Stage Eight: the ordeal (pg. 155 – 173)

C.Vogler, 2007, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Third Ed.

James Bond: What do you expect me to do, Goldfinger?

Goldfinger: Why Mr Bond, I expect you to die.

– from Goldfinger, Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn

Now the hero stands in the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave, facing the greatest challenge and the most fearsome opponent yet. this the real heart of the matter, what Joseph Campbell called The Ordeal. It is the mainspring of the heroic form and the key to its magic power.

Seeker, enter the Inmost Cave and look for that which will restore life to the Home Tribe. The way grows narrow and dark. You must go alone on hands and knees and you feel the earth press close around you. You can hardly breathe. Suddenly you come out into the deepest chamber and find yourself face-to-face with the towering figure, a menacing shadow composed of all your doubts and fears and well armed to defend a treasure. Here, in this moment, is the chance to win all or die. No matter what you came for, it’s Death that now stares back at you. Whatever the outcome of the battle, you are about to taste death and it will change you.

Death and Rebirth

  • The simple secret of the Ordeal is this: hero must die so that they can be reborn.

Vogler explains the dramatic movement that the audience enjoys more (than any other) is death and rebirth. In some way or other a “hero” will face death in one form or another to every story: this will most likely be their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relation ship, the death of an old personality. Miraculously, ( or rather “magically”) our hero will survive this death: reborn literally or symbolically; thus, to reap the consequences of having cheated death – they have passed the main test of being a hero.

Heroes don’t just visit death and come home. They return changed, transformed. No one can go through a near death experience without being changed in some way.

The placement of the crisis or ordeal depends on the needs of the story and the tastes of the storyteller. The most common pattern is for the death – and – rebirth moment to come near the middle of the story: there is a diagram that demonstrates the Central Crisis – Midpoint Ordeal happens between the end of Act Two A and the beginning of Act Two B; the dramatic high point in a story with a Central Crisis – vertical lines represent the high point of each act.

Central Crisis has the advantage of symmetry, and leaves plenty of time for elaborate consequences to flow from the Ordeal; this structure allows for critical moments or turning points at the end of Act Two B.

Delayed Crisis is an equally effective structure and can be built with a delayed crisis, three quarters of the way into the story: there is also a diagram demonstrating the delayed crisis forming within Acts 1,2 and 3. A delayed crisis leaves more room for preparation and Approach; allowing a slow buildup to a big moment at the end of Act Two.

It is safe to say that every story needs a Crisis Moment that conveys the Ordeal’s sense of death and revival. A witness is an important factor at this stage; someone who stands nearby, who sees the hero appear to die, momentarily mourns the death, and is elated when the hero is revived. Witnesses stand for the audience, who are identifying with the heroes and feeling the pain of death with them.

Audiences are not sadistically enjoying seeing their hero die; it’s just that, we relish a little taste of death – it’s bitter flavour makes life taste sweeter. Anyone who has had a true near-death experience, a sudden close call in a car or a plane, knows that after a while colour seem sharper, family and friends are more important, and time is precious. The nearness of death make life seem more real.

The most common kind of Ordeal is with the opposing force in a battle or confrontation; this could be, a deadly enemy villain, antagonist, opponent, or even a force of power.

The archetype  of the Shadow encompasses all of these possibilities.

Demonization, generally the Shadow represents all of the hero’s fear and unlikeable, rejected, or negative qualities: all the things we do not like about ourselves – we try to project onto other people. This is called demonizing; the devil himself is God’s Shadow, a projection of all the negative and rejected potential of the Supreme Being.

This projection or polarization is needed in order to see the issue clearly. An unhealthy imbalance system for a long time if not categorized and polarized with the conflicts, means to duke it out in some kind of dramatic confrontation.

Villains can be looked as the Hero’s Shadow in human form; no matter how alien the villain’s values, in some way they are the dark reflection of the hero’s own desires, magnified and distorted, his/her greatest fears come to life.

Dracula’s abhorrence of sunlight is a symbol of the shadow’s desire to remain unexplored.

Villain’s are heroes in their own stories. Keep in mind that while some villains or Shadows “exult in being bad”, many don’t think of themselves, evil at all. In their own twisted/ psychotic minds they are right: the heroes of their own stories.

How heroes cheat Death, in the classic “hero myths” – the Ordeal is set up as a moment in which the hero is expected to die. These mythic heroes face certain death, but…. survive! Reason being: because they have sought supernatural aid in the early stages; were as, other’s failed to do so.

The hero doesn’t have to die for the moment of death to have its effect. The hero may be a witness to death or the cause of death.They cheat Death, usually, with the help of the mentor’s gift.

The best example for this would be: Theseus and the Minotaur – in ancient Greek mythology Theseus (The Hero), has won the love of Ariadne, daughter of the tyrant Minos (The Antagonist/Villain) of Crete, in the Approach Phase. Once Theseus is sentenced to the uncertain, deadly depths of the Labyrinth; Ariadne seeks the aid of Daedalus (The Mentor), designer of the Labyrinth. His magical help is of the simplest kind: a ball of thread?

How would Theseus survive with a ball of thread you say? Well, Ariadne goes to Theseus before he enters the Labyrinth, she holds one end of the thread, as Theseus winds through the Labyrinth (with the ball of thread). This way Theseus recover his tracks, which will ultimately lead him to victory, escaping the Minotaur (The Central Crisis/Conflict/Confrontation) .

Ariadne’s Thread is a potent symbol of the power of love, of the almost telepathic wiring that joins people in an intense relationship. It can tug at you like a physical connector at times. It’s close kin to the “apron strings” that bind even adult children to their mothers — invisible wires but with greater tensile strength than steel.

Negative Amius or Anima – Sometimes in our lives we confront negative projections of the Anima or Animus. Asserting itself like Mr. Hyde taking over from Dr. Jekyll; this can be a person who is not good for us, or a bitchy or bastardly  part of ourselves. Such a confrontation can be a life-threatening ordeal in a relationship or a person’s development. The hero of Fatal Attraction finds that a casual lover can turn into a “lethal force”, if crossed or rejected.

  • An ideal partner can turn into the Boston Strangler
  • A loving father can become a killer, as in the shining
  • the wicked stepmothers or queens of Grimm’s fairy tales: mothers whose love turned dark

Questioning the Journey

  1. What is the Ordeal in The Silence of the Lambs? The Prince of Tides? Pretty Woman?
  2. What is the Ordeal in your story? Does your story truly have a villain? or is there simply an antagonist?
  3. In what way is the villain or antagonist the hero’s Shadow?
  4. Is the villain’s power channeled through partners or underlyings? What special functions do these part perform?
  5. Can the villain also be a Shapeshifter or Trickster? What other archetypes might a villain manifest?
  6. In what way does your hero face death in the Ordeal? What is your hero’s greatest fear?





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