Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 3


Here we are again, and this time we’re going to explore what makes up the bulk of any story — the parts between the opening and the climax.

4. Meeting the Mentor

This is one of the most well-trodden parts of the monomyth, and therefore, one of the most problematic.  The Mentor archetype is the knowledgeable character who will teach, train, or impart the hero with special skills or wisdom.  This is the character who explains the rules to the hero (and thus, the reader).  Oftentimes, the Mentor also gives the Hero a special item to help with the quest.  This is Obi-Wan (gives light saber), Dumbledore (gives numerous objects including invisibility cloak), and Gandalf (um, something about a ring).  And just listing those three names should show you where the problems may lie.

Because most stories have a Mentor character, even those far out of the European Hero’s Journey tradition, it’s all too easy to slip into cliché.  The wise old hermit, the great sorcerer, the master swordsman, the ancient and knowing sensei — we’ve seen these faces in books and movies countless times.  So it is vital for a writer to come up with a fresh angle or else relegate this character to be nothing more than a cliché infodumper.  Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be a radical departure.  For example, Dumbledore is, on the surface, about as cliché as you can get.  Some of what makes him work is his ability to empathize with Harry and to delight in minor mischief.  His personality breaks from the “stoic, learned one” just enough to make him feel real and unique.  Of course, if you want to depart from the cliché completely, go for it.  The Mentor can easily be mixed with other character types to create complex and interesting characters — even the villain.

5. The First Threshold

This is the point where the Hero has finished preparing for or trying to avoid the quest and now leaps into action.  It can be an event or something inside the Hero that allows for this to occur.  Either way, this is where the adventure part of the adventure begins.

But nothing is ever easy for a Hero, and so, quite often, we meet the first of many Threshold Guardians.  This archetype is easily summed up as any obstacle blocking the way toward the next major step of the quest — either internal or external.  Whiny Luke steps through the threshold when he goes with Obi-Wan in search of a pilot to get them off Tatooine.  There are a few Guardians blocking the way toward meeting Han Solo, including some literal guards (“These are not the droids you’re looking for”) and several unsavory characters in the canteen.  But it’s that step away from farming and toward Han Solo (and thus adventure) that marks this point.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

With a name like this, you know exactly what’s going to happen.  Our Hero is challenged mentally and physically.  Friends, sidekicks, and others will join the ranks.  Enemies will make themselves known.  All the pieces of this game that we set up in the beginning start moving in earnest, taking us closer and closer to the endgame.

These tests are crucial to the development of the characters.  Here each member of the group shows their worth, allowing the team to bond and form a cohesive whole.  Some enemies met will be Guardians while others will be entertaining (for the reader) diversions.  And in some cases, we will meet the Big Bad, setting things up for the final confrontation.

Though placed at number 6, this is one of the most fluid sections with bits and pieces popping up throughout a story.  The purpose here is simply one of establishing the new world that the Hero has entered, the friends that will help, and the threats they will face.  All of this is in preparation for the last section of today’s breakdown . . .

7. Approaching the Inmost Cave

Having assembled the team and learned the ways of the new world, the Hero now nears the big conflict — this is the Inmost Cave (you know, where the dragon lives).  But it’s never as easy as just walking into the castle and saying, “I’m here to fight the Big Bad!”  Nope.  Our hero must find a way in, gain information that will help defeat ol’ Big Bad, and prepare for the fight.  A lot can happen here, so this usually is a large section.

This is often the point where a romance angle will squeeze in a final squeeze because after this there won’t be time for such things.  Sometimes there is a setback — a major death, a physical blocking of the path, another Guardian, etc — that requires some reorganization in the group.  The team may split into smaller groups and one is sent to recon the situation.

All kinds of things can happen here, but one that pops up frequently is the use of a disguise to gain entry into the Cave.  Luke and Han dress up like stormtroopers in order to get deep into the Death Star and save the princess.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione drink a potion that allows them to impersonate others so they can snoop for information.  This idea keeps coming back because it resonates so many emotions within people — sneaking, hiding, fear, and excitement, just to name a few.

