Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Hero's Journey: The Road Back

After about five days worth of research, I'm now ready to rewrite that one scene, where maybe only a few bits of that research will actually show up. But those few bits should be key to providing the telling details that bring the scene to life.

It's a new year and time to get back to the every-other-week writing posts. I've been analyzing the various stages in the hero's journey, as Christopher Vogler interpreted the mythology work done by Joseph Campbell for modern storytellers in The Writer's Journey.

To recap what we've covered so far, we started in the Ordinary World, where we saw what the hero's normal life was like and what inner problem or need he may have had. Then there was a Call to Adventure, where the hero was faced with the fact that there was a problem in the world, and that he was the one to solve it. Next likely came a Refusal of the Call as the hero tried to resist his destiny. He may then have had a Meeting with the Mentor to get more information, some encouragement or even some tools or gifts to help him with the quest. After this, there was a Crossing of the First Threshold, in which the hero left the ordinary world and entered the special world of the story. He learned about this special world and the people in it as he met with Tests, Allies and Enemies. He entered an even more special world within the story world as he made the Approach to the Inmost Cave. Then he experienced an Ordeal in which he escaped, faced or observed death. After surviving the ordeal, he had a moment to catch his breath and regroup in the Reward.

Now we're at The Road Back, another stage I think is poorly named. To me, that name implies a homeward journey that is an ending and a decreasing of action, like coming home after a vacation. But this phase is the most important section of rising tension in a story. It's the build-up to the story's climax. In part, this name comes from that classic mythic structure, in which the goal of the quest was to obtain some object and then get it back home. The hero obtained the object in the Ordeal, and then the hard part was getting it back home in time with whoever it was who previously owned the object in hot pursuit. In the three-act screenplay format, this is the start of the third act, the final turning point in the story. It's also another threshold crossing as the hero takes the first step toward returning to the ordinary world. After this next part, his quest will be over and he'll have to figure out what to do next, whether to truly return a changed man to his former ordinary world or whether to establish a new normal in the special world where he's been working.

It does seem that journeys and travels are part of this stage in a lot of stories. The hero has to physically travel as he heads toward the final confrontation -- back home, to the bad guy's fortress, to the escape hatch. There's also some kind of ticking clock that requires the hero to do something before something bad happens. It may be when the hero reaps the real consequences of what happened in the Ordeal -- if he didn't finish off the bad guy, the bad guy may pop up again; anyone he angered in the Ordeal will be coming after him; if the Mentor died, the hero will have to put together a plan on his own. There may be some element of sacrifice if the hero has to jettison anything unnecessary in order to make his escape or hold off the bad guys. The classic example of this is when the greedy person has to drop gold or treasure to lighten the load, make room for one more person or distract pursuers. The hero may have to use, and possibly use up, his magical gifts, leaving him barehanded for the final confrontation. I suppose you could call this phase the Approach to the Moment of Truth.

In Star Wars, The Road Back comes when Luke and the gang have rescued the princess and escaped the Death Star, and now they have to get the secret Death Star plans to the rebel base so they can be analyzed for a weakness, all while the Death Star is tracking them. Will they find and exploit a weakness before the Death Star gets within firing range of the base? In Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is when Indiana Jones hitches a ride on the Nazi submarine to follow the stolen ark. Will he reach the Ark and save Marian before the Nazis use the Ark's power for themselves? In road trip stories, this is the part where they're almost there, and we know the characters are going to have to make some decision once they get there. Will she go through with marrying the guy she's been traveling toward, even after getting to know the guy she's traveling with? In buddy cop movies, this is usually where our duo, now working as a team, gears up to really go after the bad guys, putting their careers on the line. In Serenity, it was when our heroes had to get through the Alliance fleet to the satellite facility in order to send the message. In Aliens, it's when Ripley, the little girl and the surviving marines have to get across the colony with the aliens after them in order to reach the landing pad in time to catch the arriving shuttle before the reactor blows up. In a lot of romantic comedies, this is the frantic race across town or through the airport to catch the True Love before all is lost. "Can they get there in time?" is a common question in the Road Back phase.

The important thing to remember is that this is all about building tension. It's the run up to the climax of the story. The hero is approaching a do-or-die point, and his options are narrowing. He had his first chance for ultimate success in the Ordeal, but he won't get another chance after this one.

Next, finally, the moment we've all been waiting for!

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