There Will Be Nothing Left

"There will be nothing left."“There will be nothing left.”

(Spoken like a wolf about to strip the meat from the bones of a sheep.)

I’m always looking for a more visceral tease into the ideas I’ve laid down in “Story Structure to Die for,” and this one perfectly describes the tragic trajectory of every good protagonist. 

“There will be nothing left.” 

I tried it out this week.  I began my presentation with it and kept returning to it.  It’s from the Oscar-winning screenplay, Moonstruck.  

Loretta Castorini (Cher) is newly engaged to a momma’s boy.  Then she meets her fiancé’s estranged younger brother.  Ronnie (Nicholas Cage) is an animal, a “wolf” she calls him.  Ronnie is what Loretta needs.  But she is playing it safe in love.  She’s been hurt before.  Loretta is all about playing it safe.  But now, in Ronnie’s apartment, after a disagreement, he picks up his brother’s bride-to-be and drops her on the bed.  

Take everything!” she cries, “leave nothing for him to marry,” to which Ronnie replies, “There will be nothing left.”

End of Act I. 

This is the writer telling us where the story is going.  I love it when that happens!

This is the writer preparing us for the heart of the story.  This is the writer telling us about the fate of every good fictional protagonist—she will be left with nothing.  She will be stripped of everything she believes in.  Why?  Because belief systems are prisons.  Prisons we chose to live inside. 

Every good story ushers the protagonist to her moment of truth where she is set free.

Nothingness may be our most precious possession

I’m always making a pitch for failure, but it’s a hard, hard sell.  Damned if people aren’t always clamouring for success.  Sure, all conventionally good stories depict a protagonist on a journey to accomplish something.  Something that will grace her life with more truth, independence, or freedom.  

But it turns out that freedom isn’t a function of acquiring anything.  It’s about losing, escaping, surrendering.  All good protagonists, after much suffering, come to understand this. 

The worthy protagonist discovers that freedom is about shedding what is false about him/herself.  Which is everything.

“There will be nothing left.” 

At the moment of disillusionment, the hero realizes that his whole life has been a bad habit, “the heavy curtain of habit,” says Marcel Proust, “which conceals from us almost the whole universe.”

Or “the luminosity of what is always there,” according to American poet Jim Harrison.

Or “the inexhaustible world that exists beyond our selves,” as novelist John Gray puts it.

“This nothingness may be our most precious possession,” says Gray, “since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.” 

Falling into heart of the storyStory structure exists to deliver protagonists to this precious moment.  But they can’t see it coming, never do, never will.  Not even if the writer throws the hero on a bed and stands over her and growls:

“There will be nothing left.”

Readers pay to live vicariously through this nothingness.  It’s terrifying.  It is (arguably) the supreme human accomplishment. 

Dare I say it…?  It’s…it’s…

My ghostwriter

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  1. says

    Supoib! I have nothing to say. Well, maybe one little thing. Robert Thurman says the Tibetans have an interesting notion of nothing. It doesn’t exist. That’s precisely what makes it nothing. Truly nothing. The closer one gets to this actual nothing, the more it looks like the Buddhist Sunyata, “the void of inexhaustible contents.” When nothing is fully in place, there is only fullness. As Nisargadatta puts it, “Relative absence is Absolute presence.” I know this all sounds abstract as heck, but these darn words refuse to be nothing. They are only something :)

  2. says

    No, it is I, Sir, who, in the wake of your Nisargadattack, have nothing to say, no data to add at all, and yet look how I ramble on, as if I were desperate to hold back the wave of annihilation that patiently awaits my long-overdue silence. But before I zip it up, I see your Nisarg and raise you a Nietzshe: “You pay a high price for being immortal: you have to die several times during your life.”

  3. says

    Think we’re on to something with your Nietzsche quote. Couple hundred years before him, Blake used to sign his name “William Blake, born 28 Nov, 1757, died many times since.”

  4. says

    Sarah… yes, you’d enjoy Colin’s unique esoteric humour, of which you can get your fill at his website “”

  5. Yvette Carol says

    By god, it was an invigorating, inspiring movie too. Loved Moonstruck!
    Yes, PJ, good score with this amazing line. It’s like poetry in its tight economy of words that convey mountains. Any journey has to be taken to that degree – of reaching nothingness – for it to be worth it, whether it be through reading a book, or writing one, or living our own life.
    I watched my son’s reactions of anguish and heartbreak, after the ‘love of his life’ left him last week; I witnessed the harrowing torture he went through, and the bright, exquisite light shining in his eyes already, as he sees glimpses of nirvana through the veil of the shedding of skins. He told me, ‘the other day, reaching for a tomato in the supermarket, I felt a moment of pure joy…over a tomato! It was enough, to make me want more of it.’ As a writer, to be able to capture that journey in words is what I too seek to be able to convey convincingly, PJ. Go on, say it, it’s why we read fiction!

  6. Erica Pezim says

    Hi PJ,

    I was a student in Ramon Kubicek’s class at Langara, where you made your inspiring presentation. It was particularily exciting and surprising for me since I had coincidentally read “Roxy” this past summer, and very much enjoyed it.

    What a treat to have the author speak in my English class!

    I think you also touched on several concepts which struck a chord with me: “But it turns out that freedom isn’t a function of acquiring anything. It’s about losing, escaping, surrendering. All good protagonists, after much suffering, come to understand this.”

    As a young, aspiring writer, I think this is a key element to keep in mind. Sometimes, in trying to tie up a story with a neat little ribbon, we lose the real purpose of writing- which is that it’s not about the explanation, the outcome, but the journey along the way. For me, this is something I strive for in writing, and in life- and your presentation was a lovely reminder of that.

  7. says

    Erica… thanks for showing up on my blog, and for your gracious and insightful remarks. I’m grateful to have found such an intelligent audience! Keep writing, and don’t hesitate to chime into my blog again. Saludos! (I’m in Mexico at the moment.)

  8. Tanika says

    Hello PJ,

    I’m another one of the students from Langara. I found your presentation really insightful. I’ve always found myself fascinated with those moments of nothingness that it seems all people experience at least once, and I never really thought about that being the reason why we read fiction, but I think you’re on to something. The one thing that seems to tie all good fiction together is that moment of nothingness, the existential void.

  9. Chloe Parkin says

    Hello PJ!

    I am another student from Ramon Kubicek’s class at Langara. I, too, enjoyed your presentation in class and found it to be intriguing. Several of the concepts throughout your blog post made me think quite significantly such as: “Story structure exists to deliver protagonists to this precious moment. But they can’t see it coming, never do, never will.” While reading I have never really thought about what is making me completely intrigued and invested in the concept, but this makes complete sense. Especially when I am reading a novel through the eyes of the protagonist, I feel that I do not see the “precious moment” coming. I thank you for your knowledge that you shared with my class. Your presentation made me excited about pursuing writing.

  10. says

    Tanika… I’m glad my observations accord with yours. Keep watching movies and reading novels with an eye for that “Act II crisis”… it’s great sport. I call it “heart-spotting.” The hero must “die,” so to speak, in that moment of despair. Please check out my blog from time to time… since I seem to write about this mystery almost exclusively. Cheers.

  11. says

    Chloe… Fortunately, good novels (and films) seduce me so effectively into the story that I’m not paying attention to the structure, either. Often, at 3:00 a.m. I’ll wake up with a clearer analysis of the story. It’s almost inevitable that those good stories turn out to have delivered the protagonist to a point where she loses faith in all her agenda, which she sees as false. Disillusionment! It’s a precious moment. Do come back and visit my blog anytime. Saludos.

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