Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 4


Time once again to delve into the Monomyth.

8. The Ordeal

Often stories have two climaxes.  The second is the one we all recognize, it’s the one that comes near the end of the story, and we’ll get to that in a little bit.  But many, many times, stories have an earlier climactic moment for the Hero.  Joseph Campbell referred to this moment as the Ordeal, and Vogler clarifies by suggesting that we think of this moment not as a climax but as a crisis.  There is a secret to this step that has resonated with audiences for centuries — all heroes must die in order to be reborn. It’s true.  Now, thankfully for our Hero as well as our readers, this “death” can take many forms ranging from literal death to emotional death to touching the edge of death and more.  So, you get Frodo nearly dying from spider venom and you get Luke Skywalker pulled underwater by the trash compactor monster for so long that we are sure he is dead.  But you also get characters that go through a spiritual/emotional death where they face their greatest fears and in doing so, come out the other side changed — metaphorically reborn.  Another way we see this is when the Hero causes the death of another, thus killing his own soul.  The point of this step is to have the Hero experience something intense and transformative, so that he can come to terms with the experience and be reborn as a better, stronger, more heroic Hero.  This final bit is really a major part of the next step —

9. The Reward

So, the Hero survives the Ordeal.  Now what?  Well, first there’s often a party.  Some sort of celebration, love-renewal, laughing-fest, or simple happy release at the fact that Death did not win.  Often there are small rewards such as a promotion of status for the Hero.  No longer is he seen as merely a pig farmer but now is considered a warrior worthy of leading the coming battle.  If the Ordeal was a more internal, emotional Death, this is where the Hero is reborn having learned from her experiences.  But there is also the possibility of a large reward, something Volger calls Seizing the Sword. This is where the Hero takes what she has sought after all this time — the magic sword, the treasure, the Death Star plans, the love of another, the freedom to walk away.  Endless possibilities abound, but whatever the rewards for overcoming the Ordeal, they are best put to use when they push the Hero further toward the ultimate climax of the story.

10. The Road Back

This refers to the Ordinary World our Hero began in.  It’s a point in the story when the Hero remembers why she set out in the first place, the “road” she went on, and gets herself back on track to finishing what she started.  This is also the point where the story ramps up in preparation for the climax.  The Reward section tends to drop the energy of a tale — after all, the Hero has survived the Ordeal and is getting a reward and all seems good — so The Road Back section helps revitalize the energy of a story.  In film and TV, this step is often associated with a good ol’ car chase.  Ever notice that most car chases happen about 3/4ths of the way through a show?  That’s because it’s the Road Back section — it’s time to build up anticipation and danger to get to the climax of the story.  Sometimes a new threat or Threshold Guardian will even make an appearance.  But it doesn’t have to be big action to get the right feeling.  Preparation for the final battle is another classic technique that rebuilds tensions.  So is the discovery of key information — the pieces all start to fit together, letting the Hero and the reader know the solutions to most of the mysteries and sets up for the climax.

11. Resurrection

This is it.  The climax of the story.  And this is a difficult part to pull off well in all terms, but in Monomyth terms, it has special problems because the Hero once more goes through a death/rebirth experience.  What makes it difficult is that there is no Reward section to sit around and talk or think or reflect or in some other way show that the Hero has learned anything.  It has to happen as part of the climax.  It’s the whole point of the quest.  This is where Neo is shot to death but is literally reborn (by a kiss, no less) when he realizes that he controls the Matrix.  This is where Frodo is taken over by the ring and comes close to losing himself (and all of Middle Earth) to Evil but is reborn, thanks to Gollum’s greed and insanity.  In a romantic tale, this is when the Hero lays her heart on the line to win over her love.  In a crime drama, this might be when the Hero risks losing her career by using unorthodox/illegal means to get to the truth.  In a medical story, this is when the patient flatlines and must be brought back to life by the doctor who won’t quit.  In a comedy, this is when the whacky Hero hatches a crazy scheme to embarrass his rival that will cost him the job he always wanted but will get him the girl he loves instead — and in the end, his audacious move wins him the girl, gets the rival fired, and opens up a better job opportunity.  I could go on and on, but hopefully the idea is clear enough — whether literal or figurative, death surrounds the climax of any story and the Hero’s success brings with it rebirth.

12. Returning with the Elixir

Having defeated every enemy, having acquired the rewards, having found the magic elixir (or ring or treasure or prophecy or whatever), it’s time to go home.  This section is the conclusion to our tale where loose ends are tied up, final rewards given, happiness (hopefully) prevails.  Of course, not all stories end this way.  There are grim endings as well.  Characters get punished.  Heroes end with a horrible knowledge of the world — The Terminator, for example, ends with Sarah Conner driving into the desert knowing an apocalypse is destined to come.  And there are tragic ends, too — especially with anti-heroes.  But whatever the form, the ending is the ending and as long as the Ordinary World remains, the ending usually occurs there.  When the Ordinary World is gone, such as in the Matrix, a new world opens up for the Hero, offering greater possibilities for the future.

