Tag Archives: hero

The Hero’s Journey Climax: 3 Key Principles to Write the Ordeal Scene

Writing a Hero’s Journey climax isn’t easy. Even when you outline it properly, you might struggle to put the right words on the paper.

If you understand what makes a great Hero’s Journey climax, however, you can defeat this daunting task easier.

In this article, you’ll learn what the Hero’s Journey climax, otherwise known as the Ordeal, is—and why it is so important.

You’ll also learn writing tips that can help you write this well: how to raise the stakes and maintain the action without losing the heroic arc that your protagonist has learned along the way.

Understanding A Strong Hero’s Journey Climax

As a judge of several writing contests, I’ve read many stories filled with action, violence, shouting, and assorted conflict. While a few of these stories pulled off their hero’s journey climaxes, most of them bombarded me with noise, gore, curses, and even sexual activity—all while abandoning their protagonist’s true journey.

When that happens, you can count your reader out.

Here’s how to write your story’s climax and keep your reader excitedly turning pages.

The Hero’s Journey (Recap)

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a theory exploring a timeless, mythical story structure. Following a hero as they flee their everyday life, the hero’s central conflict involves a quest for justice and rebirth that must come from defeating an evil force, usually called the Shadow.

This entire journey has been condensed into Christopher Vogler’s 12 Steps of the Hero’s Journey, an outline of story elements and the series of events leading from the beginning to the climactic event (the moment when the hero either achieves their goal or is defeated).

Prior to the climatic event, or the Hero’s Journey Ordeal, there’s an Approach to the Inmost Cave. Here, before the hero performs a big, decisive action, there is a brief pause. During this time the author establishes three key things:

  1. The villain guarding the goal is really, really nasty
  2. The cost of losing (known as stakes) are extremely high
  3. The task that must be completed in order to achieve victory

Once this “calm before the storm” has occured, you are free to send your hero unto the breach so they can face the tests ahead.

Let’s talk about how to do just that!

Hero’s Journey Step 8: The Ordeal (the Climax)

In Hero’s Journey-speak, the climax of the story is known as the Ordeal.

The Ordeal is a complicated and nearly-impossible task that your hero must accomplish in order to achieve their goal. Accomplishing it, however, cannot end the story, but merely reveal that the goal itself does not satisfy your hero’s deepest need. But more on that later.

An easy way to think of the Ordeal is as an action sequence, but this may not always be the case. It could be a test of character, like in The Queen’s Gambit. It could be a test of wit and wisdom, as in WandaVision. And it can be a test of loyalty, as in Pride and Prejudice. 

But most often it is, in fact, a test of strength, strategy, and skill.

There is a “storming of the castle,” so to speak, where your hero must face a task that is greater than anything they have encountered so far. It’s also likely your hero comes face to face with the villainous Shadow in this scene.

From 30,000 feet, though, remember that the goal of the Ordeal scene is to have your hero obtain the Goal of the quest.

“ If you want to write a great Hero’s Journey climax, make sure you show how the hero obtains their Goal.

This usually involves rescuing someone, acquiring a treasure or weapon, or fulfilling some other task (like destroying the One Ring of Sauron, à la The Lord of the Rings). 

However, the act of doing so much reveal something about the Goal, the world it lives in, and/or the hero themselves that leads to dissatisfaction or fails to resolve the issues facing the story in a complete way.

3 Key Principles in a Hero’s Journey Climax (Ordeal)

The Ordeal is a lengthy scene, filled with many beats, and each beat must be carefully designed to maximize its impact. This is the moment your reader has been waiting for, after all!

How do you write it so it is irresistibly good? “ A Hero’s Journey climax (or Ordeal) includes three key principles. Learn how to write them in this article.

1. Focus on what got you here: Desire

It’s easy to screw this up. When we plan and write a story, we spend a lot of time building up toward the exciting climactic event. So when we get there, it’s easy to overdo it with physical details as we attempt to take the movie playing in our heads and put it down on paper.

Unfortunately, the same movie will never play in your reader’s mind. There might not be a movie playing at all.

Instead, when readers confront pages of physical description and noise (whether they’re depictions of fistfights, gun battles, sexual intimacy, or shouted opinions), they instinctively recoil.

This is especially true if the bombast isn’t earned, but thrust too quickly or emphatically into the story.

This is natural. We avoid conflict, especially conflict that we can’t comprehend or establish ourselves in, even as observers. It is imperative that your reader understands every piece of your story’s action, and that they care about the outcome of each punch, jump, kiss, or insult.

That’s why you need to focus on what got you here: Your protagonist’s desire.

