Into the Cave

Spelunking:  the exploration of caves

Stage 7 of the Archetypal Story Pattern (ASP) is Approach to the Inmost Cave, the focus of our last blog. (click here to read)

The name itself—“approach” and “inmost cave”—clues us writers to the multitude of caves necessary for our protagonists’ transformative journey.


A cave is under the earth.  Yes, I know I am Miss Obvious, but I have a purpose.

Spelunking tools include crash helmet, boots, gloves, drinking water, food, and three independent light sources.

Common inhabitants of caves include bats (who navigate by echolation) and blind fish (who sense the tremors in the water).  Most other creatures stay near the natural light sources, using the cave only for a refuge or a lair.

For writers, “caves” lets us know that we are venturing deep into the dark unknown of our protagonists’ psyche—and our own.  We writers reveal much about ourselves—unknowingly—in our writing, especially our first ½ million words and often twice beyond those.

Caves—in literal fact and in our subconscious—are labyrinthine.  Monsters may lurk:  Who is predator?  Who is prey?  Who is both?

Okay, enough with Miss Obvious.  Here’s Miss Purpose ::

Such caves require hard choices—and our protagonists have been deciding and discerning and distinguishing since they abandoned their Ordinary Worlds and embarked on their journeys.

  • Through the tasks, they have delved deeply into antagonistic levels that revealed their own strengths and weaknesses. 
  • They don’t know who or what the monsters are, and they fear they themselves are one of those monsters. 
  • They don’t understand the means of navigation. 
  • And they don’t have three independent light sources.

The Inmost Cave of story is not a cage.  It’s not a prison.
A well-tended green maze is certainly not a labyrinthine cave.

The Ordinary World could have been a cage, but the protagonists have escaped it.  Even when the Dear One of the OWie returned to lure the protagonist back, they continued on.

The Inmost Cave is not a maze.

It can be labyrinthine, with blocked or twisted passages. 

A maze, though, is a puzzle that can be easily solved.  It lacks its minotaur, half-man and half-beast, waiting to devour the unwary. 

A maze can be an amazing walk, but it needs no thread to guide our Theseus-like protagonists in and out of the unlighted passages.


Joseph Campbell [Remember him?  From way back in mid-January > click here for a reminder] places the Ordeal in the Inmost Cave.

The terminology of “Inmost Cave” requires a series of caves:  the entrance, the journey into, the first vaulted emptiness, more passages, perhaps more caverns, and finally the deepest, darkest location.

We journeyed through these first locations, didn’t we?  The C2A, the Mentor, the 1st Threshold, the Tests.  Now, finally, we are heading down to our Ordeal.

Subconscious fears arise in even the most seasoned spelunker when equipment fails while exploring a new cave.

  • The fear of being lost, of being left alone.
  • The crushing weight of earth
  • The claustrophobia of enclosed spaces
  • The utter darkness that hides dangers:  creatures, projections, freezing water, and abysses.
  • The complete devastation of losing the way and being forever trapped.

Senses heighten in these situations.  Adrenaline kicks in.  Only the most stoic can hide their emotional reactions;  they still have them.

No one escapes emotions.

Not even our protagonists.


What fears plague the protagonists?

Unforeshadowed fears cannot undermine our protagonists in the Ordeal.  Plan for them.

  • Ibn in 13th Warrior suddenly announces his fear of heights as he must slide down a rope from a higher ledge into water.  The audience cannot appreciate his fear.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark left a snake in Indiana Jones’ seat as he flew away from his first encounter with danger.  The audience, therefore, anticipated and understood his fear as the last torch flickered out in the pyramid.

Fear is not the greatest darkness a protagonist confronts.

Evil is.


The darkness in us all is our greatest struggle.  We have dropped into the abyssal inmost cave that our humanity most struggles against.

And the greatest evil?  It’s the loss of our humanity, the higher and nobler motivations that elevate us above the animal.

How do we lose that humanity and sink into evil?  It’s revenge.

Revenge, rather than justice, is the greatest evil when facing our antagonist.

Revenge is not justice.  The ancient Greeks understood that, when they named justice Themis while they named revenge Nemeis … and the Erinyes, the undeterred Furies … and the Harpies, Zeus’ hounds of Hades.

Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Delacroix (1862)

What can revenge compel the protagonists to do?

The villain in The Incredibles wants revenge based on an early rejection.  Rejection seems a silly motive–until you examine the last Iron Man movie and Girl on a Train and Wuthering Heights and Dido of Carthage and James Bond’s villains and more and more.

In the Hobbit, Bilbo confronts Smaug, intense greed representative of the dwarves’ greed—and mirrored in the greed for the Ring itself that Bilbo and then Frodo (and Golum) must confront.  Smaug wants revenge.  The dwarves want revenge.  Bilbo avoids it.

Medea is rejected, abandoned, and cast out.  For her revenge on Jason, she kills a princess, a king, and her own children.

Hamlet’s father is murdered. He kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (deliberately causing their deaths is murder), and Claudius.  Ophelia, Laertes, and Gertrude are also killed in the maelstrom of his revenge.

Revenge has unintended consequences.  How many superheroes contend with villains motivated solely by revenge? 

Every crime, every terroristic act, and every war—revenge starts all of them.

Remember that as you prepare the protagonists’ Ordeal.


The Ordeal is the greatest suspenseful moment and the darkest action of the ASP.  It occurs at the 75% mark of the story.  Everything has built to this apex.  It is the Crisis, not the Climax.

The Road Back and the Resurrection of the Evil (Stages 10 and 11) are still to come.

How can the Ordeal seed the difficulties in these two stages?  Here’s a clue:

Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. ~ Goethe

Revenge isn’t kind.  Remember that.  The Ordeal will be all-out hatred.

Join us on the 20th for a discussion of the essentials of the Ordeal.