This is it. Things can't get any worse.
During the course of a Story Arc, your characters can go places, have adventures, fight bad guys, and right wrongs. They've loved and lost and learned...and then something happens. Something that they never expected. The bad guys win. The people turn against them. The mentor is dead. The team falls apart. The Hero Dies.
And they don't have time to mourn or plan or get over their losses, because more bad things are happening. This is the point in a narrative when there's no hope, when the characters are at the edge of the Despair Event Horizon. It is frequently invoked for the strongest testing of The Hero's character: What You Are in the Dark.
Older Than Dirt, going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. As an ancient and ubiquitous plot device, this scenario has received quite a bit of attention in literary circles; it's cognate to the "death" stage (preceding the "descent into the underworld", but not always clearly distinguished from it) in certain formulations of The Hero's Journey monomyth, and shows up elsewhere as well. At least one creative writing course views such bleak moments as essential to effective plotting.
This usually precedes a Day of Reckoning climax where only a few things can happen:
- The Big Damn Heroes moment, where either your characters will make a comeback or someone else arrives to help.
- There's a spot of hope that is then cruelly crushed, which leads to a Downer Ending or a Bittersweet Ending.
- The author is ultimately going for a happy ending, but is feeling cruel enough to add a Hope Spot anyway before the heroes emerge from the mire.
Compare Can't Refuse the Call Anymore, the first of the dark hours. May overlap with Near-Villain Victory. The Cornered Rattle Snake is someone who begins to fight back despite appearing to have no chance of survival. Hope Springs Eternal is the natural conclusion of such a moment... unless, of course, the story features a Downer Ending.
The Trope Namer is a proverb that claims that "The darkest hour is just before the dawn," but its exact origins are uncertain. Most likely, English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller was the first one to say something like it in his 1650 religious travelogue A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof, where it is quoted, "It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth."
It should go without saying, but "Here there be spoilers!"
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- The climax of Interstitial Actual Play episode 15. The Organization has captured and restrained our heroes, Larxene has seemingly rejoined them, and DiZ is readying his weapon that will return everyone to their own worlds forever.
- During 1934, professional wrestling was almost killed off in New York when Jack Pfefer, an ostracized promoter whom few liked, decided to get revenge on his rivals by exposing their business as fake and then promoting his own brand of "theater" style pro wrestling. Thus one of the few affordable forms of entertainment during the depression became a laughingstock in the state, with gates plummeting and news sources refusing to continue covering it. The New York territories would recover in 1942, largely thanks to the athletics of Antonino Rocca.
- Ring of Honor's darkest hour was May 22nd 2004, in the wake of the Rob Feinstein scandal, said co founder was fired, ROH lost its distribution company, it was unable to host Maryland Championship Wrestling's Shane Shamrock Memorial Cup also because of said scandal, several of their best talents including champions were barred from returning by TNA and their Generation Next event was held in a tent due to them being kicked out of an armory on account of the US Army needing it to fight a war against Iraq. During the event, the fan votes to determine who were the best of the new wrestlers ROH had managed to bring in were trashed by Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, Jack Evans and Alex Shelley, on the basis they were the best the company had to offer... the interest they generated may have ironically ended being one of the things that saved the company.
- TNA has faced near-death so many times since the end of the Hogan/Bischoff era that many believe the company will never die. That being said, late 2016 was undoubtedly its most dire period. TNA went through another major exodus of talent (prior exoduses had destroyed its previously stacked roster to the point that only two of the TNA Originals, Abyss and James Storm, were left in the company), had gotten kicked out of their original headquarters and forced to move into their merchandise warehouse, and then in October, information was released on the internet detailing its many legal woes, including multiple lawsuits from multiple parties, one of them being from its own President, Billy Corgan, and a tax lien from the state of Tennessee. Dixie Carter, TNA's owner, resisted Billy's attempts to buy the company, and her constant lying and screwing over Corgan (who was well-liked by the talent) eventually caused the entire roster to sour on her. The company was saved (yet again) by Anthem, who would buy out Corgan and TNA and leave Dixie with a 5% stake, before kicking her upstairs.
