Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Tests, Allies and Enemies

My body is currently angry at me because, in a fit of masochism, I decided last night to stay after my ballet class and take the jazz class as a make-up for the week I was gone (since I ended up not dragging myself out on Saturday). It was just what I needed to work the knots out, with all the stretching and isolation movements, but it also involved a lot of strenuous dancing. Coming right after ballet, it reminded me of the part of the movie Center Stage where the ballerina heroine gets fed up with the regimented ballet program and sneaks off to take a jazz class. This class was a lot like the jazz class in the movie, only without the hot guys (or any guys at all). We did have a guy in our ballet class, though. A guy who dances with the company took our class as a warmup, and it was kind of disconcerting because he looked a lot like LL Cool J (only with a slightly different body type, since this guy is a dancer). It was a little weird to look in the mirror and see LL Cool J dancing ballet, because that's not something that's easy to imagine. I did restrain myself from asking him what the heck they were doing to his show, and were they trying to make it suck. I have one more class to make up from when I was sick, so I may do jazz again next week. It's really different, and I'm awful at it right now, but it's a great workout, and I'm kind of tempted to register for it next semester.

Now for a writing post, after skipping a week. I'm continuing the discussion of the stages of the hero's journey, as distilled from Joseph Campbell's research by Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey. We've made it past the first turning point of the story as the hero has accepted the Call to Adventure and crossed the threshold into the special world of the story. The next phase is Tests, Allies and Enemies. In the classic three-act story structure, this is the start of the second act.

This is the phase where the hero explores and gets to know the special world and learns the differences between this world and his ordinary world. He learns the rules of the world and finds out who's on his side and who's against him. He may also run into some initial tests and trials that lead up to the major ordeals of the story. In the classic fairy tale structure, he may run into a series of tests (usually three) that put him into position to go through a more serious trial (where he then benefits from the friends he made or the magical devices he gained while passing the earlier tests). In a caper-type story, this is where the hero assembles the team of specialists that will help him reach his goal. In a quest-type story, this is where the questing party comes together. The "training montage" usually comes during this stage. If the hero learned he has special powers during the Call to Adventure, this is where he learns to use them. This is the part of the story where Dorothy encounters the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion on the way to the Emerald City. It's where Luke Skywalker meets up with Han Solo and Chewbacca and starts to learn how to use a lightsaber. It's where Harry Potter goes off to Hogwarts, becomes friends with Ron, meets Hermione, figures out that he doesn't like Draco, goes to classes and starts to learn about Voldemort.

If an encounter with the villain wasn't what sent the hero off on the quest, this may be when the hero learns precisely who the villain is and who the villain's minions are. He might start to encounter the villain or the villain's minions during this phase. Or he could learn exactly what the villain is doing to the world -- like seeing a planet destroyed by the Death Star. This may intensify his motivation. Discernment is a big part of this phase, as the hero has to be able to tell good from bad so he doesn't fall in with the wrong crowd that will move him away from his goal. The hero may make false moves and mistakes during this phase, but he learns from those mistakes before he gets to a real crisis. The crisis often includes elements from the various lessons and tests from this phase.

In his screenwriting book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this part of the story "Fun and Games" or "The Promise of the Premise" because this is where the writer can play with the situation of the story and explore the possibilities inherent in the situation. In a fish-out-of-water story, this is when the hero clashes with her environment. In a romantic comedy, this is when we see what happens when fate throws together a woman like that and a man like that. In a buddy cop story, this is where we see all the things that happen with the clash of styles. In a high-concept story, this is when we see some of the implications of the concept. In Speed, which is about a bus that will explode if it slows down, this is when we see how difficult it is to keep the bus at the right speed by running into all the potential obstacles you might imagine. In the first Harry Potter book, this is when we explore what it might be like to go to a magical school. In the James Bond movies, this is when we see Bond using his latest gadgets in various encounters with the villain's minions and having adventures that take advantage of that film's exotic setting. These things should all have some tie to the main plot, but this phase is your chance to let your characters see and do cool stuff.

One thing Vogler mentions about this section is that it often involves a "watering hole." In the traditional stories studied by Joseph Campbell, the heroes were often hunters who needed to head to a watering hole to find game. In other kinds of stories, it's generally the more metaphorical watering hole. It's amazing how often the hero ends up in some kind of bar, tavern, inn or restaurant in this part of the story. There's the alien cantina in Star Wars, the Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings, the welcoming feast in the Harry Potter books, Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, Marian's bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it goes on and on. In fact, when skimming over my DVD shelves and bookcases, I had a hard time finding examples of stories where the hero didn't end up in some kind of metaphorical watering hole during this part of the story. I suppose in part that's because people do need to eat and drink, and bars, taverns and restaurants are places where you might get a cross-section of society, where the hero can get information, clash with some people and encounter potential allies. There's something about sharing food and drink that brings people together.

Then after this, things start to get serious.

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