And that’s it.  We’ve completed our journey.  You’ll find some of these steps are used all the time, and some only appear in certain cases.  You’ll find works that combine several steps into one scene.  You’ll find works that reorder the steps every which way you can imagine.  In the end, though, you can use the Monomyth as a way of discovering structural issues within your stories and finding ways to solve those problems.  It is a powerful tool and no more.  Use it well.  Use it wisely.


23 comments to Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 4

  • It’s a good thing you broke this up over several weeks, Stuart. My head would have exploded if it tried to absorb all this at once. Having said that (and acknowledging that this may sound contradictory), I’m hoping you might consider posting something next week that gives us a high-level view of all this. You’ve broken the pieces down beautifully; can we get a quick look at the forest next week to go with this study of the various trees?

  • Ed — We wouldn’t want your head to explode. That can be quite messy. As for one final post, I had planned to do something to answer any final questions and wrap it all up. So I’ll see what I can put together.

  • This has been a fantastic series of posts, Stuart. Informative, thought-provoking — it’s opened my eyes to elements of my work I hadn’t even known were there. Very cool.

    And now I know what’s missing form the second Thieftaker book — a car chase!! Yeah, I know, it’s set in the 1760s. But it’s a fantasy, right…?

  • *glances at her outline for the planned rewrites of WIP*

    *reads the post again*


    Thank you so much for this, Stuart. I am making a push to get the rewrites done. I even booked the coffee shop’s meeting room, where my writing group meets weekly, for a special write-in tonight. This was perfect, and exactly what I needed to read in anticipation of this evening’s activities. My story lines up with these. I’m on The Road Back now, and things are really falling into place. Yay!

  • Stuart, I have read this one 3 times and I get something different and new out of it every time. Thanks to this series, I am looking at my work in totally new ways too. Thank you.

    And you know what is cool? I’m a writer. Been one for (ulp) two decades. I am still learning so much. And so much of that learning is from this site. Amazing. When David and I first started talking about doing *something* together, (and then quickly brought in Misty, of course) I never knew it would be so useful to me as a writer. I honestly figured we’d have a tiny little site, with us always on the giving end. Now it’s a classroom every week, and I feel like a kid in the last row, scribbling like mad to keep up with it all.

    And David, carriage chase, boyo. Or mule chase. Or ghost/pixie/werewolf chase. With an honest-to-goodness applecart in it! (laughing)

  • David — Yes, the need for a car chase is exactly what I was going for in this post. So glad you caught on! Now if you’ll only add more thongs into the book, Faith’s muse can be satisfied.

    Laura — Glad this has been helpful. Is your write-in with the group or is just a space set aside for yourself? Either way sounds cool.

    Faith — You’re welcome. I feel much the same about this site. When I joined, I figured it would be a way to connect with readers and help aspiring writers learn from my mistakes. But, like you, I’ve learned so much and my writing has improved greatly. So thank you!

  • Stuart> This is an awesome series of posts. Can I take them, shuffle them into one doc, and print them out for my literature classes? I’ll credit you, of course (I am teaching them NOT to plagiarize, after all!). But this will be really useful in my freshman comp class–we’re studying heroes and villains this semester, and we’re ending the class with two novels: The Big Sleep and The Fellowship of the Ring. I think that this structure works for both, acutally, though in different ways. But if you wouldn’t mind me sharing it with my class, I’d love to!

    And, it rocks for my own writing as well. I’m reading it going “yep, Mary does that…” and “ooh, that happens at x spot in my story.” And I wasn’t trying to write this.

    I’m curious, I wonder if this same pattern works for villains, in a way. I’m thinking about my own villain, who goes on a definite journey, and he is a kind of hero–at least in his own mind, like most villains. I haven’t decided if he’s going to have some kind of big conversion moment a la Darth Vader (he certainly doesn’t in the current WIP), but he might.

    David> Car chases, horse and buggy chases, on foot chases, whatever. Chases always make it better. 🙂

  • I, for one, am sad that we hav ecome to the end of this series. I have learned much about writing from learning about the Monomyth. Like others have said, we do most these without realizing what we are doing and like NBC likes to say, knowledge is power. Now we have identified this, we can use it to out advantage and manipulate our Readers with our stories. (that suonded kind of maniacle but I hope you get the idea)

    Thanks, Stuart! This has been awseome!

