Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Ordeal

I'll have to talk about Tangled and the crazy effect it had on my brain (and possibly my hair) tomorrow because today is writing post day and it's also a kind of busy day.

On the hero's journey, as outlined by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey, we're up to a stage called Ordeal. I have the first edition of the book, which calls this Supreme Ordeal, but I understand it was changed in later editions because it was confusing. This isn't the big showdown in which the hero accomplishes his goal and defeats the villain. That comes later in the story. This is the crisis the hero faces near the middle of the story that raises the stakes for what comes later. In the classic myths Joseph Campbell wrote about, which were mostly quest stories, this is the part where the hero obtains the quest object. At the time, this seems like he's accomplished his goal and triumphed, but he soon learns that getting the sword/chalice/grail/ring/elixir was the easy part. Now he has to get away from the temple/palace/underworld/realm of the gods with his prize and get it back home to where he can make use of it to save his people. In modern storytelling, especially film, this is the action sequence in the middle of the story between the major turning points.

In screenwriting terms, this is often called the "crisis," as compared to the "climax" that comes near the end of the story. I've also heard the metaphor calling this the "midterm" before the "final" that comes at the end, but I think it would be more accurate to call this the practice test. The hero may learn a thing or two more between here and the end, but the climax of the story essentially tests him on the same material as in the crisis. This part of the story shows where his strengths are while also revealing the weaknesses he'll have to overcome before he can ultimately prevail, so it's like taking the practice test at the back of the SAT registration booklet so you'll know what you need to work on before you take the actual test.

I've heard writing teachers say that if your story is going to end on an up note (as in most commercial fiction) -- the hero actually obtains his goal -- then this part of the story needs to end on a down note. I'm not sure I'd take this as a hard-and-fast rule, but the hero can't exactly be totally triumphant here or the story would be over. If he has some triumph here, it has to be of the "yes, but" sort, where he escapes the peril, but at some cost or sacrifice, or at least there's the knowledge that the job isn't done. In a tragic story, the hero may be triumphant and seem to achieve his goal, only to soon have it all crumble around him (you see that a lot in stories about bands -- this is where they've risen to fame and have their big concert, and then after this the band starts to dissolve in petty spats and personality conflicts).

This is also where the hero starts to transform. He may be wiser, have more information and more skills than he had at the beginning, but until now, he's still essentially the same person. Going through the ordeal starts to change him as he's forced to dig deep inside himself to find resources he never realized he had or he's faced with a concrete demonstration of his priorities and the consequences of his choices. There may be an encounter with death at this point -- either the hero faces death, seems to die or watches someone else die. Mentors drop like flies at this stage of the story. They've guided the hero along the way, got them this far, and then die, often in some kind of sacrifice to allow the hero to escape. It's like the training wheels have come off and the hero has to go on alone.

This segment may be a series of events instead of one big event. The original Star Wars is a good example of this. The whole sequence on the Death Star is the Ordeal of that movie -- Luke helps rescue the princess, they escape through the garbage chute, Luke appears to die when the creature pulls him under, then they face death when the walls converge. After escaping that, they're on the run from the Stormtroopers, they face the chasm that requires the daring swing, Luke watches Obi Wan die, then they escape on the Millennium Falcon and have a brief space battle. They escape, but they still have to find a way to stop the Death Star, and they know they've been tracked. Likewise, there's the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequence, with the escape through the snake-filled catacombs (the hero often faces his worst fear during this phase), the fight in front of the airplane, the car chase as they try to catch up to the Ark, and the fight to take control of the truck carrying the Ark.

In a less action-oriented story, this may be an emotional crisis. If a couple in a romance has been together up to this point, they may be separated. If they're still in the bickering phase, they may come together during this part. In romantic comedies, this is often where the love scene falls and where things start to look good for the couple -- only to have things go horribly wrong later when secrets are revealed. There's usually something that's happened to force our opposites attract pair to work together instead of fighting, and that creates a bond. Or this may be when the couple that was together gets split up because of something that happens in the ordeal -- one of them finds the truth the other was hiding, one appears to betray the other (for what usually turns out to be a good reason), or the villain grabs one of them.

This section is kind of the heart of the story and is often what people will remember most. It's not one of the two major turning points in a three-act structure, but it pays off all the set-up that's come before and showcases the hero at his best and at his worst while setting up the final confrontation and climax.

1 comment:

Chicory said...

I don't have anything real to say. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy these posts.