And along with that desire (for their want and need), is their fear. What do they have to lose? Why is success so important to them?

Each moment of action must be filtered through the protagonist’s journey of hope and fear. Each step forward or retreat backward must come with hope, disappointment, terror, anticipation, belief, despair . . . all the emotions that accompany an active protagonist.

A great example can be found in George Lucas’s epic space fantasy, Star Wars. 

The final battle between the Rebellion and the Empire is ultimately a loud, bombastic explosion of lasers and engines screaming across the screen. But there are two elements infusing it with incredible emotion: Friendship and the Force.

First, Luke is fighting not just for the Rebellion, but for his friends. Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are on Yavin-4, the planet about to be obliterated by the Death Star. And his best friend from home, Biggs, gets killed in the fight.

Then to add to it, Luke seems to know that computers and technology alone cannot win the battle for him. After all, they are fighting a massive machine (the Death Star) and a small machine (Darth Vader); clearly the Empire has the upper hand when it comes to dehumanizing control.

The scene, and his character, takes a massive turn when Luke listens to the voice of his master, speaking through the mystical energy field called the Force, instructing him to trust in it and use it.

Luke does, and this is what gives Star Wars’ climactic moment its most powerful punch. Luke doesn’t just desire to beat the Empire; he desires for his life to have meaning. The Force gives him that meaning that he deeply seeks.

2. Use beats of quiet contemplation or conversation

Another mistake authors make with their story climaxes is to load them with nonstop action.

Again, this may be a result of “writing the movie in your head,” as we hope to create a scene of pulse-pounding excitement, and write one blindingly exhausting scene after another.

But this isn’t how the human mind processes things. It also doesn’t allow much room for your hero to process how the stakes (and their dreams) are changing in the moment. Human beings are constantly evaluating and strategizing, and you need little moments of quiet thought or peaceful conversation to punctuate the sound and the fury of your story climax.

More movies do this than you might immediately realize. Rewatch your favorite action movie and you’ll notice throughout the climactic action scenes just how often the story pauses for characters to think, reflect, and reorient themselves.

The Hunger Games excels at this.

Partially, author Suzanne Collins is at an advantage, since the Ordeal could include all of the “Games.” Yet the Games aren’t packed with wall-to-wall violence. Take the relationship between Katniss and Rue.

Neither come from wealth or privilege. District 12 is hardly a paradise, and from what Katniss learns from Rue, neither is District 11. With an ordinary world in common, the two form a friendship which seems based on love and respect for life. It’s these quiet, beautiful moments that make Rue’s death so gut-wrenching. They are also why her death is such a critical moment in both the plot and Katniss’s character development.

So add in a few moment for your characters to catch their breath and connect in the midst of the chaos. Your reader will probably need to do the same, too!

3. Don’t give the hero what they want

One final trick that will make your climax unbelievably thrilling is to withhold the very thing the scene promises to deliver: The Goal.

This isn’t just meant to mess with your reader. It’s to reflect a painful reality of life: That what we want is often deeply unsatisfying, or at least not so easily won.

There are two ways to do this.

First, you can simply have the Goal be taken away. Destroy the MacGuffin. Kill off the character. Have the Shadow, or villain, hide the Goal or protect it in a more ultimate way.

Or secondly, and perhaps more meaningfully, let the hero obtain the Goal, only to feel a deep and hollow disappointment.

So often we orient our lives toward some physical goal, like money, fame, sex, or treasure, only to obtain that goal and find ourselves feeling emptier than ever before. We realize that no matter how much we believe we will be fulfilled by this “thing,” that no thing can ever fulfill as deeply as we’d hope.

“Want to create a gripping climax? Give your hero a win-but-lose ending: there’s some success, but there’s also failure—or even the success itself isn’t as satisfying as expected.

That’s why your hero must have something in addition to their object of desire: your hero must have an internal need.

Internal needs take the form of validation, acceptance, peace with oneself, spiritual harmony, reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance of death, emotional/spiritual rebirth, and more. These needs are what will ultimately drive your Hero’s Journey forward, because heroic journeys aren’t just about getting prizes like weapons, money, or “peace.”

They’re about peace within, and the peace all human beings long for in a world filled with so much injustice and suffering.

Such a story is the epic saga of Harry Potter.

This series is filled with several MacGuffin goals that J.K. Rowling sends her cast of characters out to find, but all of them point to the deeper problem lurking under the surface: Voldermort.

This is why Harry Potter will begin one of his adventures thinking he wants a magical object, like the Sorcerer’s Stone, but soon learns that such a thing won’t ultimately help him satisfy his deepest needs.

