The ordeal is about change. When this is over, our hero will never be the same. Often, the ordeal results in a symbolic death for our hero who is then reborn. Once the rebirth has occurred, he will begin the long journey home.
The ordeal should not be confused with being the climax of the story. Instead, it is the mid point. All roads travelled thus far have lead to this point, and all roads away will be forever altered because of it.
Consider the recent movie, How to Train Your Dragon. The ordeal occurs when Hiccup first rides Toothless high into the sky and becomes separated from the dragon. The two plummet toward the earth, their doom certain. At the last moment, Hiccup grabs hold of Toothless and the two are in perfect sync, performing maneuvers impossible to this point. The fireball Toothless shoots backfires and singes Hiccup. This is symbolic of all his old fears and misconceptions being burned away. After this point, he truly realises that the vikings are wrong about the dragons and he needs to show them.
Speaking of near midpoint ordeals, consider Harry Potter’s experiences at the end of Goblet of Fire. He literally goes to a realm of death, is witness to the physical death of a classmate, and then conjures the spirits of the dead in order to flee. From this point, Harry is changed. So too are the books. Both Harry and the audience know that nothing will ever be the same. The horror of the possible consequences if Harry fails in his quest are far more clear.
The ordeal can take several forms as to the type of “death and rebirth”
- The hero can face the main villain and nearly lose his life – the villain may live or die
- The hero might face the main henchman of the villain, saving the villain for the final act
- The hero might face a great fear and have to conquer it
- The hero will have to face up to a parental figure
- The hero will have to let some of his ego or pride go
- The hero will have to learn how to work with others
- The hero will give himself completely to a relationship
These are only a few permutations. The simple fact is, the ordeal transforms the hero. That transformation will inform every decision that he makes from this point forward. Remember, while it seems we’ve come a long way, this isn’t the climax, we’re only halfway to the end.
Next, we finally cut our hero a break and he gets a Reward. Have no fear, it’ll get sucky for him again before it’s all over!