The Inmost Cave is the ultimate fate, so whatever else happens in the Approaching the Inmost Cave section, it must set up the final battle.  All the lessons are learned (though some may not be voiced until the climax).  All the characters are as ready as they can be and a plan is hatched.  The poorly designed vent to destroy the Death Star is found and the rebel alliance readies for attack.  Aragorn has accepted his role as king and leads a charge to buy Frodo time.  Get the idea?

Next time, we finish the whole thing out with the final conflict and its aftermath.  As always, treat this as nothing more than a way to dissect what is or can be happening in your stories.  These are not hard rules but mere guidelines based on what authors have been doing (knowingly and unknowingly) for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Use it where it helps.  Ignore it where it doesn’t.

Oh, and a reminder that the big contest is still going on.  If you haven’t entered yet, check out Faith’s post for details.  The winner gets something from everyone at MW including a copy of How To Write Magical Words signed by the whole gang!


23 comments to Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 3

  • Good stuff, Stuart. I like the mentors who provide only the information needed and not more. Gandalf, if I recall, gave Bilbo and the dwarves only enough information to get them on their way and then a bit more at key points. He wasn’t around to help with trolls, spiders, and Smaug. The same follows for Dallben in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Fizban in Weiss and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles.

    In a way, that’s what I don’t like about Dumbledore. He often becomes the escape hatch for Potter and company. He’s like Q, giving Bond the precise tool to escape a trap with perfect foresight. I’d rather see the characters get out of trouble on their own than be helped along by a meddling old fool. *grin*


  • Great stuff, S. I find the approach to the inmost cave section one of the bits which invites the most formulaic responses. In the kinds of action adventures you are describing it’s often a literal entrance, but in other genres the idea gets so loose in application that it’s often hard to spot. I actually like that better, but it requires a very creative and open sense of what the stage of the journey is trying to achieve. I’d be interested in hearing examples of this from less fantastic adventure tales that you think work less literally but effectively.

  • NGD — You bring up another reason the Mentor can be problematic. In fact, too often, the Mentor is used as a way out of trouble. There are other problems with this character, but interestingly enough, the character is so essential to storytelling (it’s hard to find a story that doesn’t have somebody playing this role in at least a small manner) that we overlook a lot of these faults.

    AJ — Well, in Vogler’s book, he dissects a few movies including Pulp Fiction. He argues that when Vincent Vega and Mia enter the dance contest they are approaching the inmost cave because they are taking a major step toward a sexual relationship — one that is a true matter of life and death since Mia’s husband is Marcellus Wallace, the gangster boss. Another film — Natural Born Killers (don’t know why this popped in my head) has a great approach in the interview scene where Woody Harrelson has shaved his head (both in preparation for the Cave (the riot that he starts in order to break free) as well as a “disguise” in that he looks starkly different). Likewise, in Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (the last of the trilogy), we have an approach in all the prep work for the big trial and the full costume she wears going in. There’s three for you. Give us some of your own examples. I find this fascinating.

  • Stuart, in my own work, I have tried very hard to break free of the monomyth — being a contrary Leo, you know — and have gone with the singularity MC and no mentor at all. However, in the Rogue Mage stories, the cave figures prominently as the site of the final battle, and I never caught it. Till now. (palm head)This series of posts is fun, making me look at my work in ways I haven’t in *years*. Thank you!

  • Thanks Stuart, that helps. And re. Faith’s post, correct me if I’m wrong but Vogler does suggest that the mentor, threshold guardians etc. can be internalized as aspects of the protagonist’s own personality, right?

  • Stuart> This is great stuff. I kill off my MC’s mentor very early on, so in a way she’s left a bit adrift, and when the next one shows up, she wants nothing to do with him–the conflict of the novel (internally, anyway) is answering the call, deciding who she is, etc. In my other wip, like Faith, I don’t think that the MC really has a mentor, she’s sort of on her own on purpose. She does have gatekeeper friends, of course.