When Harry seeks to acquire the Sorcerer’s Stone in order to prevent Voldemort from regenerating. Yet when he looks in the Mirror of Erised (that’s Desire if you weren’t reading this in a mirror), Harry realizes that he doesn’t want a magic rock. He wants his family back. But because Voldemort destroyed it, he can never have what he truly wants.

What a powerful message to package into a children’s book! Yet this is the reality of life, and great writers use their stories’ climaxes to reflect it.

If you do this too, your story will also ripple with unfathomable power. Readers will gasp, but they won’t give up. They’ll have to keep reading, because what happens to the hero will say something about the readers’ lives as well.

That’s the kind of story we all want to write.

Ordeal/Climax: Action of the Heart

No matter what kind of climactic Ordeal your story requires, never forget that the most important action must occur in your protagonist’s heart.

It can be so easy to compose physical imagery and believe it will thrill our readers. But without the necessary action of the heart—the action of wanting, hoping, fearing, disbelieving, and more—the physical action will fall painfully flat, leaving your reader disappointed.

Don’t fall leave your reader wanting. Deliver an incredible reading experience by nailing your story’s Ordeal.

What are your favorite climax scenes from stories you enjoy? What do you love about those scenes? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford

Source: thewritepractice.com

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

The Hero’s Journey: How to Leverage the World’s Most Powerful Story Structure

From Moses to Star Wars, the Hero’s Journey is the foundation of millennia of storytelling. How can you leverage it in your own writing?

Do you want your stories to “work?”

Writers work hard at their craft. They struggle to build a story that makes sense and delivers the goods on emotion and thrills.

And so often, even after months and years of labor, a writer can’t get their story to “work.”

There are a lot of reasons why a story might not work — why it confuses readers or fails to engage them emotionally — but one major reason a story doesn’t work is structure.

Thankfully there’s a structure you can use that has a proven track record of success. This successful record is so long, in fact, that we don’t know when it started.

That structure is called the Hero’s Journey, and it’s going to transform your writing.

What Is the “Hero’s Journey”?

Our understanding of this classic structure begins with American literature professor Joseph Campbell. Campbell was interested in the way mythology affects our lives today and began digging into myths — lots of myths.

In 1949 he published The Hero With a Thousand Faces outlining what has come to be known as his “monomyth,” a theory that all stories are, in fact, the same. That “same story” is the Hero’s Journey.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:

A girl from the middle of nowhere wakes up one day to find that things are horrible, and someone has to do something about it. But she’s scared, and can’t bring herself to stand up and fight back . . . until the village elder arrives and teaches our young protagonist the ropes.

The girl sets out to find the source of her society’s problems, forcing her to leave. Along the way she encounters new faces, some of whom join her as companions, others of whom try to kill her or steal her valuables. She suffers some loses along the way, learning some truly difficult lessons.

Then, she and her companions find the source of evil: some kind of mighty fortress. The heroes storm the fortress and come face-to-face with the villain. The hero and the villain square off and the hero is killed or mortally wounded . . . only to use her resources to recover and vanquish the bad guy for good.

The hero and her surviving companions return home triumphant and bestow some kind of blessing, like food, rain, or peace, on the community.

If you’ve heard a story like that, then you know the Hero’s Journey.

Here are some examples.

“I Know This Story . . .”

Have you heard the story of the orphan boy living in the cupboard under the stairs?

Or perhaps the story of the girl in District 12 (the crappiest District) who would not only survive an unwinnable deathmatch, but become a symbol of liberty?

Maybe you’ve heard of the baby boy who was going to die in a mass genocide, but whose mother put him in a basket and sent him down the Nile River . . .

If you didn’t catch those, here they are in order: Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), and . . . Moses.

There are also variations of it, like the Anti-Hero’s Journey, a story arc for characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White. Either way, it’s still based off Joseph Campbell’s foundational research in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 

So here’s the big question: Now that you know what it is, what do you do with it?

Hero’s Journey Step #1: Start Ordinary

We have Hollywood screenwriter and executive Christopher Vogler to thank for our condensed version of the Hero’s Journey. If you’re curious, his most notable credit is a film that makes explicit use of the Hero’s Journey: The Lion King. 

Fun sidebar: The Lion King and the story of Moses in Exodus have the exact same structure. Attempted rise to power, failure and flight, return and victory.

In Vogler’s simplification of Campbell’s theory, there are twelve steps to the Hero’s Journey (and I’m going to cover each one in-depth in this series, of which this post is the first).

The first step of the Hero’s Journey: The Ordinary World.

