Every great heroic story has that moment. It’s the deep breath before the plunge. The calm before the storm. The quiet before the calamity. In the Hero’s Journey, it’s the Approach before the Ordeal.
It’s an essential moment you need to plan for and build around as you draft your story. And to do it right, you’re going to need to figure out three key elements.
How Did We Get Here?
As a quick refresher, your hero starts humbly (Ordinary World), experiences a Call to Adventure, Refuses that call somehow, and finds him or herself encouraged and trained by a Mentor. Next, through a combination of will and force, the hero steps over the boundary between safety and danger, the Threshold, and begins his or her journey in a world of Trials, Allies, and Enemies.
This usually brings you about two-thirds of the way through your story, up to the moment you’ve been waiting for: The big climax.
Every heroic story builds to a climactic moment when the Hero confronts the Shadow and ultimate choices are made. The resulting scenes are thrilling, action-packed, and high-stakes in ways that everything before can’t be.
To get here, you’re going to need to plan three storytelling elements:
- A Shadow character
- High stakes for success/failure
- A nearly-impossible task associated with the Shadow
With these elements in-hand, you’ll be able to craft the next two steps of the Hero’s Journey: The Approach and the Ordeal.
Let’s start with the Shadow.
The Shadow: Get Your Villain Right
Joseph Campbell identified an archetypal character who appears in almost every heroic myth: The Shadow.
The Shadow is often called the villain. But what is more important is that he or she is a darker version of the hero. Belloc, the greedy archeologist who steals from Indiana Jones, says to him, “I am but a shadowy reflection of you.” For the Shadow to work, he or she needs to be the “bad” version of what makes your hero good.
Here are some elements that are often similar between Hero and Shadow:
- Background, family, and/or culture
However, other elements must be in opposition, otherwise there will be no reason to call your Hero “good” and the Shadow “evil.” Some include:
- Leadership style
- Physical strengths
- Belief in “freedom” or some other positive societal value
- Opinions on physical violence
When the Hero and Shadow share several characteristics, this gives them reason to threaten one another and even consider teaming up. In fact, you’ve probably seen the scene a thousand times where the villain invites the hero to join him or her (Darth Vader to Luke, Kylo Ren to Rey in Star Wars).
Without these shared traits, there’d be no reason for this source of intense internal conflict. There would only be stark opposition, and the relationship would never find any depth.
So as you plan the latter sections of your heroic journey, make sure you get your Shadow right by designing shared traits with your Hero to keep things interesting.
The Stakes: Make Them Both Specific and General
When the time comes for the Hero to face the Shadow late in the journey, the stakes need to be higher than ever.
This has to be true specifically, for the hero him or herself, and it has to be true generally, for the world at large.
No heroic journey is about the hero alone, as every hero symbolizes a greater societal value: Hope. Freedom. Faith. Democracy. Yet the hero must also have plenty to lose as well.
The Harry Potter books are incredibly intimate, taking the reader inside Harry’s tortured mind and lonely soul. Yet his epic adventures have worldwide consequences as he must confront the rising evil of the Dark Lord Voldemort.
This is what heroes do: They go in place of the people and face a most ultimate form of death. They put their own skin on the line, but their actions have universal impact. That’s what makes them so beloved when they win, and so worshiped when they suffer and die.
As you plan this climactic moment when Hero and Shadow finally clash, make sure the stakes — both local to the hero and general to the world — are at their peak intensity.
The Task: Challenging and Unidirectional
Whatever the Hero must do to pursue his or her ultimate goal, there must be a massive task to accomplish. Examples include storming a castle, surviving a deathmatch, escaping from a monster, winning a fight, delivering a great audition or interview, and so on.
These are the kinds of tasks we write poetry and songs about. These are the kinds of events that Lego builds toys about (except the audition/interview, of course).
There are two aspects of your confrontational task that must be incorporated into the design in order for them to be successful: Challenge and Direction.
First, the Task must be incredibly challenging.
