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Monday, January 27, 2020

The Hero's Journey Explained: The Middle

In my last post, I started talking about the Hero's Journey, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it differs from other popular story structures. I also broke down the elements of the beginning (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, and Meeting the Mentor) and decided to again use Spider-verse as one example, to help illustrate how it actually fits multiple story structures. You can see that post here. Today I would like to pick right back up, covering the middle.

Crossing the First Threshold

Armed with whatever magical thing she got from the mentor, the protagonist is now ready for adventure. This is another moment that I think can be a little confusing, so I want to pause and talk about a few things. Like I said last time, the magical thing may be real or figurative. It can be a magical pendant or it can be something like sage advice. The character may be armed with a magical thing without realizing it yet. Or the character might be armed with a magical thing he doesn't like or is reluctant to have.

In Crossing the First Threshold, the time arrives for the hero to officially depart from the Ordinary World and enter the Special World. Remember, the Ordinary World and the Special World are relative. This is the moment Buddy the Elf goes to New York. Or Elle Woods goes to Harvard in Legally Blonde. Or Bilbo leaves Hobbiton behind. Or Harry goes to Diagon Alley. Or Katniss leaves District 12. Or Lucy goes through the Wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

But in some stories, the Special World is more a state of the character than an actual place. It might be when a dad dresses up as a nanny to see his kids, like in Mrs. Doubtfire. Or a Chinese girl dressing up to take her father's place in the war, like Mulan--it's a "special world," for the character. And of course, it might have nothing to do with the external. The character might need more personal growth, and the Special World can be him now striving to grow in that direction.

The main idea is that the character is leaving normalcy behind and is now truly entering a new, unfamiliar, or different situation. Some characters may be eager to go, while others may be forced. But the Special World has come, whether they want to embrace it or not.

Just before crossing the threshold, many characters may prepare, by packing, strategizing, or praying to their ancestors (Mulan). There also might be one more external or internal event or turning point that kicks them out into the quest for good, like a sudden death, a new threat, or a change of heart.

In Spider-verse

The facts that Brooklyn may be destroyed and that Peter Parker dies are external events that kick Miles out toward the Special World. He doesn't just have Spider-man powers, he needs to become Spider-man. Acting as Spider-man is the Special World. So what does he do? He prepares. He buys a Spider-man costume, wears a mask, tells himself everyone is counting on him. He crosses the threshold as he tries to jump and swing from buildings. He is now in the Special World.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Now in the Special World, the hero is going to be tested, make friends, and probably enemies. In order to survive the Special World, she will need to adapt, which includes facing difficulties (tests). She will probably need some help or guidance from someone (allies). And she will probably have to struggle against an antagonistic force (enemies).

Some of the allies and enemies may have been foreshadowed or introduced in the Ordinary World, but here their true natures are revealed.

In Harry Potter, Harry meets Draco Malfoy in Diagon Alley. On the train, he meets Ron and Hermione and Neville. And at school he meets even more allies and enemies. And he faces difficulties as he is tested (sometimes literally) by the Special World.

Bilbo faces trolls and spiders but also gains friends and allies. Katniss connects with Peeta, Haymitch, Effie, and Cinna, but makes enemies with Cato and some of the other tributes. She is literally tested before the Games, and then she faces more difficulties in the arena. Buddy, Elle, Lucy, and Mulan do the same thing.

The Special World also has new rules that the hero has to learn to deal with and probably live by.

In Spider-verse

Soon after trying to become Spider-man, Miles meets a Peter Parker from another dimension. And through the middle, he accumulates a bunch of other allies, like Gwen, Peni, Spider-ham, and Spider-Noir, even Aunt May. But he also gets more enemies, like Doc Ock and Kingpin's other henchmen. He faces difficulties: trying to repair the goober, trying to learn how to swing, trying to steal a computer from Alchemax, and is tested by the Special World--that of being Spider-man.