  • pea — Feel free to use this. Might I also suggest sending your students to our site where we can actually answer their writing questions. Heck, while I’m plugging away, have your students buy How To Write Magical Words! 😀 . After all, should the How-To book sell well enough, who knows? Maybe there will be a How-To 2! As for your thoughts on villians — I think it depends on the way you tell the story. Most villians don’t get enough “screen” time to do much more than their expected part. However, as has been often said, villians see themselves as heroes of their own story — so that story may very well follow the Monomyth.

    Mark — Don’t start crying yet! We still have the final conclusion post (as requested above by Ed, no less)! Then you can cry.

  • Lance Barron

    Stuart, really powerful series. I am looking forward to the final conclusion, but then dealing with the sense of loss that will come when it is over. All over. Forever.

  • Wow. Stuart. You have people *weeping*
    This is wonderful! 🙂

  • Lance, Faith — Okay, now my eyes are welling up!

  • Lance Barron

    Why does the mentor always go away and leave the writer to face the ordeal alone? “… come out the other side changed — metaphorically reborn.”

    The monomyth even works on a writer’s blog!

  • Stuart – It’s been booked as an extra group write-in. Attendance will be smaller (it being Friday night and all) but our group’s purpose is to get together and get writing done. There are three in Vancouver and ours is the only one notorious for actually doing work.

    Faith – that classroom sensation has been the feeling I’ve had ever since I started visiting this site. It’s awesome.

  • Tom G

    David wrote: And now I know what’s missing form the second Thieftaker book — a car chase!! Yeah, I know, it’s set in the 1760s. But it’s a fantasy, right…?

    Might I suggest the “perp” drives a Ford BRONCO, while the Hero drives a Ford MUSTANG. Just a thought.

  • Thanks for this series of posts (I’m a newcomer to posting, but a somewhat longtime lurker).

    This one in particular gives me some things to think about with my WIP. Death and rebirth tends to be a big theme in my writing (and not just because they’re all vampires and other death-affiliated beings. No, really.)

  • DuskRose — Glad to have you here. Yeah, vamps and other undead beings tend to bring the whole Death/rebirth thing to the forefront. I think it’s an extra challenge in dealing with these popular creatures in that you have to find a new spin on something that’s been trod over many times. It amazes me just how many different takes writers can come up with on vamps alone!

  • Thanks, Stuart – this series has been informative and thought provoking. Can’t wait til the next one.

    No tears here, though. I’m just looking forward to what you’ll do to top these!

  • David said And now I know what’s missing form the second Thieftaker book — a car chase!! Yeah, I know, it’s set in the 1760s. But it’s a fantasy, right…?

    You know, Todd just reminded me of a wild carriage chase we participated in several years back in our game. Maybe we weren’t moving much past 20 mph, and we definitely couldn’t manage a decent drift without tipping the carriages over, but it was pretty darned thrilling just the same.

  • Unicorn

    I second Pea Faerie – the whole time I’ve been reading these posts I’m going “right, so that’s what it’s really called when x cuts x’s head off,” or whatever. Story structure is soooo fascinating. Thanks so much for these posts.
    I had an extra big battle scene in between the huge, climactic battle and The Ordeal, and I was fretting about it because it was essential to the story but I couldn’t quite see how the climax could have two battles in it. Turns out it’s just The Road Back. Very interesting.
    Lance – Goodness yes. I quote, “Use it well. Use it wisely.” I think we’re reaching the Meeting the Mentor(s) stage… *runs off sniggering uncontrollably*
    Looking forward to the next post…

  • Another great post in this series. Definitely looking forward to more.

    My eyes are teary, but that’s from cutting onions. Sorry.

    One thing, regarding car chases, since nobody is ever caught in a car chase, have they lost their effectiveness for that part of the story? I mean, when I see a car chase start in a movie these days, I roll my eyes and check my watch to see how much time is wasted before the story continues.


  • Stuart> If this were a “how to write fiction” class, I’d totally use HtWMW as my textbook! But, alas, it is freshman composition ABOUT literature. And heaven knows I don’t want to read their fiction. A lot of students that age have a hard enough time divorcing their identities from the grades I put on their papers. I’m not giving them an “F” (or an “A” or “C” or whatever) as PEOPLE, just their papers. So I don’t let them write fiction, in which they are MORE invested as people. 🙂 But thanks. I will put this together and let you know how it goes… (I’ll give this to my students about two weeks from now… this week is a movie and next week is Spring Break.)

    Thanks again for this!!

  • To everyone — thanks for all the wonderful comments about this series of posts. I’m glad it’s touched a chord with so many of you.

    NGD — To me, car chases are like any action scene — if the chase is merely about action, cars, explosions, etc, while it might be fun to watch, it’s ultimately an empty experience. If, however, the chase is about the characters, it becomes something more interesting. Sadly, the majority of car chases fall into the former category.

    pea — Good luck and let me know how it turns out.