Stage Ten: The Road Back
Heroes “gather up what they have learned, gained, stolen, or been granted in the Special World” (193) and set themselves a new goal: to escape, find further adventure, or return home.
Most Heroes, of course, return home. Dorothy is asked by her friends to remain in Oz, but as everyone knows, there’s no place like home. Robinson Crusoe finds a way, against all odds, to return home. In the movie Apollo 13, the crew, changed by their near-death experience while orbiting in space, are determined to return home. The Special World might have, at one time, seemed a desirable place to be, but now it’s time to return with new clarity to one’s previous existence.
Vogler says the road back is the time when Heros “rededicate” themselves to the adventure, but now the motivation is different. Sometimes, this is the point at which a Villain or Shadow character wreaks his revenge, and fear of retaliation or pursuit might be what motivates your Hero’s retreat. In many cases, the Hero leaves the Special World only because he’s being chased out, or is running for his life.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus’ entire ten-year story is about returning home, and he is continuously distracted during these years. He’s constantly dealing with Threshold Guardians, Villains, Shapeshifters, as well as his own, internalised shadows (his fears) and even an ally or two (Athena is on his side, and also the witch Circe shape-shifts and eventually becomes Odysseus’ ally). Even Mentor (where we get the word ‘mentor’) makes an appearance, as the wise tutor left in charge of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.
Useful questions to ask yourself at this point:
- How do your heroes rededicate themselves to the quest?
- What is the Road Back in your story? Is it returning to your starting place? Setting a new destination? Adjusting to a new life in the Special World?
- What have you learned from confronting death, defeat, or danger in your own life? How will you apply what you’ve learned to your characters?
Stage Eleven: The Resurrection
Necessary to the Hero’s learning process is that he must now experience one final “purging and purification” before re-entering the Ordinary World. This is typically the story’s climax, where the Hero is cleansed one last time of all his or her previous erroneous beliefs and behaviors. Whatever it is s/he was tested on during his or her Ordeal, s/he will now face one final “last exam.”
To learn something in the Special World is one thing; to bring the knowledge home as “applied wisdom” is another. Similar to the initiation ceremonies of the Greeks, the transformed Hero must now be seen to have been truly changed by the experiences s/he’s endured.
The Villain might be defeated, finally and at last, during the Resurrection. In some way, it will be seen that the Hero, challenged one last time by previous forces that would have bested him, are no longer strong enough to defeat him. The Hero rises, a phoenix from the ashes of his own frailties, and takes charge of his life. For some tragic heroes, of course, this is truly the end, but even so, we’re left with the knowledge that his spirit, transformed by his actions at the end, lives on after his death.
In the movie Back to the Future, for one horrible moment at the crucial “Enchantment Under the Sea” high school dance, it looks as though all is lost: Marty McFly’s father, George, pulls away from Lorraine, wimping out, losing courage right before the big kiss the audience knows has to come if he’s going to save Marty’s future. Even though George has just come from punching out the Villain, Biff Tannen, has he learned to be strong and trust his instincts, or will he let everyone, including himself, down again?
Then, in a moment of Resurrection, George, (although not the Hero, nonetheless playing a major role of Mentor and Ally to Marty) pushes away the guy who has cut in on his dance with Lorraine. George plants a solid kiss on his wife-to-be, assuring Marty’s existence! Never again will George be a spineless wimp! His self-esteem at its height, George shows he’s learned how to take charge (and saved Marty’s life in the bargain).
Marty learns that he can trust his father not to let him down, so their relationship is resurrected, as well. This forges a new bond between the two that influences Marty’s future, at the same time that it irrevocably changes the psychological dynamic for Marty, who has further lessons to learn about himself.
The key for the writer is to make these character-changes overt. Real change must be seen in the character’s attitudes, clothes, actions, and words.
Since the goal of your story is to show the entire character arc, (all the incremental ways in which you, the writer, force change upon your characters) when tested this one last time, the Hero must show, through each word and deed, that she understands everything she’s had to sacrifice to become a new person. Then she has to behave differently than she did at the beginning of your story by taking on a challenge she previously would have baulked at.
Useful questions to ask yourself at this point:
- Has your Hero picked up any negative characteristics along the way? What flaws were there from the beginning that need to be corrected? What flaws do you want to preserve, uncorrected? Which are necessary parts of your hero’s nature?
- What final ordeal of death and rebirth does your hero go through? What aspect of your hero is Resurrected?
