Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Hero's Journey: The Resurrection

We're almost at the end if the Hero's Journey, with just a couple of stages to go. We've reached the climax of the story, what Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer's Journey, calls The Resurrection. I'm not overly fond of this title because I think it sells the stage short. Really, this is a two-part stage including both death and resurrection. I suppose that death is implied in resurrection because it's kind of hard to resurrect without dying first, but the death part is just as important as -- or maybe even more important than -- the resurrection part. Most of the stage is about the death part, and the resurrection part may be only a moment. Before the hero can have ultimate triumph, he has to come face-to-face with potential disaster. In this part of the story, the hero faces the absolute worst that happens to him in the story, and then in most stories goes on to achieve the absolute best in the story.

The symbolic part of this death and resurrection thing has to do with the transformation of the hero. He's been going through changes during the story, and here is where he proves that he really has changed and that he will be a new man now. His old self dies, and then he's reborn. This may be a part of him returning to his ordinary world or entering a new ordinary world. He had to change to deal with the world of the story, and now he pulls together the good parts of that change with the good parts of his ordinary world self to create a new self. The movie Serenity has a good transformation style resurrection scene. Mal, who has been cynical and bitter but who has through the course of the movie been more willing to stick his neck out for a cause. He has the final confrontation with the Operative, is nearly defeated, but when he gets the upper hand, he doesn't kill his enemy. He just carries out his mission to broadcast the information and makes sure his enemy sees the truth, then walks away to go back to his crew. The violent and cynical Mal from the beginning of the movie would have killed him without a moment's pause -- might even have been more focused on that than on finishing the mission -- so we can see that he's been transformed.

In a sense, this is the final exam for the hero. This is when the story question is definitively answered, one way or another. The hero obviously didn't achieve ultimate success during the Ordeal earlier in the story, or the story would be over already. In some cases, this is because it's a two-part plan -- Step One: Find and steal the Holy Grail, Step Two: Get it home to heal the land. But that turns out to be the hard part because the people you stole it from want it back, and meanwhile, everyone else along the way also wants it. But in many other cases, the hero is getting a second chance to do what he wasn't able to complete during the Ordeal, only this time, it's do or die. Think of the movie version of Prince Caspian -- they attempted to stop the bad guys by attacking the castle, which failed. When the bad guys come to the good guys' hideout, things look desperate, but they must win.

This is often a showdown between the hero and the villain. In a way, it's a test of their respective worldviews or philosophies. The victor will prove that his approach is the best, usually that good is superior to evil. Or it may involve an internal showdown in which the hero is weighing two different philosophies or options, often his old way and the new way he's learned during the story. Think of the Harrison Ford character in the movie Witness, who has to weigh the nonviolence he's learned among the Amish against the more violent cop way of his past when his past catches up with him while he's hiding in Amish country. Or there's Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie. His initial attempt to destroy the Death Star, when he used the targeting technology, failed. When he put the technology aside in the final do-or-die moment and used the Force, he succeeded. It was a showdown between the Force and technology, and technology lost.

Another part of this stage is sacrifice. The hero has to be willing to lose it all in order to prevail, and that means having a real moment of truth, where he lays it all out on the line, even though he knows it means he could still lose. This is something seen in "deception" romantic comedies, in which one of the characters has been pretending to be something she's not, and then she reaches the point where she realizes she has to tell the truth, even if that means losing the person she loves. This would be the wedding scene in While You Were Sleeping, in which Sandra Bullock had pretended to be engaged to a man in a coma so she could be a part of his big, loving family. She seems to be getting what she wanted at the beginning of the movie when he comes out of the coma, thinks he has amnesia and doesn't remember her but falls for her, and she's going to marry the man she wanted at the beginning of the movie, except in the meantime she's fallen in love with his brother. She can't go through with the wedding and tells the truth to the family, even though she believes they'll never want to speak to her again. The hero may have to give up on a false goal, to give up on something he thought he wanted in order to get what he really needs. We also see this in a lot of romantic comedies, where the heroine's stated goal might have been a job or a promotion or even the wrong guy, and she has to give that up in order to get true love. It's usually not a direct trade-off -- she has to realize that what she thought she wanted was all wrong, even though at that time she believes she may have lost her chance at true love. She has to be willing to sacrifice even though it may not get her what she's realized she really wants.