6 Common Features of the Ordinary World

Let’s take a look at the elements of the Ordinary World. Some of these are essentials, while others aren’t necessarily essential, but are common in the vast majority of Hero’s Journey stories you’ll encounter.

1. The Average Joe

Every story begins with an “Average Joe.” He or she is someone you could be, or could be near to.

Think about how simple or average Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are, at least at first. Yes, they both have something interesting about them (Harry’s scar, Katniss’s hunting skill), but neither of these things are earth-shattering . . . yet.

2. No Parents

Another notable trope of this step is a lack of proper parents. Think about it: How many heroes do you know of whose parents are either missing, dead, or nonexistent? Orphans abound in heroic journeys.

Harry Potter’s an orphan, and Katniss has to play the mother role. Moses’s father is a mystery and he is given up as an orphan. Luke Skywalker’s parents are . . . well, you know. And Rey, in the newer Star Wars movies, is obsessed with finding out the truth of her family. More on that to come in December 2020.

3. A Disadvantageous Beginning

This has a powerful effect of bringing these heroes low. They begin at a disadvantage. How many heroes do you know of with a rock-solid family and support structure in place? There are some, but they are few and far between.

Take Peter Parker/Spider-Man, another classic orphan. He’s been adopted by his aunt and uncle (RIP Uncle Ben) because his parents are dead/missing/who knows. Even Superman, with his adopted Earth parents, feels like a stranger because his true parents died during the explosion of his home planet, Krypton. Even these mighty superheroes suffer from a trauma that human beings know all too well: the destruction of family and community.

4. A Simple, Mundane, Boring Life

Many elements of the Ordinary World are obvious. Your hero’s life is simple, mundane, even boring. He or she is often from the countryside, or lives as a stranger in the crowded, soulless metropolitan bustle.

5. Low Expectations

Other elements are less obvious. One is that no one expects anything of the hero. He is assumed to probably amount to nothing. That is, by everyone except the Mentor character (coming soon in Step #4!). It will be the Mentor who recognizes the hero’s potential heroism and talent and coaches him into that role.

6. A False Sense of Security

Another element of the Ordinary World is a false sense of security. Everything should seem, at least on the surface, peaceful and well. But in the underbelly of this world — or lingering outside its boundaries — conflict and injustice rages.

I’m reminded of the tranquil peace of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, embodied by the jovial mood at Bilbo’s birthday party. Yet that mirthful spirit is erased once Bilbo uses his magic ring — the One Ring of Evil, we soon learn — to play a trick on everyone. From that point forward, the Shire is no longer peaceful and safe, but a fragile domain whose borders are penetrated by wraiths and wild creatures in search of Sauron’s Ring.

This, of course, is the Inciting Incident, the step where you SHOULD begin your story (for the sake of hooking your reader). But that Inciting Incident, or “Call to Adventure,” must happen in the context of a quiet, seemingly peaceful world where your hero is a nobody who isn’t expected to do much at all.

3 Ways to Create Your Ordinary World

How does this apply to the stories you’re telling? Here are elements of the Ordinary World you can use to bring your hero low before they begin the climb to greatness.

1. Upset the parent structure

To keep things fresh, don’t just “kill them off.” Maybe one is missing. Maybe the parents are divorced and mom/dad remarried, while the other is off on some adventure.

A great example of innovation within this element is Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, where Peter Quill’s journey (as an orphan, mind you) takes him back to his father with plenty of twists along the way.

2. Lower the expectations

In the beginning, no one can know how heroic your protagonist will be. Don’t fall victim to cheesy irony or heavy-handed foreshadowing. Keep your hero low, and bury him/her in the judgment of the community.

If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The same can be said for the community, or “World,” itself. Often a community will expect nothing of itself because no one expects anything of it.

Think about that town you grew up near that was “trash.” Maybe it was your town. What effect does that have on its people?

3. Create a false sense of security

As the writer, you know conflict is coming. It has to come, either from within or without.

But the community, and possibly your hero, can’t know it yet. Everything needs to seem happy and fine. Remember that the effect of this false sense of security is suspense, a priceless effect you want to provide your readers whenever possible.

Let’s Get Ordinary

It’s time to start spicing and seasoning your storytelling with elements of this timeless and beloved story structure.

What are you working on now that could benefit from some of these archetypal elements? Why not try adding some elements to your current work-in-progress, or to a finished draft you’re struggling to revise?

And be sure to keep an eye out for my next article on Step Two of the Hero’s Journey!

What Ordinary Worlds can you think of in stories you’ve read and watched? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford

Source: thewritepractice.com

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing