Alice sacrifices everything she cared for — her home, her reputation, the love of her family and friends — in order to save the world. In Alice 2: Back For More, the police clear her and her family forgives her.
Bob spends months of agonizing time and effort to kick booze. He manages to become sober...and then, five episodes later, he's off the wagon again.
Chris spends a whole season learning to trust his rival at the agency. Then it turns out the rival was The Mole all along, and every single thing Chris learned in this season was a chump's lesson.
Why did we have the first half of each story again? It was All For Nothing.
Sometimes, a Story Arc completely destroys the point of an earlier arc in the same story. It could contradict the early story's aesop, or it could reveal that the events we cared about never happened or weren't what they seemed. A hero's decisions don't seem so heroic if it turns out that they were perfectly manipulated every step of the way.
And if a character goes through a Face Heel Turn or Heel Face Turn, their earlier stories might seem irrelevant when we know they'll disavow it all.
When done badly, this trope can feel like outright cheating the audience — their whole story had no meaning. When done well, it's used to set a story on the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism — nothing lasts forever, and something that seems so important may be just a passing moment. Yes, the farm boy may have risen to become king and gotten the girl, but his life doesn't end there, and things can still go downhill. Another use for this is to deliberately shock the audience — a Face Heel Turn hurts so much when the character we cheered for six seasons turns on us.
In general, it's more forgivable when it's done as an event, rather than as a Retcon. If a hero's efforts are undone, that's not as frustrating as if it turns out that they never mattered in the first place. The audience is also more likely to forgive it if we're shown the change, rather than it being done with Second Hand Storytelling.
A storyline that is All For Nothing is not always a happy thing ruined by bad events. A tragic scene of people losing everything can feel very cheapened if things get better too easily.
Common forms include Shoot the Shaggy Dog and Yank the Dog's Chain. If done too often, leads to the Broken Aesop, Lost Aesop, and Yo Yo Plot Point.
Distinct from Status Quo Is God in that it doesn't always bring things back to where they started - it often leads to genuine change.
The story of the first three Jewish kings in the Bible (Saul, David, Solomon) make this trope Older Than Feudalism
Not to be confused with All Or Nothing.
A somewhat more comedic version of this. In School Rumble, class 2-C was divided between whether they should do a play or cafe for the School Festival. They then devoted the next mini-arc to a dramatic war game held in the school between the two groups using fake guns. The very next day, while being punished for the game, their teacher Kooriyama suggests they just do both.
Except that it was Shinji's efforts at connecting with others that led to Rei rejecting his father and instead turning the reins of Third Impact over to him. This results in a battered and destroyed world, true, but one that has a hope of recovery as all of humanity can choose to re-embody if they really want to. Who knows if they'd even have that much if Gendo's plan had gone through.
Happened in a depressing way for Shinji in the 3rd Rebuild of Evangelion film 3.0 that his efforts to save Rei at the end of 2.0 was not only fruitless, but also caused 3rd impact to happen and resulted in majority of the population to die. Shinji became the subject of hate for the next 14 years leading to the events of 3.0.
During the finale of "Puella Magi Madoka Magica" Homura begs Madoka to not make her wish because of all of the pain she went through to protect her. She even says "Everything I fought for... it will all be for nothing!" Madoka still makes her wish, and while this may have benefited everyone else the biggest side effect was that Madoka had to be retconned out of existent. Madoka seems fine with this though and assures Homura she'll always remember her sacrifice,so it's not all bad.
Subverted in Green Lantern with the origin of GL Sodam Yat. As a boy, he grew disgusted with his planet's murderous xenophobia, including when his fellows murdered an alien astronaut whose ship crashes on his planet. In response, he labored for years to repair the alien's ship and leave, but just as he was finished, a power ring arrived to induct him into the Green Lantern Corps. While that meant that now he didn't need the ship to leave the planet, the fact that he worked with that much determination to repair a ship he didn't know, nor how to pilot it or even where he could have gone after he launched, all for the sake of leaving a place and its evil is an incredible display of courage worthy of the Corps.
