March 21, 2012

back to basics: the hero's journey, stage eight

Continuing with the series on the Hero’s Journey, today we’re going to talk about stage eight of the mythic structure: the Ordeal. To see all the posts I’ve done so far, check out the “writing help” navigation tab at the top of the page.

So here’s the biggie.

Everything in the story so far has led up to this point, the Ordeal. The hero stands in the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave, facing the greatest challenge and the most fearsome opponent yet. He has prepared for this moment, and he is ready for the struggle he will surely face.

The Ordeal has a single, specific function: death and rebirth. Certainly you don’t want to kill off your main character. He’s made it this far, and we, the readers, have been rooting him on from the beginning. Unless you’re George R.R. Martin. Apparently he can get away with killing everyone and still sell books. This moment of death and rebirth is the dramatic moment audiences enjoy most. It’s when we see the main character at his darkest, and then we see him overcome that darkness.

In this stage, heroes must face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of the efforts, the end of a relationship, the death of their former selves. The hero survives this death, and they are reborn. This is the main test for the hero. And he will not go unchanged by the experience. The hero emerges stronger, wiser, and unafraid. Usually a new understanding dawns on the hero, something that they just couldn’t grasp before their near-death experience.

In classical mythology, the Ordeal is set up as a moment in which the hero is expected to die. Many other heroes have made it to this point before and none have survived. The remains of previous adventures lie at the mouth of the demon’s cave, the evidence of failed attempts surround the hero, testing him.

The most common kind of Ordeal is some sort of battle with the opposing force, the Shadow. A good Ordeal pits every bit of negative strength against the hero. He struggles and comes close to death. This resistance only makes him stronger, and he overcomes the villain of the story. Usually, this means the Shadow is put down, killed, maimed, destroyed, conquered, lobotomized… etc. A villain’s death should not be too easy for the hero to accomplish. Death should be real, and not a mere plot convenience. This moment needs to be difficult for the hero, and it needs to really affect him. 

Now, the hero’s greatest threat (at the time of the Ordeal) has been disposed of, but the hero may have other forces to deal with before the adventure is over. The Shadow he killed in the Ordeal may have been an underling, or he may have only wounded this chieftain of evil, who escapes to be fought later. He may have to face a psychological or emotional struggle before he’s ready to go home.

Now, it’s true that everything in the story thus far has led to this ordeal, but that does not mean that the Ordeal is the climax. No, no. The Ordeal is better known as the crisis. The Ordeal is usually the central event of the story, the point in the story when the enemy and hero are in the tensest state of opposition. It’s the black moment, when all hope seems lost, when the hero faces the enemy and loses. Whether it’s the battle, a love interest, a friend, or the hero’s own confidence, the hero must lose something.

The Ordeal is supposed to elicit an emotional response in the reader. Human emotions have a weird elasticity to them… call them mood swings. When forced to live through a depressing moment, the elation afterward is that much greater. In any story, the writer is trying to lift the audience, raise their awareness, and heighten their emotions. The structure of a story acts like a pump to increase the involvement of the audience, lowering and raising the hero’s fortunes. I wrote a post about this eons ago that you can read here. Emotions depressed by the presence of death can rebound in an instant to a higher state than before. The Ordeal is one of the deepest depressions in a story, leading to one of the highest emotional peaks.
The placement of the Ordeal or crisis depends on the needs of the story and falls under the discretion of the writer. The traditional placement for the death-and-rebirth moment comes near the middle of the story, falling at the near perfect center of the narrative. This is known as the central crisis, and it leaves plenty of room for consequences following the Ordeal. This structure allows for another critical moment between the Ordeal and the climax. The crisis at the halfway point signifies that the hero has reached the middle of the story, the middle of the journey. Most tales naturally lend themselves to this structure, focusing on a central event. Everything in the journey has led to this moment, and everything afterward will be a return to normalcy. There may be greater adventures to come, but the whole point of the story has been to reach this central moment.

My personal placement preference (alliteration!) is near the end. There is no life-or-death moment in the middle of the story. Instead, there is a long build-up to an even greater Ordeal. This is known as the delayed crisis, where the central Ordeal is moved to about two-thirds or three-quarters into the story rather than half. The delayed crisis structure matches closely with the ideal of the Golden Mean (oh, how I love math!), and it allows more room for preparation and the Approach. In this structure, the Ordeal and the climax become a cluster of high-events, all building on one another to make an emotional roller-coaster at the very end of the story.

Whether the crisis is in the center or near the end, the story must have some form of the Ordeal, a crisis moment that conveys a sense of death-and-rebirth. Sometimes, this moment doesn’t happen to the hero. He may merely be a witness to the death-and-rebirth of another character. He may also be the cause.

Now, once the hero has been on the verge of death, he must go on to reap the consequences and rewards of defying death. The story isn’t over yet.

If you have any questions about the Hero’s Journey, don’t hesitate to ask. I know a lot more about it than I’ve said here, and I would be happy to clear anything up, if you need me to. This is a rather general overview, since I don’t want you guys to have to read insanely long posts, but if you would like a more in depth analysis as it pertains to writing, check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. If you are just interested in the Hero’s Journey in itself, check out A Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

What examples of the Ordeal can you think of from books or films you’ve experienced lately?


  1. Would Gandalf's fall while fighting the balrog be an Ordeal moment?

    1. Oh, definitely. Though Frodo and the other characters have faced death before (especially when Frodo falls ill after his encounter with the Witch King), the supposed death of Gandalf is a special loss, since, to the characters, Gandalf seemed undying--too powerful and too important to die, especially since he is the Mentor figure of the story. That's an especially good example. :)