April 4, 2012

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

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

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. They 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 went on the journey.

The main function of the Return is to end the story, but also to dole out final rewards and punishments. This stage reflects the restoration of 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, such as 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.

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. 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 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. 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.

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. For example, think of Inception. We honestly don’t know if Cobb ends up in reality or in a dream, but we’re satisfied because it doesn’t matter. Cobb is happy, and he doesn’t care if he’s in reality or not because he’s home.

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.

Another way to write the open-ended story is to have the hero return to the Ordinary World, and then, because of the growth he has experienced on his journey, he realizes he doesn’t want to go back, and he returns to the Special World. In this type of story, the stages in the Hero’s Journey are not easily separated or organized. The Ordeal and Resurrection might happen at the same time, as well as the Reward and the Return with the Elixir. The Road Back is thrown in somewhere, or it might not happen at all. That’s the beauty of the Hero’s Journey, however. It isn’t a rigid structure. Feel free to move stages around.

For an example of the second open-ended story, in Tangled, Rapunzel returns to the tower with Mother Gothel after Flynn’s betrayal, but when she realizes her true identity, she tries to leave. Mother Gothel captures her and tricks Flynn into entering the tower, stabbing him. Flynn cuts Rapunzel’s hair, Pascal kills Mother Gothel, and Flynn declares his love for Rapunzel as he dies. Rapunzel manages to heal him with a single teardrop filled with the power of her golden hair. At this point, they leave the tower, return to the kingdom, and Rapunzel is reunited with her mother and father, the King and Queen. The ending is the Ordeal, Resurrection, Reward, and Return with the Elixir all wrapped up in a twisty braid of events. Another example is in Stardust, when Tristan returns to Wall to give Victoria a lock of Yvaine’s hair. At this point, he has already decided that he isn’t returning to Wall. He plans to stay in Stormhold. The purpose of his journey was to bring Victoria the fallen star, so he completes that journey, a true Return with the Elixir. But the story isn’t over yet. He has yet to face the Ordeal, fighting Yvaine’s witchy kidnappers. All at once, Tristan faces the Ordeal, Resurrection, and Reward.

And so the Hero’s Journey ends.

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 Return with the Elixir can you think of from books or films you’ve experienced lately?

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