    And I think I’m going to use this to teach The Fellowship of the Ring when it comes up in a month or so. It certainly follows the pattern (though we won’t get through the whole arc…)

    While I can’t think of any non–formulaic cave scenes, I just finished teaching Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” It also lacks a mentor figure, but then again, the MC Philip Marlowe is jaded, cynical, and older. Now, there is the old figure, the General, who sends Marlowe on the quest (i.e. hires him), but that’s about as far as it fits without some smooshing. Of course, there is knight and chivalry imagery throughout the book, so Chandler is playing with archetypes as well. I love the opening scene, where the glass window above the General’s front door has an image of a naked lady tied to a tree “with some long and convenient hair” and a knight with his visor back helping her but “really just fiddling with the knots.” Marlowe thinks that if he lived there, he’d eventually have to go up and help because “the knight didn’t seem to really be trying…” and that image tells you the plot of the whole story, and a lot about M’s character, right there. And it’s at the bottom of page one. 🙂

  • Stuart – Today’s post was a huge help as I go through my rewrites. There’s always been something missing toward the end of the book, a missing element that I couldn’t quite put my finger on…and I think it’s the inmost cave. I’m going to have to let it simmer for awhile, but I think you’ve given me an idea for a much better setup for my climax. Thanks!!

  • Faith and AJ — Any of these archetypes can be internalized. And in Jane’s case, one of her Allies, Beast, is truly within herself! Also, if I remember correctly in Books 1 and 2, Jane encounters an old native-american woman who knows quite a bit about shapeshifters. She is a Mentor of sorts, just not a very friendly or traditional one. Another one of the Allies that helps Jane along is Molly (one of my favorites, BTW). So, not trying to be contrary to your desire to be contrary, Faith, but I think you use more of the monomyth than you realize — at least, when it comes to the character archetypes. I suspect in your conscious effort to break from it, you are helping yourself avoid the cliches and, instead, filling in the gaps with inventive takes on these characters. But the archetypes are so broadly defined that it’s near impossible not to have some bit of them in a story. The stages of the monomyth, however, are much easier to avoid.

    pea — Just because a character is dead doesn’t mean s/he can’t fulfill a role. In my novel, the Mentor character is dead long before the story even begins. But my MC often recalls moments with him that help guide her through her life. Oh, and teaching Fellowship? Awesome!

    Megan — Great! Hope it works out for you.

  • I’m working on my middle reader books right now, and am definitely identifying with much of what you’ve been discussing in this series. I’m actually about to have them go to the “cave,” though of course I hadn’t known that I was doing that until I read it here. It’s like you’re in my brain, and frankly it’s a little creepy. Looks like I need to put on that aluminum foil hat again….

  • David — You’ll have to do a lot better than aluminum foil to get me out of your brain! Mwa Ha Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

  • tiffany

    I think the reason so many stories have these characteristics is because they are universally comforting and understood. It is human nature to want to know “who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? Are we there yet?”. Westerns may have had a clear delineation of this- the men wearing white hats and black ones- but the *best* was a story where the main character was gray- Shane. As a writer, I do not want to avoid the monomyth and these steps- they work for a reason. But I can make the characters more realistic by incorporating shades of gray.

  • Lance Barron

    Stuart, I’m really getting a lot out of this series. Aren’t there stories where the MC denies the influence of the mentor, but it’s there nonetheless. The MC had to learn it somewhere from someone, didn’t they?

    Pea: Wouldn’t the guy in the DA’s office fill part of that role for Marlowe?

  • This has been a great series, Stuart. And I really appreciate that you make such a point of saying this isn’t a template that you have to follow, but a tool to assess what you’re doing as you go along. Great work.

  • And having now read everyone else’s comments, I may need to borrow David’s aluminum foil hat. In the novel I’m working on right now my main character’s mentor turns out to be the primary villain, even though he genuinely intends to be a good mentor to her.

  • tiffany — Very true. But I do think there’s value in what Faith talks about — trying to go against the monomyth. It can be wonderful towards creation by forcing us to step out of the cultural expectations we’ve been taught. That’s one reason I love foreign films (particularly non-European). Their sense of how to tell a story is so different than ours that you can come up with some great ideas.