It must be so challenging that your hero could not have succeeded in the first 50% of the book, and there’s doubt whether or not he/she can succeed even now. It must be so challenging that the hero, or his/her companions, suffer to achieve it.
Take the first example of storming the castle, a common task in all sorts of stories from Game of Thrones to James Bond. The Shadow is lurking in a fortress with the object of desire (maybe a princess, a throne, a weapon, etc). In order to save the world, the hero must infiltrate the castle, obtain the object of desire, and escape.
If you want this scene to be convincing, you can’t have your hero sneak (or fight) in, grab the goods, and flee unscathed — at least not in this part of the Hero’s Journey. You can get away with it as an opening bit (like in a Bond movie), but NOT as the climactic battle.
The Task must be overwhelmingly expensive in sweat and blood. The Shadow and his/her evil cannot be overcome with ease. Otherwise you’ll lose your reader’s catharsis and compassion.
Second, the Task must be unidirectional.
In other words, there can be no turning back. The consequences for even starting must be immediate. Everything must change. This is the turning point in your story.
So what needs to change?
Usually these elements must transform:
- The Hero no longer doubts the mission and will pursue it to the end
- The Shadow no longer exhibits patience or mercy and will do anything to destroy the Hero
- The world reacts to the Hero’s act: Evil creatures begin to actively hunt the Hero, good creatures actively protect the Hero
- The object of desire is moved, destroyed, or transformed somehow
This last note is important, too. After the climactic scene between Hero and Shadow, the object of desire is often transformed in a way that alters the rest of the action. It all depends on what the particular Macguffin is.
No matter what object of desire your Hero is pursuing, the climactic moment must change everything. There is no turning back. The choice must be unidirectional.
Bring It All Together
These three elements will help you plan Steps #7 and 8 of the Hero’s Journey.
Step #7: Approach
Before every climactic action scene is a deep breath. Sometimes portrayed as beginning with a montage or training scene, the Approach is the moment when the Hero pauses, considers all that is at Stake in order to defeat the Shadow, and then soldiers onward.
This moment is essential, and captures the universal human emotion of fear. All heroes experience some kind of fear, whether it’s fear of death, failure, or the unknown. But before any great campaign against evil, there must be an Approach.
Some stories that begin in medias res, or “in the middle,” will begin with this step before going back and showing you the beginning. This occurs in Saving Private Ryan when we see the men on the infantry transports preparing to land on Omaha Beach.
In sports movies, this moment is captured by the locker room speech. For a great example, check out Miracle, the Disney film about the men’s 1980 USA Hockey Team.
With your Shadow in mind, the Stakes at risk in facing it, and a clear Task to consider, you’ll be able to outline a powerful Approach step that will keep your reader on his/her toes.
Step #8: The Ordeal
Finally, the moment is here. Your hero must complete the Task, putting everything that’s at Stake on the line, and ultimately confront the Shadow.
How that all happens is up to you.
Writing action scenes is a whole other animal, and we’ll focus on that more in-depth in the next post specifically dealing with Step #8.
But to get to the Ordeal, you have to have the Approach. If you jump headfirst into fists and guns and kisses and shouting, the reader will be blown backward by the sudden intensity, rather than ushered along with your hero’s psyche and heart.
You’ll still need the same elements, though: Shadow, Stakes, and Task.
So get started planning so your heroic journey can reach its climax!
What are your favorite Hero’s Journey Approach and Ordeal scenes from books and movies you love? Can you find these elements in them? Let us know in the comments.
Over the course of this series, you’ve crafted your hero and started them on their journey. Now, take fifteen minutes to plan your character’s coming Approach and Ordeal. Write about these three elements:
- Your Hero’s “Shadow” character: What traits do your Hero and the Shadow have in common? What separates them and makes them enemies?
- The Stakes involved: What will your Hero have to risk in order to defeat the Shadow and any other threat to the world? What is at risk for the Hero’s community, or the community of the world at-large?
- The Task: What incredibly challenging feat must the Hero accomplish in order to successfully confront the Shadow?
Post your thoughts in the comments, then find another writer’s plan and leave a helpful comment on it!