December 23, 2010

the hero's journey - return with the elixir

So we’ve come to the end of it at last. It’s been a fun few weeks getting the Hero’s Journey organized for you all. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and I hope you’ve learned a bit too. The last stage in the Hero’s Journey is the Return with the Elixir.

Having survived all the ordeals, the heroes leave the Special World. Sometimes, they begin a new journey, and other times, they go home, but in both cases, they are leaving this adventure behind them and starting anew. The proceed with a sense that they are starting a new life, one much different that their previous one. The reason the stage is named Return with the Elixir is because of the idea that for the adventure to have meant anything at all, the hero must return with something from the Special World, proof that he actually partook in the journey.

Another name for the Return is denouement, which anyone who’s ever taken a writing class recognizes. Last post, I talked about the mounting of conflict that builds to the climax near the end of the story. Well, the denouement comes next. It literally means “untying” or “unknotting” in French. The Return with the Elixir stage resolves all the tension and conflict of the climax. It’s at this point that all (or most of) the subplots or outstanding mysteries need to come to some sort of close or resolution. Otherwise, the story feels unfinished. The story needs to have a sense of ending, like the story really is over, rather than just feeling like the story stopped mid-scene.

There are two traditional ways to end the Hero’s Journey. The most common is the circular form, where there is a sense of closure and completion. The other, is the open-ended form in which there is a sense of unanswered questions, ambiguities, and unresolved conflicts. 

In the circular form, the narrative returns to its starting point. The Pevensies return to Professor Kirk’s house, where their story began before entering Narnia. Frodo returns to Bag End after destroying the One Ring. Wendy returns to her home in London after her adventure in Neverland. Harry Potter returns to his aunt and uncle’s house after his year at Hogwarts. Alice returns home after her adventure in Wonderland. In this structure, the hero returns full circle, back to the location or world where they started. Having the hero return to his starting point or remember how they started their journey allows the reader to compare the hero’s life before and after the adventure. It gives a measure of how far the hero has come, how they’ve changed, and how their old world looks different now. Generally, this is the ending most common in fairy tale type stories.

In the open-ended story form, it is possible to create a sense of closure without returning the hero to where he began his journey. By addressing the main dramatic questions raised at the beginning of the story, at least the main plot and perhaps an important subplot can be resolved. In the open-ended point of view, the story goes on after the story is over; it continues in the minds and hearts of the reader. The movie that immediately comes to mind is Inception. The ending is ambiguous and mind-boggling. If you have yet to see it, you’re missing out. I won’t give it away, but seriously, go buy the dang movie; it’s worth the $20. Even after watching the film several months ago, the ending is still ingrained in my mind. Open-ended stories usually leave moral conclusions for the reader. Some questions have no answers, some have many. Some stories end not by answering those questions, but by posing new questions that resonate in the reader long after the story is over. Generally, realistic stories that view the world as an ambiguous, imperfect place will have this type of ending.
The function of this stage is to be the end. It must finish your story so that it satisfies or provokes your audience as you intended. The ending of a story can fall flat if everything is resolved too neatly or just as expected. A good Return should untie the plot threads but with a certain amount of surprise, challenging the expectations of the reader. That doesn’t mean get to the end of your story and go plot twist! Just as an expected ending is unsatisfying, an unearned plot twist is even worse.

Another function of the Return is to dole out final rewards and punishments. It restores balance to the world of the story, giving a sense of completion. Villains die or get their comeuppance, and heroes receive rewards (that should be) proportionate to the trials they’ve suffered.

The real key to the final stage is the Elixir. What does the hero bring back from the Special World? Bringing back the Elixir is the hero’s final test. It proves they’ve been there and it shows above all that death can be overcome. The Elixir may be an actual substance or medicine. It could be money, fame, power, love, peace, happiness, success, health, knowledge, or anything of value. If the traveler doesn’t bring back something to share, he’s not a hero. He hasn’t learned his lesson. He hasn’t grown.

It’s easy to blow it in the Return. Many stories fall apart in the final moments because the ending is too abrupt, prolonged, unfocused, unsurprising, or unsatisfying. Sometimes writers fail to bring all the elements together at the Return. Subplot threads are left unresolved. The fates of the secondary characters and ideas are forgotten about in the shadow of the main character. All the subplots in a story need to at least be acknowledged at the end of a story, if not resolved. On the other hand, there may be too many subplots to be resolved, dragging the ending along. Return of the King anyone? Many stories fail because they have too many endings. The audience senses the story is over but the writer, perhaps unable to choose the right ending, tries several. This is frustrating. Keep it as simple as possible without losing the fiber of the story. 
Sometimes, an ending may feel too abrupt, giving the sense that the writer quit too soon after the climax. The story feels incomplete without the drawing of conclusions, that final farewell between the characters and the reader. A Return may also feel unfocused if the dramatic questions raised in the beginning of the story go unanswered. The writer may have failed to pose the right questions in the beginning. I often did this with term papers. The theme of my paper would change over the course of writing it, and the point I was out to make when I started changed by the time I finished the paper. This can happen with stories too. Think LOST. Yes, nearly everything was tied up at the end, but the questions and the themes that were raised at the beginning of the stories are still unanswered, and not in a good way. Why the eff does that statue only have four toes? We’ll never know. Either the story needs to begin with the themes the writer discovered along the way (go, go revisions!), or the ending needs to reflect the themes from the beginning.

And so the Hero’s Journey ends.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday! Be safe and enjoy the company of family and friends this weekend. I’ll see you guys Monday!

P.S. Don’t forget to enter my holiday contest!

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