This is Part 7 of my series on the hero’s journey, or monomyth.
1. The ordeal is the first major confrontation with the main forces of antagonism.
After undergoing many tests, forming alliances, figuring out enmities, gaining some respect in the extraordinary world of the adventure, it is time for the hero to experience her first major battle against the antagonist(s).
2. This generally occurs at the mid-point of the story.
The ordeal is not interchangeable with the climax of a story. This is the major crisis, not the end of the journey. It doesn’t have to be at the mid-point. It’s fine if the ordeal occurs later, but it’s important to remember this is not where the story ends and that it’s not necessarily the last confrontation with the forces of antagonism.
3. The initial confrontation of the ordeal may or may not involve a face-to-face confrontation with the main antagonist.
While in many stories ordeals start with the hero facing their major opponent directly (i.e. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West in her castle) the confrontation may start as an indirect one.
For instance, in the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest, hero Roger Thornhill has been mistaken for a secret agent named George Kaplan. He has been given instructions–by someone he thought he could trust–to meet Kaplan in an open corn field. While waiting for him to arrive, a small plane starts buzzing him–and shooting at him.
It’s not until the later part of his ordeal, well after he escapes this attack, that Thornhill has a face-to-face confrontation with the antagonist.
4. Death is a common motif during the ordeal.
While some stories do not require heroes in mortal danger (romances, for instance) there is usually at least a symbolic death during the ordeal.
In a romance, this is where it will seem to the characters and the reader that the relationship has hit a wall and has no chance of survival. A story may also substitute the death of a friendship, the collapse of a society, or the end of a goal or dream the hero has been clinging to. There are many ways to interpret this stage of the journey.
Heroes will go through a death experience of some kind, sometimes literally. In The Princess Bride, Westley is killed by Prince Humperdink in The Pit of Despair. In E.T. the Extraterrestrial, E.T. appears to die on the operating table.
5. The hero may only face the possibility of death.
Dorothy waits for the sands of the hourglass to run out, which is the deadline the Wicked Witch has set for her death. Katniss is attacked by Marvel but kills him first. Luke escapes the trash compactor.
6. The hero may witness death.
In The Hunger Games, this is the point in the story where Katniss witnesses the death of her young ally, Rue. In A New Hope, Luke witnesses the death of Obi Wan at the hands of Darth Vader.
7. The hero may cause death.
Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch with the bucket of water. Tris in Divergent is forced to kill one of her friends when he tries to kill her while under the influence of computer brainwashing.
8. Resurrection is another common motif during the ordeal.
Westley is brought back to life by Miracle Max. E.T. comes back to life after being thought dead. Obi Wan is not entirely gone, as Luke can still occasionally see and hear him. The death of Rue resonates throughout the districts and plants the seeds of rebellion.
In a love story, after the hero and heroine hit a point where they think there is no hope to salvage the relationship, by the end of the ordeal there is hope again for their love. In North by Northwest, Roger believes the woman he was beginning to fall in love with betrayed him and tried to send him to his death at the behest of her lover, a traitor to America. As the ordeal ends, he learns she is a double agent working for American interests, which revives his faith in her.
9. Beyond facing death, heroes may also face their greatest fear during the ordeal.
In Jaws, Brody must contend with his deep fear of the water. Rue reminds Katniss of her sister Prim, whose death is her greatest fear.
10. The hero may use gifts from his mentor(s) and/or other items acquired up to this point to cheat death.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry sacrifices himself to Voldemort and literally dies. He brings about his own resurrection because he possesses all three of the Deathly Hallows.
In Back to the Future, Marty uses knowledge from Doc Brown that he must get his parents to kiss at the school dance so the future where he and his siblings exist won’t be erased.
11. Most heroes profoundly change after the ordeal is over.
The change may manifest itself physically. Westley can’t move right after he is brought back to life by Miracle Max and must find a way other than physical strength to best Prince Humperdink. Luke loses his hand when he battles Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Katniss loses the hearing in one ear.
The change may also be mental/emotional. After winning the games, Katniss suffers from PTSD, reliving both the moment she killed Marvel and Rue’s death.
12. Heroes may experience elation during and after the ordeal.
Facing death and coming out the other side may result in celebration and joy, by the hero and/or other characters. When Luke and his friends survive the trash compactor, their cries of joy are mistaken for death throes by C3PO. After Dorothy melts the witch, her minions hail her as their savior. Marty is so happy he succeeded in his mission to get his parents together he plays a wild 1980s guitar solo at the dance that totally perplexes the 1950s students in attendance.
13. Consider creating a whole string of events to comprise the hero’s ordeal.
Luke’s ordeal in A New Hope comprises of a series of events, including the escaping the trash compactor and watching Darth Vader and Obi Wan duel to the death. Roger Thornhill’s ordeal starts with the attack by the plane, his confrontation with Eve, the woman he thinks betrayed him, and another confrontation with her and the villain at an auction. He escapes the villains by turning himself in to the police. His ordeal ends when a representative of a government spy agency explains to him what has been going on up to this point.
The ordeal is one of the most compelling stages in the hero’s journey. The most memorable ordeals tend to be an intricate and complex series of events.