The first part of this stage is the "death." Romance writers often refer to this as "the black moment," when all seems to be lost, and seems like there's no way things can work out. In supernatural stories where literal resurrection is possible, the hero may literally die. Otherwise, the hero may face death or see death around him. This moment in the movie Titanic is when Jack does die and Rose is alone on her makeshift raft, freezing to death and too weak to call out to the lifeboats. She has to plunge into the icy water to get a whistle off the body of a dead crew member to call for help, and that there's no guarantee that will work, so she's risking death for a chance at life. Or the death could be symbolic. It could be the ending of something, like a relationship or a job. In romantic comedies, the heroine may make it to the altar to marry the wrong man, seemingly ending all chances with the guy we know is right for her. The tricky -- and yet very important -- thing for a writer is to convince readers that the hero really could fail, that things might not work out, even if it's genre fiction and it's a convention of the genre that the crime will be solved, the murderer will be caught, evil will be vanquished or the hero and heroine will get together and live happily ever after. Even as the reader may know on some level that it will work out, you should be able to make her wonder if maybe this will be the one book that breaks the mold. This should be the part where pages are turning furiously.

And then the hero has a moment of truth or clarity -- an epiphany -- in which it all becomes clear. He knows what has to be done and realizes that he's willing to pay the price. That allows him to prevail. He comes out of the depths and triumphs in a moment of resurrection. Usually, this is an active moment for the hero, something the hero does. But sometimes this is when the groundwork the hero has laid earlier in the story comes to fruition. He may make the step of sacrifice -- often a self-sacrifice -- and that inspires someone else who has learned from or been encouraged by the hero earlier to take the final action that saves the day. This happens in Return of the Jedi, when Luke is close to beating his father, Darth Vader, in battle, and he realizes how close he is to turning into his father, which is just what the Emperor, the real villain, wants. Luke chooses to put down his weapon and refuses to give in to anger and hate. He'd rather die than turn to the dark side. The Emperor then attacks him and nearly kills him, and that's when Vader, inspired by his son's example, finally stands up to the Emperor and kills him, getting mortally wounded in the process.

In tragic stories, the "resurrection" may be posthumous for the hero. His actual death may change the situation in the aftermath, so it's in his spirit that things work out, like the way that the deaths of Romeo and Juliet cause their families to rethink their feud. The resurrection is the end of the feud that caused their deaths.

Action stories may have a rolling climax or series of climaxes with a lot of death/resurrection moments, like the way in horror movies the killer seems to have been killed, but he pops up again before really being killed (at least until the sequel). We see this in the original Terminator movie, where the Terminator seems to die, only to keep coming after our heroes as Kyle is seriously injured and then killed while trying to destroy the Terminator, and then Sarah almost reaches her limits before she makes the one last, desperate move to finally destroy the machine.

In a story that works on both physical and emotional levels there may be dual climaxes, a physical one and an emotional one. This often happens in stories that mix romance and some other plot. There will be the physical climax where they beat the bad guys, and in the aftermath of that, there will be the emotional climax where the couple works things out. Or the emotional "death" may come before the physical "death," so that the hero goes into the final showdown feeling he has nothing to lose, and then either the emotional resurrection comes, giving him the strength to achieve the physical resurrection, or the physical resurrection earns him the emotional resurrection.

This stage of the story is all about the emotional roller coaster. You want to build tension and create strong emotions as the reader fears for the worst, then create a catharsis of release when it becomes clear that things are going to work out. In a movie where this is done really well, the audience may cheer out loud. There will be some fist-pumping and shouts of "Yes!" In really emotional stories, this is when you want to move readers to tears -- first tears of sorrow when it looks like all is lost, and then those turn to tears of joy when everything works out. Even in a comedy, emotion is good here. In fact, I'm more likely to cry in a comedy than in a drama because the laughter during the bulk of the movie lowers my guard. Then in the "death" part, it really hits me and I cry. In the "resurrection" I'm usually laughing through tears. I've noticed that people seem to think that a book that has moved them to tears is automatically a good book, and this is when you want to bring out those tears.

Next: The end of the story.

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