Approach the Inmost Cave

Now more experienced, supported, and familiar with the Special World, the hero is ready to go deeper into the heart of it--where some of its greatest rewards are guarded by the hero's worst fears. Near this part of the story, the hero and allies may again make preparations or plans to snatch what they truly desire: riches, success, safety, a love interest. It's similar to glimpsing a cave and then preparing and approaching it. Within the cave lies their wants, along with their antagonistic forces.

This is not necessarily where the hero enters the cave, but where they draw closer to it and its promises. There may be people and obstacles in the way. And if they enter the cave, they won't yet succeed in getting what they want. They will have to face more tests and trials and challenges. They may have to learn even more about the Special World. They may have to cross another threshold within it.

The "Inmost Cave" is often the most dangerous feature of the Special World. Sometimes this is a literal place, like Smaug's lair for Bilbo. Or the Death Star for Luke. But other times it's more of a state of being--where the risks are high. If it isn't the most dangerous feature of the story, it is the second-most dangerous. Again, though, this isn't so much entering and conquering the Inmost Cave as it is glimpsing or preparing and approaching it.

So in Mulan, this is when the now-trained soldiers have to go face the Huns. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, this is when Harry first encounters Fluffy, who is guarding the trapdoor in the forbidden corridor. However, I think you could also argue that this extends into the next chapter where Harry and Ron must face a troll that actually came from within the trapdoor--it's another glimpse of the Inmost Cave.

In Spider-verse

After getting the computer from Alchemax, Miles, Peter, and Gwen head to Aunt May's house, where they can prepare to defeat Kingpin, by making a goober as well as specific plans. There, they meet the other Spider people, and they all have a discussion about what to do and who does what. However, Miles is still not quite ready for the Inmost Cave, and there will be more tests and obstacles as they try to approach it.

The Ordeal

The Ordeal encompasses what others may call the "all is lost" moment or plot point two. In the Hero's Journey, it may be said that this is what the story is really about. I find that kind of vague, so let me explain that some more. What the story is "really" about is the thematic statement, which is almost always illustrated through the protagonist's character arc. This is the crisis moment for the character arc. It's where you hit the protagonist hard with whatever inner demon or thematic challenge she needs to overcome to defeat the antagonist later.

The Ordeal is the biggest test so far for the hero, and it will make them hit rock bottom. They will face their biggest fear here, and have to confront it. This will lead to the most significant, personal growth.

In the Hero's Journey, this is a sort of death and rebirth. Sometimes this is literal--the hero may literally die and be revived. But it's often figurative--the old them dies and a new them is then reborn.

But of course, something needs to bring about that moment--a powerful obstacle or opponent. This is essentially the climax of the middle segment.

In Mulan, The Ordeal occurs after she is injured saving the soldiers from the Huns, when she is found to be a woman--one of her biggest fears. She is told that she will bring dishonor to her family, that she is a disgrace--her other biggest fear. This directly hits the theme topics of the film: honor and gender equality. She is sent away and at her lowest low.

But soon, she will be reborn as someone stronger. 

In Spider-verse

After discovering the Prowler is his uncle, Miles runs away back to Aunt May's house and is followed. This leads to a fight, where Prowler dies, and the other Spider people have to explain to Miles that he isn't ready yet to be Spider-Man. To make the moment even worse, he has become even more alienated from his dad. This is the lowest of the low. It's a crisis moment that hits on the theme topics: quitting and perseverance, choices, expectations, and faith. For Miles, all seems lost.


  1. Hi! I can't believe there are no comments. I am currently writing my very first novel and I stumbled on this. Quite by accident, my story maps almost perfectly to the hero's journey! thanks for these helpful posts. Nanette

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nanette (and being the first to comment ;) ) I love it when we naturally do things in our stories! But it's even better when we can understand WHAT it is we are doing and make it better. I think on a intuitive level, many of us know the hero's journey, because it is everywhere. Hope your story gets even better with the info!



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