- For the Boston Red Sox, the 2004 ALCS can be considered this. The Yankees had just beaten them in three straight games, having beaten them at Fenway in a tramautic blowout 19-8. There they were, top of the 9th, Game 4 of the ALCS. The Yanks were three outs away from clinching the series and heading to the World Series yet again. For the Sox, things got better from there. They managed to score a run and tie the game, forcing extra innings, and then secured a 6-4 win with a walk-off home run in the 12th. Close wins in Games 5 (a 14-inning marathon that lasted nearly 6 hours) and 6 forced a Game 7, something no team had ever done before or since after facing an 0-3 deficit. From that point the postseason was almost anticlimactic, with the Sox winning Game 7 in a 10-3 blowout and winning the 2004 World Series in a 4-0 sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
- For the Chicago Cubs, Game 4 of the 2016 World Series can be considered this, as they were close to losing the Series to the Cleveland Indians. After losing one game to the Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, and winning the next game there the day after, the Cubs ended up losing two more games to the Indians at Wrigley Field (The Cubs' home field), with Game 4 having the Indians basically destroying the Cubs 7-2, resulting in Indians being one game away from defeating the Cubs and clinching the Series. Fortunately for the Cubs, things got better at Game 5 and they went on to beat the Indians at Cleveland to clinch the series.
- During Chelsea FC's 2011-12 Champions League campaign, they found themselves 2-0 down, down to ten men, and without a natural centre-back on the pitch away to Barcelona in the second leg of the semifinal. At that point, everyone thought that Barcelona would put paid to any chance of progression Chelsea might have had. However, just before half time, Chelsea reduced the score to 2-1 (a scoreline which actually gave them the lead on away goals), and they survived a barrage of Barcelona pressure in the second half (including a missed penalty and a disallowed goal) before misfiring striker Fernando Torres broke away in stoppage time to bring the score to 2-2 and eliminate Barcelona completely. And then Chelsea went on to win the final on penalties.
- The Dark Age Era in Battletech, the Exarch of the Republic of the Sphere Devlin Stone disappears, and the HPG network collapses from an unknown attacker, this riles every faction to turn on each other.
- Magic: The Gathering graces us with Darkest Hour.
- As far as the storyline is concerned, this point is reached when Yawgmoth personally manifests himself on Dominaria.
- New Phyrexia. If you haven't gleaned how that's a Darkest Hour from the title, the Phyrexians have invaded another plane. This time, they've won. From what's been spoiled so far, it seems as if they've been able to infect mana itself. The multiverse is screwed.
- The current page image takes place on the plane of Innistrad. The only thing keeping the humans of Innistrad from becoming lunch for the resident zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts and demons is faith in the archangel Avacyn. Avacyn has gone MIA and the wards and holy weapons are starting to fail, leaving them all but defenseless.
- Done again in the interim between Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon. Avacyn has now gone mad, driving the whole plane insane with her, and Sorin saw it fit to erase her to bring an end to the madness. All this accomplished, however, is that it's removed the last line of defense for Innistrad and allowed Emrakul to encroach on the plane, twisting everything around her. And Sorin is no longer around to defend the plane after Nahiri trapped him in the Helavault out of spite.
- Hour of Devastation serves as one for the entire Gatewatch arc. After spending the last few blocks solving crises, like defeating Ulamog and Kozilek on Zendikar, repelling Emrakul in Innistrad, and leading the rebellion to victory against the Consulate in Kaladesh, here in Amonkhet, the God-Pharaoh Nicol Bolas descends, and the Gatewatch are utterly powerless against him. All its members are defeated and forced to scatter; Jace is separated from the group as he gets trapped on Ixalan, while the first chapters of Dominaria involve the rest of the Gatewatch dealing with the fallout.
- This pops up a couple of times in Traveller:
- After the collapse of the First Imperium, the relatively short reign of the Second Imperium (the Rule of Man) only postponed the decline of civilisation. Advanced technology was lost and interstellar trade broke down, leaving thousands of worlds isolated at best and, at worst, unable to support life without technology. This lasted nearly 2,000 years before the Sylean Federation, one of the few groups to retain interstellar travel, became the Third Imperium and set about restoring civilisation.
- The New Era: After the Third Imperium was torn apart by Civil War over the course of the previous edition (MegaTraveller), The Virus (literally a sentient computer virus) was released, destroying life across known space. According to sourcebooks published after GDW went under, Virus was eventually defeated and a Fourth Imperium rising from the ashes.
- Warhammer 40,000: The Horus Hersey. Horus has besieged Terra, and the traitor legions have ravaged the entire planet, and the Emperor and only 3 of his Space Marine legions are all that stand against Horus and his 8 traitor legions.
- Long Night, War of the Beast, The Beheading, Reign of Blood, Three Tyranical Wars, Black Crusades, they all qualify. Imperium (and pre-Imperium) accumulated quite a lot of those over 15,000 years. Yes, humanity survived by the skin of their teeth, but it suffered crucial irrecoverable losses each time. The current period in lore is called Time of Ending and, let's say, the name works.
- The entire Yu-gi-oh franchise hits this with the release of Pe Pe. In the lore this represents the end of the world and Sophia's awakening. In the metagame this was an invincible Tier 0 deck only beatable by Monarchs and Kozmo. In the anime this was the darkest arc yet introducing a truly terrible Fantastic Caste System.
- Joseph being thrown into prison in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: "Poor, poor Joseph, whatcha gonna do?/ Things look bad for you!/ Hey, whatcha gonna do?"
- Wicked: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished! All helpful urges should be circumvented - no good deed goes unpunished! Sure, I meant well, well look at what well-meant did!" Dead little sister, Villain with Good Publicity as powerful as ever, Beloved teacher reduced to bleating, love interest in chains and torment, and best friend is accomplice to all this.
- Two in Man of La Mancha: One is for Aldonza, after being gang-raped by the muleteers. Then Don Quixote himself suffers this after the Knight of the Mirrors breaks his spirit.
- Spring Awakening: Melchior comes home to find his love interest and their unborn child have been killed by a failed abortion, making it all his fault, and he's reminded that best friend committed suicide, and it's also his fault, indirectly. And this is not helped in the original German play, when the ghosts of his friends actually appear to try to make him commit suicide and join them. Some friends.
- Les Misérables has a Darkest Hour for each of its main characters, it seems. For instance, Fantine's beg: "I never did no wrong / My daughter's close to dying / If there's a God above / He'd let me die instead." The first act concludes with the Dark Reprise medley "One Day More", which is the story's overall darkest hour.
- "Gentlemen, we are about to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper." While history teachers forevermore would trumpet the signing of the Declaration as the birth of the United States of America, at the time the Founding Fathers knew that that "skiff made of paper" would have been a far safer bet - they faced another decade of war with a third of the Colonies on their side in a ragtag militia facing the might of the British Imperial Navy and knew they faced years of hardship and a charge of treason should they fail. John Adams might have been able to "see the rays of ravishing light and glory... through the gloom," but he also knew what they faced. There was very little joy in Independence Hall that day.
- The Darkest Hour was yet to come: the Continental Army was soundly thrashed in the initial engagements at New York, and the broken remnants fled across New Jersey desperately attempting to escape the British. It was this that prompted Tom Paine to write "These are the times that try men's souls...."
- The third act of Vanities, where the characters' friendship is strained to the breaking point. Worse, this was the original non-musical play's finale.
- In The Magic Flute, when the Queen of the Night asks Tamino to rescue Pamina, she asks him to help in "a mother's darkest hour."
Remember, dear tropers; the darkest hour is always before the dawn.