If you’re working on your true story and trying to make your unique experience into a compelling story, one of the components of the Hero’s Journey that you really need to wrap your head around is The Ordeal.
Most people writing their first book struggle to know what goes into the beginning, the middle and the end. This is why I’m so passionate about the 12 step hero’s journey as a structural framework to follow, and combining it with the 3 Act Story Structure. It gives you a guidebook, if you will, for what to put front, middle and end of your story.
You may have heard the phrase “begin with the end in mind” and this most definitely applies to writing a manuscript.
Although The Ordeal isn’t the end of your story – in some ways it’s the most important part.
If you think of your manuscript like a musical piece, you spend the majority of the first and second act building up to the ‘climax’ which is the Ordeal.
After that, the action starts to ‘fall’.
The reason the Ordeal is so important is because it makes your story compelling and relatable: by bringing the life-or-death stakes to your story, and universal ideas of death and failure and loss (even if it’s a happy story!), you make it more compelling.
When your memoir is based on an internal challenge, or even a really positive experience (falling in love and travelling the world with your partner, for example), you might wonder how that fits into the hero’s journey framework, and even how you might consider something in your story an ‘Ordeal’.
But it’s essential that you get your head around this key component of your story, because otherwise the manuscript will be flat, your story will just be a series of descriptions, and the reader will be left feeling bored, tired, and wondering as to the point. It will read like a series of letters to your family where you leave the most interesting aspects out. The Ordeal brings a crescendo and a peak to your story, and helps us stay tuned, invested, and interested in whether or not you (the hero) will make it through.
So. You need an Ordeal.
Why you secretly avoid writing the Ordeal
The reason you can’t see the Ordeal in your story is because it’s deeply personal.It’s not something you willingly share with others.
Your ordeal may have been traumatic, or it may hold a sense of failure or shame or perhaps it’s when you took a risk that didn’t pay off (well, not in the short-term). Most ordeals aren’t glamorous – not in the slightest. And the way success and victory is painted to the world is that it’s a smooth, seamless ride. But the Ordeal is the most humane and realistic and relatable part of your story – because it’s that time that you went forward, into the arena, despite your weaknesses and your bruises and your past history – and you tried once more, despite all your fears.
What is the Ordeal?
The 8th stage in the Hero’s Journey framework, the Supreme Ordeal is sometimes called the major crisis or biggest test.
This is when you (the narrator) attempt the biggest change of all in your memoir.
A trademark of the Ordeal is that you face death: literally or metaphorically.
Examples of the Ordeal
In WILD by Cheryl Strayed, she runs out of water (coming close to death).
In INHERITANCE, it’s when Shapiro tries to meet her real father.
In A Letter From Paris, it’s when i opened up the box that contained all the eulogies from my father’s funeral, finding a reference to Gisele, and asking Coralie in Paris if she could find her death certificate (lots of literal death to think about, there!).
What’s the PURPOSE of the Ordeal?
The purpose of the Ordeal in the framework of the Hero’s journey is so that you can see the hero face death, barely scrape past, and achieve mythic status. It’s the point of the story because it’s the moment of biggest change. You might think you have many ordeals that you could include in your memoir (or none), but if you think about it a different way: what event or decision affected the biggest change in the trajectory of your story?
A human is a human because we’re mortal.
This is where the whole Hero’s Journey idea comes from: Joseph Campbell identified common factors in the longest-lasting myths across the world. The hero was this mythic creature because they had faced death, and overcome.
This is another reason The Ordeal is such an important component to the 12-step hero’s journey.
Death as metaphor
There are so many ways we can metaphorically ‘face death’ in our day-to-day lives, and it doesn’t need to involve dungeons and dragons. We could be facing a business failure, a loss of identity, death to a relationship, death to a hope, death to a dear dream, death to the chance of rescue or revival.
Our death or ordeal could be a moment of choice that literally separates two sections of our lives from before and after. Perhaps it’s a competition or a major test of all the skills we’ve built up to that point? Perhaps you enter that art show you’ve spent a decade preparing for, only to have a fire rip through the gallery the night before opening?
Death is also loss – and in your memoir, it will be connected to the goal or quest you’ve set up at the beginning of the story.
When I think of my journey to get my first book published through the lens of the 12-step hero’s journey, I can clearly see at which stage i met my Supreme Ordeal (even though I didn’t realise at the time!). I’d spend months preparing my manuscript, only to be invited to meet with a top publisher, so I got ready for that appointment as though I would be handed a book deal on the spot. But for an hour, she sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms why and how my manuscript would never be published.
Epic death to hopes and wishes and dreams around your memoir’s goal is another clue to the Major Ordeal!
AND – this is key – your Supreme Ordeal will be connected to the central quest and purpose of your story. So the ‘set-up’ of the first Act – the goal that became clear, all the tests and trials you went through to get to the Ordeal, suddenly get turned on their head and you have to let something go. You literally have to ‘die’ to something, to be able to be re-born.
Some prompts for the 8th stage of your journey:
- When did you confront the biggest change?
- When or how did you face loss around the central idea or theme of your memoir?
- When and how did you face death?
- When and how did you make your biggest, bravest confrontation in your quest?
- When did you take your biggest risk…?
Identifying your major ordeal will make your story compelling and powerful. Why? Because this is when you change the most – from human to mythic, because you face death and yet you still survive.
Some people think the reward is the point of the story (the healing, the happy-ever-after, the green card, the new relationship, etc etc). But it’s actually becoming brave enough to face the loss of this great hope – that is the most compelling part of any human story. That time you came back after knock-back number 17, that time you took one more risk, one more shot, despite your bruises and emotional wounds.
After the Ordeal the action of your story starts to fall, and in some cases, people won’t even remember the rest of your story. The Ordeal is the crescendo, and often inspires a physical, emotional response in the reader.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming 90 Day Memoir program, re-launching soon!
For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure.
Robert McKee, STORY