By Jax Hunter
Welcome to the next installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen. This monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month) explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.
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Last month, we covered the first five steps of the Hero’s Journey; those that take place in Act I. That left us crossing the threshold into Act II, with the steps that make up the middle half of the book.
Step Six - Tests, Allies and Enemies (oh, my.)
This is the special world of the adventure/quest, where our intrepid hero finds new challenges, makes new friends and learns the rules of the world and the battle he entered.
This Special World stands in sharp contrast to the world of Ordinary left behind. After the long, lonely time crossing the first threshold, our hero gets to rest and recuperate for a little while, often in a seedy bar or saloon. Remember the cantina in Star Wars, where the alliance is made with Han Solo (who is the true hero of the movie - at least for me. . . I could go on and on comparing the dashing Han with the wimpy Luke, but I won’t.) In these scenes, Luke and Obi Wan begin to gather a team together to go after the prize.
In Oz, this phase begins with the question to Dorothy “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Dorothy, too, gathers her allies in this section and earns their loyalty. She has opportunities, as well, to learn about the enemy.
This is a good time to begin exerting pressure on your characters to see what they’re made of.
Step Seven - Approaching the inmost cave
In the approach phase, our hero and his stalwart companions draw near to the edge of danger where the prize awaits. Here, they’ll strategize and gather their weapons for the coming battle. This phase covers all the preparations for entering the Inmost Cave. It is a great place for romance and humor as the hero looks ahead to a time of conflict.
In Star Wars, Luke and his friends are sucked into the Death Star where they meet Darth Vader.
Dorothy and her friends leave the woods and catch sight of the Emerald City. They happily skip on toward that goal, unaware of further obstacles and challenges in their way. They are seduced by illusion in the field of poppies and find Threshold Guardians blocking their way (the rude sentry at the doors of the Emerald City.)
Often the tools gathered so far on the journey will be keys to getting past these guardians, as we see when Dorothy shows that she has the ruby slippers. Within the Emerald City, Dorothy and her team are prepared for their meeting with the Wiz. But when trouble rears her pointy head, any friends they thought they had back away, leaving them alone and vulnerable.
The approach phase can be laden with setbacks like flying monkeys which disarm and discourage the hero as he gets close. This is a time of raising the stakes. At last, the final obstacles to reaching the prize are overcome so that the Supreme Ordeal may begin.
Step Eight - The Ordeal
This is the phase of the big crisis - death and rebirth - when fortunes are down and fears are up. Goals are in jeopardy. The most common pattern for the timing of this phase is the middle of Act II, though it can also be found frequently toward the end of the act.
We see R2D2 and C3PO listening as Luke and his team are nearly crushed to death by the trash compactor. Then Luke is pulled under the mucky water and the bubbles stop. All evidence points to his death, but he manages to emerge alive.
Other patterns found in the Ordeal involve the hero witnessing death (Luke sees Obi Wan die), the hero causing death, a battle with the Shadow and a battle inside the hero himself. Sometimes the villain is killed in this phase (Dorothy killing the witch.)
After all this, our hero has faced death and lived. He’s ready to seize the prize.
Step Nine - Reward
We can now quit throwing rocks at our hero and let him get down from the tree. We’re at the second turning point, headed into Act III. Now we celebrate as the hero takes possession of that which he sought. Luke rescues Leia and captures the plans for the death star. He also settles up with Darth Vader.
Dorothy seizes the broomstick and the foursome return to the wizard to claim their rewards. Of course, the Wiz balks. Toto then fulfills his purpose by revealing the man behind the curtain and the wizard bestows the prizes: a diploma to Scarecrow, a medal of valor to Lion and a wind up heart to Tinman. Sadly, there is nothing there to help Dorothy get home.
At the end of this segment, things can look pretty bleak. The hero can think that all is lost. The fates (and the author) are not through with him yet. We’re headed back to Kansas, but there will be one final obstacle.
Next month, we’ll take our hero home at last. The way won’t be smooth, but we’ll get him there.
Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard)
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.