life as it used to be.
This is a clarifying moment for many narratives, distilling the true meaning of a story from the plot. Good stories aren't about what happens to us, but about how we react to what happens to us. Watching a protagonist contemplate their new circumstances in their darkest hour gives us time to consider what we would do in their stead, and take away meaning from the story.
In practical storytelling, we don't often have the space to reflect, and assume the audience will fill in the gaps. But there are ways to condense this meaningful beat in a single moment.
Take the Volvo commercial "Moments". We witness a lifetime of emotions, dreams and possibilities, unfold from a young girl's fears about her first day of school. In parallel, a woman makes herself a cup of coffee, jumps in her car, and rushes to work. The two stories intersect at a heart-stopping climax.
Tragedy (or, in this case, the sheer proximity of it), leaves a deep imprint. The dark night of the soul beat unfolds in a simple look, where the woman faces the girl, and considers what might have happened.
And we walk away with a lesson.