Explicitly averted, or for the moment very explicitly attempted, by Kieron Gillen on his run in Journey Into Mystery. Major Spoilers ahead. Well aware that there was no way Loki could be left good when he was the major villain of the third biggest film of all time, having his run end with Kid!Loki triumphing and changing "for good" would really just become "for the next week or so until the next writer comes along." In order to avoid his story losing any of its impact, he didn't just kill Kid!Loki, he erased him from existence utterly to be replaced by his older version.
In With Strings Attached, the entire quest is bullshit. The original motive for sending the four after the Vasyn pieces was simply Jeft giving them something to do; the curse that the Vasyn was supposed to remove didn't really exist; and while change was accidentally effected by the restoration of the Vasyn, there's no guarantee that it was actually good. However, the four were never told any of this (except the curse part), so they didn't complain.
Horror movie franchises are infamous for this, such as killing off the Final Girl of the previous film (Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome) in the first two minutes of the sequel. All the struggle they had to defeat Jason or Freddy, and now they just die?
Alien³ film kills off two characters who Ripley spent the whole second film protecting... in the first few minutes... off camera.
Star Wars:Revenge of the Sith Anakin turned to the dark side because Palpatine promised that he knew a way to keep Padme from dying. But Palpatine confessed that he really didn't the power to do it. In the end he becomes Darth Vader, has killed most of the Jedi Order, help create The Empire, and ultimately caused the death of his wife. He had lost the love of his life, his friends, and everything else he risked his life for.
In Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, Liu Han is a classic Science Hero aside from being female. She goes from ignorant farm girl (or rather, woman) to one of the leaders of the anti-alien resistance, survives endless torture and abuse without becoming embittered, and captures the villain who had brutally held her prisoner. In the sequel Colonization series, she's become a callous Knight Templar, and she gets re-captured by the same villain, making her achievements seem hollow. This could be seen as an attempt to say that life goes on and the world doesn't follow mythic cycles.
There's a different sort of example in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Most of the drama for the first 3/4 (at least) of the book surrounds Harry's performance in the three Tasks of the Triwizard Tournament. The drama is removed from this on all-rereadings, when you know that Harry was aided, manipulated and guided through the first two by the villain, and the villain's entire plan hinged on Harry winning the Tournament.
A disappointing example occurs in the Sword of Truth series, in which the dramatic climax of the (relatively good) first book turns out to have been all for naught. Umpteen books later, in the final book of the series, we discover that Dark Rahl would have died no matter what box he opened. So much for The Power of Love.
Essentially the entire plot of The First Law turns out to have been this, in the sense that nothing truly changed and the protagonists were only tools. Certainly all of Logen's and Jezal's quest in the second book qualifies, as does, to an extent, Glokta's defense of...Ah, hell, like I said, the entire plot.
Stephen Donaldson does this in his Thomas Covenant books, to the point that Lord Mhoram advises: "If boots nothing to avoid his snares, for they are always set about with other snares". It's a very, very standard part of his fiction.
Kevin Landwaster, who destroyed the land in order to snare it
The Unhomed - who were wiped out in a genocide
Whatshername who tried to warn the lords about the ur-vile ambush, and who was enchanted to be unable to so that her very attempts to warn them would delay them long enough for the ambush to be sprung
The story of Sunder and Hollian and their son Anele - who outright loses the staff of law
Convenant's daughter Elene, who locates all the macguffins needed to get to the earthblood, then completely screws it up when she does
Drool Rockworm, who tried to win freedom for the cavewrights from Lord Foul, and who was just being led along by LF to recover the Illerth Stone.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe reveals that Emperor Palpatine came back to life after the events of the Original Trilogy. though it should be noted he's destroyed again by the end of the Dark Empire stories.
Both the book and the film version of The Neverending Story play with this: Atreyu has risked his life and lost people important to him on a quest to find out the cause of the Empress's illness and what had to be done to cure her, only to have her reveal that she'd known both of these things all along. Atreyu is understandably furious about this, until the Empress explains that his quest was important and did have a purpose, even if it wasn't the one stated up front.
L.D. has to deal with trauma from her mother's dying of cancer. She finally learns not to fear and distrust all things relating to health — and in Degrassi High, L.D. gets leukemia.
