Writing Story: Tests
Tests. Trials. Tribulations.
Tests determine what we know and don’t know and how well we are surviving a course.
90% level: we’re great.
75%: hanging in there.
60%: barely getting by.
35%: Are we even trying?
Some students naturally excel, and don’t those of us who are struggling envy them? Some students are distracted or unprepared. Others seem blithe and carefree to hide their angst.
Our tests in life are more intangible than 50 questions covering Rationalism. Are we working well enough, creatively enough to earn that pay raise or promotion? Have we met the clients’ expectations? Did we play a hand in the healing?
We face trials with family and friendships, with finances and life spaces. We face trials in the daily grind and the major passages of life. And we face tribulations that scare us and scar us, that drive us to our knees and measure the mettle of our backbone.
Read that last sentence again.
We face tribulations that scare us
and scar us,
that drive us to our knees
and measure the mettle
of our backbone.
- This sentence is the directive for our writing.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” said Alice.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the cat. “We’re all mad here.”
~ Lewis Carroll
In the 12 stages of the Archetypal Story Pattern (ASP), we must remember that each stage is not a single scene with its seque to the next stage.
The Tests Stage is the clearest example of this.
The very name of the stage clues us in that we are dealing with a plural. In the Tests, we “measure the mettle” of our protagonists as they encounter allies and enemies (the focus of our next blogs).
The greatest Tests in the ASP will not occur in this stage. The Ordeal (Stage 8) is intended to be the moment of greatest difficulty for the protagonists. Two remaining stages present the last, crucial challenges (10 and 11).
What, then, is the purpose of these Tests? Training? More sacrifices? Or something even greater?
Initiation and Transformation
Tests, Allies, and Enemies falls as the 6th ASP Stage, 3rd of the Initiation and Transformation segment.
The Destruction of the Dear at the Call to Adventure propels the protagonist into the journey. However, change does not occur at that point.
Change only occurs when people accept that they must adapt to a difference. The protagonists enter the difference when they meet the mentor.
The Threshold Crossing causes the first adaptation by preventing an easy return to the Ordinary World. From that stage onward, protagonists are on a journey they actively pursue and will not retreat from.
Thresholds are Tests
What are the tests? How do the protagonists overcome them? Why are they placed in the protagonists’ way?
Each test has three parts.
- The Threshold into the Test
- The Encounter with the Threshold Guardian
- Acknowledgement of the Lesson(s) of the Test
The Threshold is the Testing Gate, not a mere event to be overcome. Each threshold should build suspense.
Now, I’m going to say something obvious. Each testing gate has a path to it and from it. Don’t skip over that. We often skim the obvious and move on, not realizing its importance. Our protagonists should not bounce from event to event. Create a lead-up with its blindness or stress, the event, and a leaving with its new sight or relief.
The Lessons of the Test
Coming after the defeat of the guardian and before the next test’s gate appears is the protagonists’ acknowledgement of the test’s lesson.
When our protagonists reel from one event to the next, we remove the audience’s emotional connection to them.
The protagonist can refuse to acknowledge any lesson—which is itself a test to be overcome.
Without acknowledgement of a lesson, the protagonist remains static. Protagonists should be dynamic—unless you are writing post-modern absurdism.
We can have our protagonists acknowledge that the path requires too much sacrifice and try to abandon the journey. However, the journey should and will pull them back. They can question and re-think approaches to their journey.
Look at what they have sacrificed, at their accumulating scars. Is the journey worth it? Is an easier path available? Will the easier path lead to an equivalent or greater treasure at the end?
Yes. No. No. These MUST be the answer to those three questions.
Our protagonists may not achieve their short-term goals without connections with allies and enemies, both secret and obvious.
How Many Tests?
Each lesson leads to knowledge necessary to overcome the Ordeal.
And this is the reason that writing is a recursive process.
We may set up all the tests that we think are necessary only to reach the Ordeal and realize additional knowledge is necessary. Will that knowledge come from the mentor—to be followed or not—or from the tests with their lessons?
Or we may reach the Ordeal and realize some of our tests are superfluous.
Add or cut, as necessary.
Every scene in a story must have a purpose. Every test must have a purpose. Like puzzle pieces, tests should foreshadow the Ordeal.
In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, the great battle against the orcs and goblins in the Mines of Moria foreshadows the huge battle of the Pelennor Fields at the foundations of Minas Tirith near the end of The Return of the King.
The lessons Aren learns from the Hob about taking pieces of power from the various magical creatures helps her to understand how to defeat the corrupt mage at the end of Patricia Briggs’ The Hob’s Bargain.
Understanding that love is more enduring and powerful than station or wealth helps Darcy decide to cleave to Elizabeth, no matter his feelings about her family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Tests link the several stages of the ASP. They can hark back to the Call2Adventure, the Refusal of the Call, and Crossing the 1st Threshold. They are part of the run-up to the all-powerful Ordeal, yet they also touch fingers to the Road Back and the Resurrection of the Evil.
10 types of Allies and Enemies fill the arenas of the Tests.
Kick back in August as we explore all 10 of the Allies. It will be September 10 for the Enemies.
- Threshold Guardian
- w/ a special word on the Love Interest
- Blocking Figure