This is Part 10 of my series on mythic structure, or monomyth.
1. This stage is the climax of your story.
The Ordeal was the major crisis; now your hero is facing his final and most terrifying confrontation with death.
2. It is often a major set piece sequence.
Roger Thornhill in the movie North by Northwest literally has to crawl on the faces of presidents on Mount Rushmore to escape the bad guys. Brody in Jaws is in a sinking boat without the help of allies who are experts at killing sharks–and the shark is coming straight for him. Fledgling Jedi Luke in Star Wars has to use The Force to destroy the Death Star. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy escapes prison, leaving behind evidence of the warden’s corruption and shaking up the system.
3. But not always:
This stage can also be a moment of quiet contemplation. There are actually two resurrection sequences in The Shawshank Redemption–the highly dramatic escape from prison by Andy, and the quiet moment Red decides to accept Andy’s invitation to meet him in Mexico. Red, who felt alien and lost as an ex-convict, is reborn when he plans his less dramatic escape as a parolee.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy merely has to click her heals to cause her “rebirth.” She wakes up in her bed at home, surrounded by those she loves.
In a romantic story, the resurrection can be symbolized by the affirmation (or reaffirmation) of the hero and heroine’s love for each other. This usually happens after both have concluded the relationship has no chance to survive.
4. The hero is not the only character who may experience a death/rebirth.
The hero may be a witness to another character’s resurrection. Hooper, who was presumed dead, suddenly pops up alive after Brody has killed the shark. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana must pass several dangerous tests to acquire the Holy Grail so he can save his dying father.
Marty gives a letter to Doc Brown warning him that terrorists are going to kill him the night Marty goes back in time in Back to the Future. Doc Brown tears up the letter before Marty goes back to his own time. When he arrives–seconds before he left–he witnesses the terrorists shooting Doc again. Doc wakes up and reveals he was wearing a bulletproof vest. He shows Marty the old and taped back together letter he gave him in 1955.
Marty, of course, has his own rebirth–into a family that has changed profoundly because of his journey into the past.
5. This stage may find the hero facing an immensely difficult choice.
In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss believes Peeta is dead and all her allies have turned against her. Ready to strike down her ally Finnick in revenge, she instead shoots her arrow into the ceiling of the arena, causing its destruction.
Disney’s retelling of the Rapunzel story, Tangled, has the dying Flynn cut off Rapunzel’s hair to vanquish the villainess, who needs the hair to stay young. By doing so, he assures his own death. Rapunzel cries over his body. It turns out her tears also have the magic in them and save Flynn’s life.
6. The hero may go through a transformation, as well as resurrection.
In the movie Avatar, Jake, who is paralyzed, is transferred into his avatar permanently, allowing his old body to die.
Transformation occurs in fairy tales after the breaking of a spell. In Beauty and the Beast, the beast transforms back into a prince once Belle gives him true love’s kiss.
The transformation doesn’t have to be that dramatic or complete. It may manifest as some sort of physical change in the hero. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke loses his hand during a battle with Darth Vader. Rapunzel’s hair is no longer long and gold. Anna in Frozen loses the white streak in her hair caused by the first time her sister struck her with her powers.
7. The transformation can be internal.
This is the internal completion of the hero’s (and perhaps other characters’) arcs.
Katniss, who has been fighting against her status as revolutionary leader, finally accepts her role as the Mockingjay. Neville Longbottom, long thought to be weak, finds the courage to stand up to Voldemort in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows. Brody, who was terrified of the water, finally feels comfortable in the ocean and acknowledges its beauty.
8. Another way to think of this stage is ascension, rather than resurrection.
Some myths and legends feature heroes who die, but ascend to heaven or some place like heaven. Hercules, for instance, is killed by his jealous wife. Because of his great deeds on Earth, the gods decide to admit him to Mount Olympus as one of them.
In modern stories, this can be taken either literally or symbolically. In the final episode of the TV series Lost, the heroes of the show literally ascend to heaven (or move on to another plane of existence, depending on how you want to interpret it). Rose in Titanic dies and reunites with Jack and the others who perished in the disaster.
More likely, though, the ascension is symbolic. The hero may achieve a dearly cherished goal, or get an unexpected promotion, or receive a tribute. In the movie Galaxy Quest, for instance, the heroes are reborn as TV stars all over again when the show goes back into production.
9. Ascension is one way to remove the hero from the Extraordinary World.
At the Crossing the First Threshold stage, it’s not uncommon for heroes to “take a leap of faith.” Sometimes they literally fall down or jump off something to gain access to the Extraordinary World. The transition from the Ordinary to Extraordinary World can be sudden and traumatic.
The same can be said about this part of the story, only in the opposite direction. The hero may be literally yanked out of the Extraordinary World, which is another way to symbolize their ascent.
Katniss is lifted out of the destroyed arena by the rebels. In the movie Local Hero, Mac is lifted out of the Scottish town of Ferness by helicopter. In North by Northwest, the ascension is shown in a lightly comic way, with Roger trying to save his love Eve from falling off Mount Rushmore that fades into him pulling her up on a Pullman bed on a train after they are married.
10. It is important to make the reader/audience member feel as though they have been through a cathartic experience.
Even if this part of the story is relatively quiet, there should be an emotional catharsis for the reader. In a tragic story, the catharsis is tears; in a comedic story this should be the part that makes your reader laugh the most. The lovers reunite–or part forever. The villain is finally vanquished–and perhaps hero had to die to accomplish this. Things that were wrong are put right. What the hero despised or disregarded is now prized by her.
Joy, sorrow, terror–this stage of the story should hit at least one or more of these emotions.