Much of Degrassi Junior High is Big Ego, Hidden Depths for Joey, who learns not to be such a lazy ass. In Degrassi High, all that talk about getting off his butt and working hard is rendered meaningless when it turns out he has dysgraphia. (It still fits his character arc, since he still has to cope with feelings of inadequacy, but it's a huge shift.)
As the resident Anti-Hero, Wheels is always getting shoved through the Heel Face Revolving Door. More than once, he turns heel off-screen, with no warning until we're suddenly told that he's been acting this way for weeks. Second Hand Storytelling makes the perfect tool for manipulatng the audience.
24's second season had Jack recover some of his ordinary life by the end. The third season reveals that he has completely screwed it up between seasons, becoming (among other things) a heroin addict.
In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, "The Omega Glory," Captain Ronald Tracey blatantly violates the Prime Directive and gets involved on a primitive planet's war, takes Kirk and his landing party prisoner, murders their Red Shirt in cold blood and throws Kirk in with savages to possibly die, all for the sake of getting a serum that supposedly can extend a humanoid's lifespan by centuries. Needless to say, he didn't take it very well when Dr. McCoy discovered that the natives simply evolved that way and thus there is no serum to isolate.
On LOST, Jacob has become the Island's protector reluctantly, almost against his wish. He wants it to be different for his replacement, so he sets up an elaborate system of candidates that last for at least a few dozens if not hundred years, affecting and ending the lives of hundreds different people. Near the end it appears to pay off, as Jack takes on the job consciously and willingly. However, he then performs a Heroic Sacrifice within the following day and passes the job to Hurley, who is extremely reluctant to take it from him and even went as far as saying "Just glad it's not me" when Jack himself volunteered for the job. Jacob's entire plan eventually resulted in nothing.
Another example: The Oceanic 6 spend 3 years lying about the time they spend on the Island and the fates of people that they left behind, believing themselves to be protecting their friends from Charles Widmore. This causes most of them some serious guilt issues. However, it is later revealed that Widmore performed an off-screen Heel Face Turn and, while still a big jerk, was actually on the same side as our heroes. Even then, he couldn't have possibly harmed any of the people left on the Island, as those were stuck in a completely different time period. Sorry, Hurley, the Lie was All For Nothing.
Could be argued that most of the characters' storylines became All For Nothing at various points through season 6, the writers just killing them off seemingly without a care for any kind of subplot they still had going on. Probably worst of all when Sun spends almost a season and a half returning to the island and finding Jin so they can return to their daughter before both simply drown.
John Locke's entire story arc also seemingly turned out to be All For Nothing, as he was simply a pawn in The Man In Black's game all along. However, Locke's life and death did had one major consequence: he had finally managed to convince Jack of the truth of his beliefs, thus allowing all the events of the last two seasons to happen.
The Mythbusters have made several very complicated myth setups, only for them to completely blow up in their faces.
A giant Lego ball that took hours of work of about a dozen people to make, after getting both all the lego's from Lego Land and the largest private collector, completely broke apart before it even made it halfway down the setup track.
This was actually a huge success as it proved that the video was a fake.
When they attempted to retest the JATO Rocket Car myth from their pilot episode, they went through a lot of trouble securely attaching the engine to the car as well as constructing the remote control system used to drive the car and making a ramp to drive the whole thing off of, all in order to give the contraption the best chance of getting crazy air and looking completely awesome in the process. So when it comes down to actually perform the test... the car explodes on the ramp in a giant fireball. The worst part of it was that they A) didn't get a useful result, and B) couldn't reset for another chance at one. This was perhaps the only time since the first season that they couldn't give a verdict of "busted", "plausible", or "confirmed". As this was the "Supersized Special", they ended up calling the myth "appropriately supersized"; after all, they'd still gotten a consolatory fireball.
In the episode "Adam's Ribs" of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye and Trapper go through great lengths to get an order of ribs delivered from Chicago to their outfit in Korea. The moment the ribs are served and the cast is about to have dinner, casualties are arriving and they're all off to the O.R.
Well, they have the ribs, they'll just need to be reheated. So this is more like delayed gratification.
Also they forgot the cole slaw
There was another episode where they were so desperate for real food that they spent months growing corn. And then the cook creamed all of it.
Merlin. Oh God, Merlin. At the inception of the series, a teenaged Merlin comes to Camelot and is made Arthur's manservant, being told repeatedly by a prophetic dragon that the two of them have a great destiny together: to unite Albion, to legalize magic, and to usher in the Golden Age. It never comes to pass. After five seasons, which amounts to ten in-show years, Arthur dies at Mordred's hands before any of this can occur. Unless you count the brief three years of Arthur and Guinevere's reign that happened entirely off-screen in the Time Skip between series 4 and 5 (in which Merlin is still a lowly servant and the druids and other magic-users still have to live in hiding), everything that Merlin ever worked, waited and hoped for comes to naught. Though given that the Distant Finale shows that Merlin is still around, and Arthur is traditionally the King in the Mountain...
In Henry V the titular king, unhindered by civil war, takes his "noblest English" into France and, despite overwhelming odds, defeats the French at Agincourt. Not only does he win the country (or a big chunk of it) he charmingly woos the French Princess Katherine to seal the deal and the last action has the two of them getting ready to be wed. Then the Chorus reminds the audience that, like in real life, Henry would be dead a few short years later, and his son's reign would see all those French territories lost and the country of England plunged into one of its famous and bloody civil wars.
Call of Duty: World at War multiplayer matches often end this way:
Sgt. Roebuck: A lot of good men died today - all for nothing!
In Betrayal At Krondor, the renegade moredhel Gorath goes to insane lengths to prevent his people from starting another suicidal war with the humans and by extension achieving peace between the two nations. These "insane lengths" include giving up leadership of the clan he's led for over two centuries and defecting to the humans, thus getting branded traitor and earning his people's hatred and his wife's contempt. In short, he gives up everything. By the end of the story, it is revealed that his efforts mostly only forwarded the villain's plan to get his hands on an Artifact of Doom. He lays down his life to prevent said artifact from destroying the world. Any success towards achieving peace or making his nation less war-crazed? Nada.
Though this was a Foregone Conclusion, since the game takes place in between two books that had already been published, with no major change to the political landscape between them.
At the beginning of Knights of the Old Republic, you are on a planet trying to get past the Sith fleet that has the entire planet blockaded. Along the way, you are given chances to help people or hurt people (generally, being good costs a lot of money, while being bad gets you money, and this is the only place in the game where credits don't grow on trees). At the end of the sequence, the Sith carpet-turbolaser the entire planet, killing effectively every person you helped or hurt or didn't help or hurt in the first quarter of the game, making your decisions moot.
In Star Wars: The Old Republic you find out that your efforts actually helped a small group survive the orbital bombardment and they form a new society. However, as you progress in the quest line, you discover recordings that recount how the new tribe was ultimately wiped out due to radiation poisoning and constant attacks by monsters created by a plague.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines becomes this in a meta example. Due to its place in the Old World of Darkness timeline, Gehenna is literally right around the corner when the game ends. Then again, White Wolf's official stance on their canon is that if we don't like an aspect of the lore, we're free to ignore it...
Halo. The Forerunners built nine "halo" rings, which were galactic WMDs, in order to use them as an absolute last resort against the Flood, who had conquered pretty much the entire galaxy and had survived and prevailed any advanced weaponry or strategies the Forerunners had tried to use to stop them. When the Forerunners fought their last stand, they activated the halo rings and wiped out the Flood through the galaxy, stopping them from taking over it...the problem was that when they did it, they not only wiped out the Flood but themselves and all intelligent species through the galaxy as well, making it lifeless. However, life returned when the Forerunners' constructs cloned back the species and returned them to their homeworlds but the Forerunners were extincted forever. 100,000 years later, the Flood returned and started to mess things up again so in the end, the Forerunners' sacrifice was all for nothing.
The Geth being largely peaceful makes the entire Quarian-Geth war completely pointless. Unusually, getting the Quarians to realize this trope is actually the best thing that can happen, as it means peace is an option.
A lot of angst for all characters comes from the knowledge that everything the Protheans did to win their war ultimately failed to prevent their extinction, and that there is every chance the same thing would happen in their cycle. One of the characters actually prepares knowledge for the next cycle in case they fail, and in one of the endings, it is the next cycle, not the present one, which ends up ending the threat of the Reapers.