As promised in my last post, here are stages 8 and 9 from the Writer’s Journey.
8. The Ordeal
Vogler identifies this as a halfway point in a film or story, though he also points out that the ordeal can be delayed to later in the story. I see this as there being, often, a series of ordeals that the heroine has to overcome. However, there is generally a major ordeal, in which the hero appears to die and is reborn in some way.
In Finding Nemo, this is Marlin saving Dory from the jellyfish – as he succeeds and fights his own fears and makes a supreme effort to save his friend, he risks all and then the screen fades as if he is dying – we even see a shadow coming towards him, which offers hope, but also could be the shadow of death. Nemo also disappears from the meeting of the other fish and goes and blocks the pump. His ordeal is much quicker than Marlin’s and is also played out of sight, possibly to allow for the dual threads of the story.
In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is pulled under the water in the trash compactor, then released when we are certain he has drowned. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is apparently killed by the troll, but survives. In the Matrix, this could be where the plug is about to be pulled on Neo.
I can see the merit of there being a point where the heroine has to overcome herself, since typically the hero is an obstacle to his own achievement. This is where the character advances and improves themselves in some way. By changing themselves from the inside, they become a different person. In film, this is best symbolised, and seen, with actions that mirror the change. The audience needs to see and feel that there is real change. Showing, not telling, is the key here, since we can, as writers, reinforce the change that has taken place.
It’s interesting to see how films take different routes from the ordeal. Finding Nemo has Marlin given a breather, with a nice interlude as he travels with the turtles, being given a free lift towards his destination, his ultimate goal. But Star Wars has very little let up, the action continues and rises to the point where Obi Wan is killed and the action continues to rise afterwards. In fact, Str Wars only has a breather when the plans are being discussed before attacking the Death Star. This mirrors the preparation that exists on the approach to the inner cave.
I can’t help feeling that there is a cycle, repetition, here. The approach to an ordeal may, or may not, be preceded by an opportunity to prepare, to allow the audience to catch up with the action and the emotions of the characters. The ordeal itself, then allows the hero to be tested, much as earlier stages allow him to be tested. However, as the story moves forward, the testing becomes more important, the stakes are heightened and maybe the life of the heroine is at risk. Psychologically, this means that she is affected by the ordeal and gains experience. Eventually, there is so much at stake, so much has been changed, that the hero is changed by the ordeal, reborn as a different person. Once this has happened, there is no going back, things are never the same again and a threshold has been crossed. I think this is when the stage finishes, at the point when the heroine has changed and to introduce more change would only confuse the story.
I seem to have merged my understanding of the previous stage with this stage. Vogler identifies this stage, the ‘Seizing of the Sword’, as the point where the heroine gains the object, physical or not, that she has been striving for. In Star Wars, this is Luke rescuing Leia from the Death Star, even though Obi Wan is lost.
This may be an internal reward, i.e. the hero overcomes their own fears or insecurities, which points out the reason why it is common to have heroines who have character faults, so that she can overcome them.
I see this mirrored in different ways at different times. Luke overcomes his own immaturity when grieving for Obi Wan when he jumps backs into the battle with the tie fighters – ‘it ain’t over yet kid’. This is similar to the kick up the pants that the mentor may give the hero in earlier stages. But Han Solo is on his own story and he changes when he comes back to save Luke, even though he sacrifices his own safety to do so by angering Jaba the Hutt. Princess Leia gets sidelined for the moment, her story is put on hold, possibly because she is the reward at the moment.
In Lord of the Rings, this seems to be repeated at several points, e.g. when Frodo makes it to Rivendell, when the fellowship get into Moria, when they get out the other side of the mountain, etc. There seem to, again, be many ordeals. I’m not sure how useful it is for Vogler to identify a specific ordeal. This seems to imply that one of them is the most important. I feel that this is where films often fail, where they are just playing for time, waiting for the main event to arrive.
Maybe the definition of the ordeal is a backward identification, i.e. it happens at the point just before the reward is won. This makes a lot of sense to me and from a writing point of view it, it nicely identifies how a plot should progress towards some form of change/reward.
Vogler identifies the importance of the change within the hero. Before the Reward, the protagonist has been a trainee, but afterwards, the heroine is a true heroine and stands apart from most of her own people and has become a ‘special’ person. Vogler also identifies a moment of clarity for the hero, who can now see himself to have been stubborn, or afraid, or possessing of character flaws that he couldn’t see before. Vogler does point out that this clarity may be momentary. It does not, result in, necessarily, and improvement in the overall character of the heroine, but it does allow her to see herself clearly for a while.
Hopefully this makes some sense of Vogler, who is nothing if not extensive in his book. My own analysis is only scratching at the surface of his work.
Next time I hope to cover stage 10 and 11.
Best wishes and happy writing