Defining the "Belly of the Whale" in Screenwriting

historic carving of Jonah in the belly of the whale

What does the belly of the whale refer to in screenwriting? 

In screenwriting, there is a moment that occurs in a screenplay that is commonly referred to as the "belly of the whale." It's a term that is generally attributed to mythologist Joseph Campbell, who believed that this moment is one of the most critical points in the hero's journey. The belly of the whale refers to the moment when a protagonist finds themselves at their lowest point in the story. At this moment in the narrative, the protagonist should have no hope of success. It’s referred to as the belly of the whale because Joseph Campbell believed this to be a common trope seen throughout various cultures, most notably in the Biblical story of Jonah.  

Put simply, the belly of the whale will always refer to the sequence in your story where your hero faces their darkest hour. During this stage of the script, the protagonist must overcome their greatest insecurities or self-doubt and continue forward. There must be a conscious decision made to persevere in the face of what seem to be insurmountable odds. Usually, at this point in the story, the protagonists find themselves cut off from their allies or friends which adds to their sense of failure and isolation. In a film's standard three-act structure, the belly of the whale is usually associated with the 2nd-Act turning point. (For more information on this structure check out our Three-Act Structure Template and Guide.)

Why is the Belly of the Whale Important?

The belly of the whale is a necessary moment because it forces the hero to confront their innermost demons. It also marks a turning point in the hero's journey. From this point forward, the character is forever changed in some way or another. It’s this symbolic rebirth that allows the hero to forge ahead ready to complete their quest. Generally, the belly of the whale is a powerful moment in the story because it can create deep emotional bonds between the audience and the hero. The audience wants to watch the hero find the strength in themselves to emerge victorious because in that moment we see ourselves in the protagonist. 

Related: Understanding The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell

Example #1

One very clear belly of the whale example occurs in The Dark Knight Rises. In the film, Batman (Christian Bale) finally confronts Bane (Tom Hardy) in the sewers of Gotham City. The fight ends with Bane breaking Batman’s back and shipping him off to a remote prison on the other side of the world. At this moment all hope is lost. Bane has won Gotham City and is free to carry out his plans while Batman is forced to watch. Batman now faces a choice. He can either live out his days in this primitive prison or learn from his mistakes and risk his life to stop Bane one and for all. Now this is important. In order for the story to move forward, our hero (Batman) must push forward. 

Example #2

Another example of a belly of the whale scene can be found in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this story, the moment happens after Indy and Sallah discover the ark hidden in the Well of Souls. Instead of making off with the Ark, the Nazis show up to steal the ark and leave Indy and Marion behind to die in the sealed off Well of Souls. Again, we find the hero isolated with no hope of reaching their goal. To make matters worse for Indy, the room is full of the one thing he hates most...snakes. It’s only through facing this fear that he discovers a way out and they are able to continue forward on their quest. 

Example #3

A final example can be seen in the romantic comedy Serendipity. The belly of the whale occurs when the protagonist of the story, Jonathan (John Cusack), believes he has discovered the girl he’s been in search of for years is married after flying 2,000 miles on the night before his own wedding. In this moment Jonathan discovers two things, his search for the girl of his dreams is over and he cannot marry his fiancée who he loves but doesn’t love enough. This example just demonstrates that your story doesn’t have to be a big blockbuster action movie to have a memorable belly of the whale. 

In closing, the belly of the whale is an important moment because it represents a turning point in the hero's journey. It is when the audience sees the hero at their lowest point when all hope is lost. But more importantly, it’s the moment in which the hero is transformed and reborn with a renewed determination to complete their quest and reach their goal. By understanding the narrative and structural significance of the belly of the whale, you as a screenwriter will be able to create much more compelling and memorable stories.

More: Understanding the Unity of Opposites in Screenwriting

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