With Tests behind and the Ordeal ahead, what is the purpose of this stage called Approach to the Inmost Cave?

Wow, that’s a long question.

And what will this Alice quotation have to do with this stage?

“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said.  “The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam to-day.”

“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.

“No it can’t,” said the Queen.  “It’s jam every other day;  to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.  “It’s dreadfully confusing.”

~~Through the Looking Glass

public domain
Alice with the Queens, from Through the Looking Glass, illustration by A. Rackham


The Approach to the Inmost Cave is Stage 7 of the broad archetypal story pattern.

The 1st ASP section, only three stages, is Separation and Departure.  Protagonists abandon their former existences then embark on journeys that will change them from members into individuals.

The Approach centers the 2nd ASP section, Initiation and Transformation.

Through the Mentor and the 1st Threshold, confronting Tests and distinguishing Allies from Enemies, the protagonists have survived the Initiation and begun the difficult yet necessary Transformation.

The Approach confirms that the protagonists are changed enough to confront the greatest Ordeal the writer can throw at them.


What does it take to confirm a Transformation?

An encounter with the past.

The “past” is the protagonist’s existence pre-Initiation.

  1. The Ordinary World (http://writersinkbooks.com/writing-story-7-questions-start/) can tempt. After all, it formerly had the protagonist caught in its snare of the safe and ordinary.

We all have moments of nostalgia for our past.  Our protagonists can look back at their secure OWs and remember them with fondness-yet also be willing to continue on.

The hobbits do this in Tolkien’s Ring trilogy.  The memories of their lives increase their determination not only to continue their quests but also to keep that blissfully ignorant world safe.  

In this clip, they have returned to their cherished shire.  It is everything that they remembered . . . and Sam has transformed from the bumbling shy rube he was.

  1. The erstwhile Dear One (http://writersinkbooks.com/writing-story-destroy-dear/) can return—both literally and figuratively.

The Destruction of the Dear (the formally titled Call to Adventure) propelled the protagonists into this journey.

This Dear, however, no longer exists.

In the Literal

The Dear that returns reminds the protagonists of what they once considered a worthy treasure.  To have it return, now, is to have them see and reject their former perspectives.  In the Approach, they assess the Dear as they never did before and see the flaws they previously ignored.

The protagonists may still hold the Dear as “dear”, but rejection must occur.  Turning away from the former Dear will cause emotional pain on both sides.  The protagonists release the Dear as well as their past:  they hope for better in their future.

The Dear’s failed attempt to re-ensnare the protagonist could launch another Transformation :: in the Dear.  Even harder to write is the Dear’s steadfast rejection of any change for the protagonist and the Dear’s own self.  Not changing is stagnation.

In the Figurative

The illusion of the Dear’s return creates false hope for the protagonists.

Just as with the Dear’s literal return, the nostalgia and the dream and the rejection of that old dream must recur.

Yet the Figurative return of the Dear creates an opportunity for antagonistic tricks, another test of the protagonists’ determination to achieve the treasure at the end of this quest.  The old Dear is again rejected for a better, brighter hope.

Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth is for the wrong reasons.  He is drawn to her as an embodiment of his dream;  he has not yet realized she IS his dream, even with all the flaws that are attached to a union with her.

In giving Elizabeth all the wrong reasons, Darcy forces her rejection.  The rejection may not come from him, but he caused it.

Jam yesterday is now abandoned for the hope of Jam tomorrow.

Jam Today

The queen’s proposition to Alice is that the goodness of the bright hope never comes to fruition:  tomorrow never comes.  “Jam Today”, however, is coming.  Stage 9 gives the protagonists a Reward.  Stage 12 is Return with the Elixir, the fruity drink of the gods.

Alice will get her jam.  Our protagonists will achieve their goal.  Whether in the original or a changed or a heavily mutated form, that goal is achievable.  The fruit is falling;  the jam will be preserved.

The Approach serves story as it points both to the protagonists and the goals.  Both are transforming.

Old ways, old perspectives were abandoned and are now rejected.

New ideas, new motivations will continue transforming the protagonists.

Wrapping Up

The title of this Stage 7 is Approach to the Inmost Cave, and I haven’t mentioned the Inmost Cave.

That’s because the Inmost Cave is the location of the Ordeal, Stage 8, the deepest darkness of the entire story.

Appropriately enough, in October I’ll discuss the caves and the Ordeal.

Join us at the 0’s = the 10th and the 20th, as we continue our yearlong journey through the Archetypal Story Pattern.

In the previous blog, I asked a seemingly simple question:  If enemies oppose the protagonist, are they evil?  It’s time to consider the three types of characters who are viewed as enemies.

Shapeshifter.  Villain.  Shadow.

public domain
Alice with Humpty, colorized from the original in Through the Looking Glass

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”

These three characters who provide “Tests from Enemies” have strong associations with evil thoughts and evil deeds, but only one of them is truly evil.  One could be but isn’t–or isn’t considered so but is.  And one will be evil with the wrong choices.

Confused yet?  So was Alice with Humpty.


