Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Reward

I finished my Christmas shopping yesterday, and I just have the choir party tonight (and I have to cook something for that), and then the "must do" stuff for the season will be out of the way. I also had my last ballet class of the year last night. Now maybe I can get back to getting some work done, or I can at least do some relaxing and thinking to be ready to really hit the work in the new year. I do still need to do things like wrap presents, but that's not a huge issue.

So, now for the last writing post of the year (I'm taking a break for the holidays).

We're getting close to the end of the stages of the hero's journey, as distilled from Joseph Campbell's work by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey. If you don't already have this book, I'd recommend putting it on your holiday wish list.

We've just completed the Ordeal, which is usually the big action or emotionally intense sequence around the middle of the story. The next step is the Reward, though I think that's kind of a misnomer. In modern storytelling, this stage is largely about pacing. It's a chance for the audience -- and the characters -- to catch their breath after getting through the Ordeal before they have to gear up for the final push. You need to ease back on the tension a bit so you can start building it again as you head to the climax of the story. But that doesn't mean that this isn't an interesting scene without action or tension. It's just a different kind of action or tension that offers a release from what we've just been through. This is the "whew, we made it!" scene where they celebrate getting through the Ordeal and deal with the consequences of the Ordeal. They may tend to their wounds, mourn their losses and rehash what just happened, either reveling in their successes or discussing and laying blame for what went wrong. Mostly, these are character-driven scenes that let us get to know the characters a little better while we also get a sense of how they've changed so far. We get to see how the characters are responding emotionally to what they've just experienced.

This stage may be a time of deeper bonding among the characters. The complete opposite buddy cops who'd been bickering and hating each other will have gained new respect for each other from going through the ordeal so that they can now work together as a team. This is also a common place for love scenes, where our bickering couple has been brought together by the ordeal, and the adrenaline high from having survived whatever it is they've gone through leads to them acting on their physical feelings. Even if they don't actually act on the feelings, this may be where they start to notice them. For instance, in the romantic comedy Leap Year (it's currently on HBO, so it's top of mind), I might consider their rush to catch a train, leading to the muddy slide down a mountain, then realizing they've missed the train and then having to convince the landlady at the only B&B for miles that they're married in order to get the only available room the ordeal. And then they have to spend the night together in the tiny room. They don't even touch, but it still feels like a love scene because they've gotten past their superficial dislike of each other to start really noticing each other. Other examples: the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Marian tries to find the spots on Indy that don't hurt so she can kiss them as she tends to his wounds. Or it's the scenes in The Terminator where Sarah and Kyle have escaped from the Terminator at the police station, and then he tells her about the future, then later he confesses that he came through time for her and they make love. Or in Aliens, it's the scene where Hicks teaches Ripley how to use the gun -- a quiet moment in a brief break from all the terror where the characters get to function on a human level.

In the classic myth structure, this is where the hero takes possession of the quest object. He's got the sword, grail, ring, amulet, elixir, or whatever he's after. His job isn't done because he still has to get it home or to the ultimate destination, but he's got step one taken care of. In some respects, this is another reason why love scenes are common here, because the hero is taking possession of the romantic object.

This also may be a time of initiation. The hero has proved himself worthy with what he's accomplished during the ordeal, so he may be knighted, get a battlefield promotion or may be inducted into whatever society he's been wanting to join. If the mentor survived the ordeal, this may be when the mentor shares one last bit of crucial information that he didn't think the hero was ready for before. The mentor has accepted that the hero has become worthy or become a man who deserves that last bit of knowledge. In the film version of Prince Caspian, after dual ordeals of the battle and then the temptation by the White Witch, Caspian then learns the truth of who his mentor the professor really is, what really happened to his father, and what the professor's plan was all along. It's common for the hero to learn new truths about himself at this point, like that he's the destined, chosen one or the long-lost heir.

Facing death during the ordeal may have changed the hero. That tends to give someone a new perspective. He may have new insight into what's going on, so that he may be able to see who's really on his side or who's betraying him or so that he realizes the truth of what's really happening. In supernatural stories, the hero may have gained new powers or learned new aspects of the powers he already has from using them during the ordeal. This is also a time when the hero may come to terms with who/what he is in a way that will give him more power (literally or figuratively) as he heads down the final stretch.

Although we in the audience know that it's not over, the hero may not yet be aware of this. He might think he's won for good, that this is the final celebration and not just a temporary respite. Then he'll be blindsided when the villain pops up again.

In really intense, fast-paced stories, the Reward stage may be shorter or may not be a full respite. They may be saying, "Yay, we made it!" while still on the run, but there does still need to be a little easing of the tension, and if something is happening even while the tension is lower, you don't risk the story losing steam.

I'll be taking a break from these posts during the holidays, so I'll return in the new year with the end of the story.

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