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.
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.