Shifter characters take one of two forms in order to be considered enemies:

  • 1st = seemingly allied to the protagonist but actually working for the antagonist.
  • 2nd = seemingly supportive of the antagonist but actually not supportive.
Second Form

This form has the angst.  Misread, misunderstood, isolated by perception, and excluded before they open their mouths, these characters may wish to support the protagonist.  Circumstances create a trap.  Relationships may gag the truth they so desperately want to reveal.

Sirius Black escapes in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Building a believable angst for the audience is difficult.  Even when building a story with the omniscient viewpoint, the writer needs to select carefully which viewpoints will inform the audience.  Enemies that aren’t actually enemies don’t need to be viewpoint characters.

Withholding this shapeshifter’s angst until the end creates an even more potent revelation after the antagonist’s defeat.

Snippets of body language convey this trapped situation:

  • The mouth opened to speak only to close with a shake of the head.
  • The aborted gesture to stop.
  • The step forward then back.

These behaviors are minor touches that express a repressed drive.

Think Sirius Black in the Harry Potter film.  Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

First Form

This shapeshifter form is the double agent, back-stabber, hypocrite, secret mole, and two-faced dastardly being who tricks the protagonist.  First form projects total loyalty, an ally—even as s/he fulfills the antagonist’s commands.

Friendly connivers, First Form enemies are wholly trusted.  Until the truth is revealed.

Think Loki in the first Thor film.  Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.  Wyckham, antagonistic to P&P‘s Darcy.

Revelation of the true alliance occurs in the Tests stage or is held (preferably so) until the Approach to the Inmost Cave, the crucial Ordeal, or the Resurrection Stages.

Classic Villain

Totally evil dudes.  Totally enemies.

The best examples in story are the goblins and ogres and trolls of the Tolkien realm.  A true villain, unlike an antagonist, will have no redeeming traits.  Goblins lie and steal and kill even their comrades.

Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers created their own versions of vampires with redeeming qualities.  The saturnine Louis captured hearts;  Lestat reminds audiences of the vampire’s true nature.  Meyer’s Twilight turned vampires “vegetarian”.  I remember reading the first 50 pages or so of the first book and thinking, “Okay, yes, this is going somewhere” only to have great disappointment as the danger just dissipated.

Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs has no redeeming qualities—any help he gives is only to help himself escape and resume his evil desires.

After Silence…Lambs came out as a film, enthralled fans clamored for more Hannibal.  The author then proceeded to write Hannibal as a warning of what true evil is.

Never mistake villains.  They have NO redeeming qualities.


First Choice

The Shadow avatar reveals the dark side of the protagonist.  This is the reflection of what the protagonist can become if s/he gives in to evil.

Dark secrets, dark instincts, dark emotions:  release these in the protagonist during a test to have a fall from worthiness.  The protagonist must then deny, overcome, reject, or defeat these self-enemies.

Luke Skywalker has the same potential for evil as his dark father, yet he rejects it and triumphs.

Mary Crawford (L) with Fanny Price in the 2007 Mansfield Park

In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford could be a second protagonist.  (She isn’t.  See below.)  She gives into the dark greed of contemplating Edmund’s advance into his brother’s shoes while the true protagonist Fanny Price thinks only of helping brother Tom recover his health.  It takes a while for Edmund to recognize Fanny’s sweetness, which rewards her long and steadfast love for him. 

Very much antagonistic, the Shadow self struggles with negative forces intermixed with positive ones.  While repressing dark for the light, the destroying aspects will ultimately control the Shadowy protagonist.

This is totally Mary Crawford.  Hints of the negative forces that shaped her are explored in 2007 Mansfield Park (totally missing in the 1999 version, my favorite even as the 2007 fascinates me).  She is alluring, fascinating, witty, assured, sophisticated–but the dark desire of greed compels her.

Recovering standing after collapsing into the temporary satisfaction of the dark becomes a great test for the protagonist.  Unforeseen repercussions ripple outward from that cold, hard pebble.

This is truly Walter Neff in the classic Double Indemnity:

Better Choices

Nevertheless, the best Shadows are antagonistic foils of the protagonist:  “There but for the grace of God go I,” an arrogance in itself but also a truth.  See, Mary Crawford belongs here.

As a character separate from the protagonist, the Shadow needs to tempt and even call up the darkness in the hero/ine (Double Indemnity again, Barbara Stanwyck’s character.  If you have never seen this film noir classic, please do).  The protagonist must reject the Shadow because it treads too closely to the path that the antagonist has taken.

And the protagonist must reject the antagonistic path.  S/he cannot tread the evil ways without transforming into evil.

Wrapping Up

  1. Threshold Guardian
  2. Ally (and potentially the Love Interest)
  3. Foil
  4. Herald
  5. Idol
  6. Blocking Figure
  7. Trickster
  8. Shapeshifter
  9. Villain
  10. Shadow

Not all of these allies and enemies are necessary in stories.  They also need not occur only in the testing stage.

A protagonist who overcomes the tests presented by these characters is more prepared for the next stage:  Approach to the Inmost Cave.

The cave itself is the Dark Moment, the Ordeal.  Before reaching this cataclysmic encounter with the antagonist, however, the protagonist must continue through the Approach.

And after the Ordeal?  Well, it’s still not an easy downhill slide.