- Examine the character arc of your hero. Is it a realistic growth involving gradual change? Is the final change in your character visible in her actions and appearance?
- Who learns anything in a tragedy when the hero dies, if the hero doesn’t learn his lessons?
Stage Twelve: Return With The Elixir
In the Dionysian rituals depicted in murals at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, according to scholars, the different women portrayed in the murals all represent the same woman, undergoing significant, but incremental changes.
In the final scene, we see her, fully mature, wearing the accoutrements of a married woman—a veil and a ring on her left hand, with a bangle on her wrist, to show her increased wealth and social status.
The implication is that she has attained status, position, and ease in her married state. Her social role, and indeed, her demeanor and calm facial expression, all point to the ways in which she’s changed after the ordeals of her initiation into this new way of life.
The ‘elixir’ she returns with from her initiation is not insignificant; she’s a new person, and has attained a new social status, and can offer her newfound wisdom (a form of ‘elixir’) to the community and her family.
As the Heroine of her own story, she now has the power to bestow boons (a ‘boon’ is a favor or request; from the Old Norse word bón). The object, knowledge, or blessing that the Hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often, this ‘elixir’ has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the Hero’s role in society.
This point of the journey represents the dénouement, the end, the closing scenes. Not all, but most, stories aim for a sense of completion, which is implied by the word dénouement. Translated from the French, dénouement means ‘to unknot’ or untie the strands of the plot devices you’ve woven tightly for the characters (which is ironic, since we refer to the end of the story as the time when we ‘tie up loose ends’).
The writer’s responsibility at this point is to bring each major plot and subplot to conclusion. Some writers choose an open ending, in which some strands are left deliberately loose, but most writers prefer the circular ending, which feels more emotionally complete, and brings their protagonist full-circle, back to where s/he started. However, the Hero(ine), freshly returned from the challenges the writer set for her, has a new life and a new purpose to fulfill, after suffering and learning from the reversals of fortune.
Nowhere is this sense of fulfillment and completion, the urge toward unification, more obvious than in Jane Austen’s writing. The theme of unity, completion, and attainment of the Heroine’s most cherished dreams (if she has earned this fulfillment) shapes the ending of each story.
Austen’s characters have endured many reversals of fortune during the course of each novel. These reversals of fortune are necessary for the character to become the person the author envisions, and will make homecoming all the sweeter, when the character attains her hard-won goals.
It’s “easy to blow the Return” (The Writer’s Journey 224). Many stories fall apart in the final moments: the Return is “too abrupt, prolonged, unfocused, unsurprising, or unsatisfying.”
It’s common for writers to leave subplots dangling; loose ends might end up seeming too loose if you end your book or story so abruptly you leave your reader wondering crucial bits and pieces about the main characters (this was certainly the case with the final book of the Harry Potter series, and J. K. Rowling’s epilogue did not help answer most of the questions she left for her readers to figure out on their own).
Things to keep in mind as you write your ending:
- It can be useful, especially if you’re planning a sequel or a series of stories about the same characters, not to tie up all loose ends. However, an abrupt ending feels like “someone hanging up the phone without saying goodbye” (225). Further, if you, as the writer, have lost focus while writing the story, your ending will show it unless you return to the original themes and close the circle.
- The needs of the story dictate its structure, just as the needs of the characters dictate the plot. Your ending is a good time to review if you have maintained these two basic writing truths.
- The ending can fall flat if everything is resolved too neatly. If all the problems are solved easily and quickly, and the reader is not challenged to change her assumptions, the ending might rightly be considered too facile.
- Consider the challenge of a ‘twist’ ending; you misdirect your readers into thinking something will inevitably occur, only to pull the rug out from underneath them one last time before you reveal your intentions.
- Subplots should have at least three scenes distributed throughout the story, one in each act. All the subplots should be acknowledged or resolved in the Return. Each character should come away with some form of learning, or Elixir of his or her own.
- Finally, “A good story, like a good journey, leaves us with an Elixir that changes us, makes us more aware, more alive, more human, more whole, more a part of everything that is” (227).
- Exploring the “Inmost Cave” and the Hero’s necessary descent into darkness (nonwriterswrite.wordpress.com)
- Challenging your Hero on the “stages of his journey” (nonwriterswrite.wordpress.com)
- The Hero’s Archetypal Journey (nonwriterswrite.wordpress.com)
- Hero’s Journey & the Quest for Self. (1earthunite.wordpress.com)