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.
Second Stage of Story is the Call to Adventure, our C2A. In this Stage, we writers get to be cruel. We are going to sacrifice, as mercilessly as possible, the cherished thing.
We are going to Destroy the Dear that the protagonist clings to.
That Dear can be a person, place, thing, object, or idea.
Starting the Story
For the destruction, we already know who and what, by whose aid, why and how, and when and where. We mapped this information before we wrote the Ordinary World (OW).
Now all we need to do is write it, right?
We do have the bulk of our work done. A couple of other considerations still dangle before us.
1st Look at the C2A
The protagonist is reactive in the C2A. The contented existence of the OW is being destroyed in the C2A. The protagonist has no control in this stage.
We can increase the angst for our primary characters when we give the protagonist a small measure of control then take it away.
The angst increases when that tiny ounce of control is protecting the dear thing. If the protagonist protected the dear, thought it was safe while s/he went to protect some other thing (or went to confront the antagonist), and then we writers destroy the dear, the angst triples in shock value.
No one likes to lose control. Most people’s difficulties with flying arise from that loss of control. We can control nothing on an airplane: not boarding, not seating, not stowing our carry-ons, not our checked baggage, not encounters with our fellow travelers, not the AC or the heat, not the filtering of the air, not the cleanliness of our seats or blankets or dining tray, not take off, and not landing. And certainly not debarking.
The protagonist’s loss of control could be emotional. It has more impact on the audience when s/he avoids hysterics and only loses physical control (environment, safety) or intellectual ability to choose, ability to act, and ability to concentrate.
2nd of the C2A
Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
On which of the five levels does the protagonist land while in the OW Stage? Most of us operate at Esteem or Love. These are most important. Few people ever achieve Altruism (self-actualization).
When we destroy the dear, the protagonist will drop down to a lower rung.
Let’s Take Taken.
Taken presents a near-perfect C2A.
For the OW, the protagonist is with his daughter, his cherished dear.
We see his relationship with her, an atypical view of a father not giving his daughter the best gift. We see his allies and his all-important “skill-set”, and we see how his attempt to control the safety of his daughter is undermined by his ex-wife.
While he manages to maintain a modicum of control, it is further undermined when he realizes his ex-wife and daughter have lied to him about the daughter’s trip: the daughter and her friend will be in multiple cities, not just one.
All this is Ordinary World.
In the C2A, the antagonist is already in motion. This Stage starts innocently enough with a phone call.
Then the true antagonists arrive. First we see the danger to the friend, reported by the daughter to the protagonist. He knows no secure place is available, so he directs his daughter to give him the evidence needed to track the abductors.
For a brief moment, we the audience are fooled that safety may occur. Then our willful—& wanting and praying—blindness is ripped away.
The protagonist’s negotiation with the abductor restores a semblance of control—but it is only a semblance. He is thousands of miles away. He has very little evidence to work with. As a final affront, the antagonist crushes the daughter’s cell phone under his heel.
From the Esteem level, our protagonist drops down to Safety Concerns for his daughter.
As the story rolls, he does drop further to Survival, briefly. By the end, he is back to Intrinsic Esteem. The transformation needed was not his but his daughter’s and his ex-wife’s, to value what they had previously despised.
The Destruction of his Dear is never achieved (although we see several mirrors of it). It does come so close that the audience’s adrenaline shoots up and never really drops down until the very end.
Three More Takes on Dear Destruction
Dean Koontz does the same thing in his 2005 Velocity, pitting a young woman against a twisted serial killer. Once the C2A occurs, the reader is on a plummeting ride.
Our protagonist holds her friend’s life dear. When she realizes the friend’s family is dead, she braves herself to climb into the killer’s RV to save her friend. Unfortunately, her own safety is destroyed when she is trapped.
The action-adventure genre provides the clearest reading of the 12 Stages of the Hero’s
Journey. However, virtually every story follows this archetypal structure.
In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the dear was sacrificed long before the start of the story. It is the return of the dear that presents the C2A, as well as the obstacle that will have the re-acquisition of the dear become nearly impossible.
The loss of Captain (Lt.) Frederick Wentworth left Anne Elliott shattered. She has rebuilt the semblance of an existence (for she is not living). When she re-encounters Frederick, she must clutch a chair to stay upright. Her unexpressed pain is so great even her self-absorbed sister notices Anne’s pallor before her egocentrism re-centers itself.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth holds the kingship as the dear thing. To achieve it, Macbeth must sacrifice his honor and accept kin-killing and king-killing, all in Act I. Here is something he has always wanted. Macbeth is a better warrior than his cousin. He knows that he has the respect of other thanes and fighters. He saved the battle for his cousin the king. Only a sequence of birth prevented the crown from coming to him.
Act II concerns his refusal of the C2A. We learn the importance of Lady Macbeth in pushing her husband to commit murder. We see her control over his physical and emotional desires. And we see the commission of three murders, one of them “perfect”, for without Macbeth’s continued evil in Act III, no one would have had any suspicion that he had killed his cousin the king who was staying as a guest in his house.
Reap the Rewards of Destruction
We writers need to set up the emotional connection of the protagonist to the Dear in the OW. In the C2A, we must remove the protagonist’s control and have her/him too shocked to do more than react.
Then we must hurt our darlings. Never hesitate to the Destroy the Dear.
Our readers will thank us.
Join us for the next Stage of the Hero’s Journey on the 10th of June. On the 1st of each month, Writers Ink will have a promotion for a book by one of a W.INK writers.