    Lance — Absolutely. In fact, I would guess that any combination of Mentor/Hero relationship you can dream up has been done somewhere at sometime. And if it hasn’t, you’ve probably just stumbled upon a goldmine of an idea!

    Ed — Go ahead and take David’s hat. He doesn’t need it. I’m already rotting his brain!!!!!!

  • Unicorn

    The Monomyth is fascinating me! I’ll have to get a book on it. It’s been very helpful. The first draft of my new WIP, I’ve just realised, has taken an awfully long time to get to the Call to Adventure. Groans. At least I’ve found the problem with it.
    The novel I’m revising now, though, begins with the Mentor. He’s introduced in the first paragraph, and the two heroes are introduced before the end of page two. I confess to using him for getting the others out of trouble once or twice. However, in the end, it’s the Hero getting the Mentor out of trouble. Hmmm.
    Also, is it normal for the “Tests, Allies, and Enemies” part to be the longest in the story? I think mine is a bit long-winded and needs cutting, it takes up a good chunk of the story.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Subcreator

    I actually hate it when the mentor clearly has all this knowledge and such but never lets anyone in on it. That’s the mentor cliche that drives me absolutely insane. If you’re going to have a character that knows so much he should be using his knowledge to the benefit of the MC, in my opinion. When the mentor as a resource is never used it doesn’t make any sense. You might as well not have one.

  • Unicorn — Glad this is helpful. Unfortunately, I don’t think my answer to your question will be. See, there’s no right or wrong here as much as there’s what works and what doesn’t. Your “Tests” section might be 399 pages of a 400 page book, but if you can make it work, then nobody’s going to argue (well, I’m sure somebody will but you get the point). LOTR is a great example. That trilogy is a mess. Bizarre structure, scenes that break off into bouts of mediocre poetry, an entire battle AFTER the climactic moments, and lots more. None of it should work. But it does. Others may try to do the same thing and fail, but Tolkien gets away with it. Now, if you’re feeling the section is “long-winded” (which is vastly different from being long), then chances are it needs work. After all, if you’re boring yourself, you’ll probably bore other readers too.

    Subcreator — Yet another Mentor cliche!! And you’re right. A related thing that always gets me is the knows-everything Mentor who is given a lame reason for not sharing info. The author clearly has painted him/herself into a corner by giving all this power/knowledge to the Mentor and has to stop the Mentor from ruining the plot, so we get this crud: normally my magic is invincible, but the winds are blowing from the East today, so I cannot help. Sorry I never mentioned that before.

  • Well poot. You are RIGHT. How weird! I never saw that. Sigh. Forest/trees/lumberjack….

  • Sarah

    Wow- I knew I was a traditionalist, but It didn’t think it would sync quite that much with the mono-myth series. Last night I literally wrote the cave entrance scene complete with saga-esque arming scene and a dragon. The only departure is that the cave in this case is a cavernous steelworks not a hole in a mountain.

    Reading this series feels like a challenge – I want to see if someone can write a story where the monomyth is followed in the most literal possible way and still make it exciting to read.

  • I’m working on a story where the cave is the villian. The basic underlying theme is betrayal…all levels.

    I’ve found that interweaving myths that already exist and taking them to a different level is a lot of fun! I’ve always loved mythology though. All forms of it.

  • Hm, my mentor figure does put my character through the wringer, but she does so selfishly. When her plan backfires, it becomes one of the many tests my character faces.

    I’m really enjoying your dissection of the Monomyth, Stuart. It’s reassuring to know that my story is following these lines. And the way you’ve put “approaching the inmost cave” gives me some ideas, because that’s about where I’m at in the rewrites.

  • Hm, my mentor figure does put my character through the wringer, but she does so selfishly. When her plan backfires, it becomes one of the many tests my character faces.

    I’m really enjoying your dissection of the Monomyth, Stuart. It’s reassuring to know that my story is following these lines. And the way you’ve put “approaching the inmost cave” gives me some ideas, because that’s about where I’m at in the rewrites. Thanks!