Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hero's Journey - Ordeal

The ultimate showdown. The final battle. The central crisis. The Hero is delving deep within the Inmost Cave to do battle with the villain at its heart. There are many names for this stage of the Journey. Joseph Campbell calls it The Ordeal.

Contrary to what you might think, the Ordeal is not the climax of the story. No, the Ordeal is toward the end, but not the end itself. If you check your Road Map, you’ll see that there are four stages of the Hero’s Journey still to go. “But you just built this up to be the big fight!” Well, yes, because it is. The Ordeal is where the main battle is, the title match between good guy and bad guy. All the trials and tribulations earlier in the story have led to this moment of truth, when swords (or pistols, for you gun fanatics) are drawn and everything goes plunging straight toward the big fiery pit of doom. The Hero needs to show that those lessons earlier in the Journey were not in vain as he puts them to the test in a high-stakes battle against a superior foe. To continue that learning curve metaphor, think of the story as school and the Ordeal is your mid-term (and just as tension-filled, if done properly). Suddenly the label “Ordeal” is more than just a clever name, isn’t it?

This is probably as good a time as any to talk about the Shadow. No, not the pulp hero of the same name, we’re talking about the story archetype. The Shadow is everything the Hero is not. He’s an evil twin, a dark reflection, the figurative shadow to the Hero’s light. In fact, the Shadow often serves the function of showing us, the audience, what the Hero could become if he doesn’t learn the lessons of the story. A good example of this is Harry Potter’s Shadow, Voldemort. The Dark Lord is everything Harry could be if he had ended up in Slytherin instead of Gryffindor, and Harry finds himself wondering a few times in the course of that book series if he isn’t starting to walk the same path as that ultimate evil. The Shadow doesn’t need to be an external force, though. It could be the Hero’s own impulses and desires, warring within him for dominance in the story. It could be an old state of being that he’s trying to change, or a love that continues to burn him from the inside out. Any way you slice it, the Shadow is the archetypal villain for the Hero to thwart in the Ordeal.

Let’s see this phase at work in Rob’s Journey. When last we left him, he was gearing up to tackle his own Ordeal – writing his first novel. The novel isn’t the villain, of course. No, the Shadow he needs to fight is his own fear, self-doubt and old habits. His Inmost Cave is the room where he writes, and his Ordeal is thwarting temptation so he can focus on writing 50,000 words in one month. It’s not an easy task, not when he still has work occupying the majority of the week, friends who want him to sit down and game with them, and family to visit in the holiday toward the end of the month. The deck is stacked against him from the start, but our Hero perseveres and fights to meet his word count day after day. Back and forth he goes, the days ticking by as he sits at his desk (or coffeehouse, sometimes, with his trusty PDA) and lays out word after word. Finally, the clock strikes midnight on November 31, signaling the start of December and the end of NaNoWriMo. Rob sits back and looks at his final word count: 50,007. He did it. He wrote his first novel.

We’re not through with our story yet, though. To the contrary, the true climax of our Hero’s Journey is still to come. The stress of the Ordeal has been overcome, now it’s time to kick back, relax and enjoy our victory as we savor the Reward!


  1. Well done, sir! NaNoWriMo better be prepared for the wellspring of creativity and talent coming their way. :)

  2. NaNoWriMo has already been ambushed by my imagination. In a few months, I'm moving on to bigger and better targets - literary agents!

  3. Well, then THEY better be ready to be amazed. :)


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