Like most aspects of the Hero’s Journey, there’s a funky, mystical name that just means that your hero is about to face something unpleasant.
In this case, it’s the Approach To The Inmost Cave: “The approach encompasses all the final preparations for the Supreme Ordeal. It often brings heroes to a stonghold of the opposition, a defended center where every lesson & ally of the journey so far comes into play.”
Roughly translated: You know when you watch a movie or read a book that subtly gives you information about your character’s worlds?
A great example of this is the movie “Signs”. The young girl’s water fixation, the boy’s asthma and incessant belief of all he reads, the brother’s power baseball swing and baseball failures. All of these are details taking shape into a cohesive meaning instead of random characteristics. Likewise, events that have effected your characters independently will also form a stronger meaning. Friends and lessons they’ve picked up start showing their value and your hero is starting to understand that there is strength in the choices he’s made.
As with the previous phases of the journey, there are underlying purposes to be fulfilled. Meaning, you’ve got to get a few things across and these are some aspects that can help you get the most from this phase.
Preparation For The Ordeal: “Approach may be a time of further reconnaissance and information-gathering, or a time of dressing & arming for an ordeal.” The Approach phase can be a time to rest and plan. Picture the rebels sorting out how to attack the death star in Star Wars. It’s a tense time, but they’re not in immediate danger.
Add Obstacles: “(B)efore they reach their goal, they face a series of obstacles and challenges that will bond them and prepare them for the life & death struggle yet to come.” This will have more to do with ensemble stories; i.e.: Wolverine and the kids fighting their way out of Bobby’s House in X-2.
3rd Threshold Guardian: “Past experience on the journey may be the hero’s passport to new lands. Nothing is wasted & every challenge of the past strengthens & informs us for the present. We win respect for having made it this far.”
By now, you’re probably asking what the hell a Threshold Guardian really does. The first one was an annoyance to get past to sort of start the journey–often that mistake the character regrets because if they hadn’t done THAT, they wouldn’t be in this mess (Alice kicking herself for chasing the rabbit. Neo in the car with Trinity, wishing he’d never followed the tattoed chick in the Matrix.)
The 2nd TG was more an acknowledgement of a villain or a serious problem and the hero, at the very least, resigning himself to facing it.
And now here’s the the 3rd TG…and it’s not so clear what the purpose is. It’s still someone or thing they must get past to continue the journey. It could be as simple as completing a previous trial thanks to new lessons–John Dunbar making friends with Wind-In-His-Hair by trading his coat for a breastplate in “Dances With Wolves– or impressing an old tormentor by admitting fear, but not letting it hinder them. This time, the 3rd guardian is someone or thing that accepts the proven growth of the Hero in some shape or form. The hero is not done growing, but it’s accepted that they’re trying and it earns them some much needed respect points.
Another thing that can happen here is discovering a new Special World inside the one the hero is learning. “You’ve entered yet another little Special World, with different rules & values. You may encounter a series of these..a series of shells protecting some central source of power.” More fancy mysticism for going deeper into the various pitfalls of the Original Special World. Remember Tron? How Jeff Bridges is finally getting a grip on the fact that he’s been sucked into his own computer, now he discovers that he’s forced to play what amounts to gladiator games that are designed to kill him. There’s a different game each time, with different rules and objectives he must master.
You don’t have to do it all the time, but it can be useful for teaching your Hero lessons they couldn’t learn another way. One way I’ve personally used this is to create a subplot between my hero and the heroine’s son, teaching him what it is to be a father. The relationship is completely separate from the one with the heroine, but it’s information he’s going to need to complete his journey from lonely man to family man. There’s simply no other way to teach him.
Another Threshold (the one behind that third guardian) is definitely something that works well here. “The credentials of experience may have to be presented repeatedly at successive rungs of power. When delayed by obstacles, heroes to well to get acquainted with their fellow adventurerers & learn of their hopes & dreams.” Again, another ensemble kind of event. Believe it or not, Disney’s “Atlantis” is the best example of this. We’re familiar with the team that Milo is traveling with and how they relate to Milo, but after having survived several hair raising events and finding a sense of respect for him, they open up and share how they all got to where they are and what they hope to gain from it.
A good feature of The Approach is the Impossible Test: “It’s tempting to think you can just march into foreign territory, take the prize & leave.” Hero is challenging an established status quo, which will be “reluctant to give up power…” Again, “Atlantis” is a great example. Milo is so enamored of the world he has found, he’s forgotten that it might not be too thrilled to be discovered.
But, heroes must needs realize that everything comes with complications they have to work out. Learning of these complications is part of the approach. “Heroes may have disheartening setbacks at this stage while approaching the supreme goal…(also called) dramatic complications. Though they may seem to tear us apart, they are only a further test of our willingness to proceed.” For Milo, one of those setbacks is not being allowed into the city he’s searched for his entire life. But, he doesn’t give up and neither should your characters.
“Another function of the approach stage is to up the stakes and rededicate the team to it’s mission…The urgency and life & death quality of the issue needs to be underscored.” By making the goals more imperative at this stage, everyone is reminded why they’re doing this difficult journey in the first place. Most movies do this by kidnapping the hero’s beloved (and often difficult) child/lover/sibling. But that’s trite. See what you can do to avoid it or twist it.
Now, after all this difficulty and hard work, your character has to get somewhere for their trouble; a breakthrough. And don’t kid yourself, sometimes, they have to break in. “At some point it may be necessary to use force to break through the final veil to the Inmost Cave. The hero’s own resistance & fear may have to be overcome by a violent act of will.”
Remember that old movie, “Krull”? The hero has to speak to an oracle of some sort…who is being suspended in a circular prison in the middle of a web made by a giant spider. The hero must risk all to visit this oracle, who it turns out will die as a result of his visitation. He knows he’s breaking a spell to go in there, but there is no other choice. Your hero, too, must learn the meaning of sacrifice, but the sacrifice is not a price that is too high or personal to pay. Yet.
Also, your hero must learn and accept–finally–that there is no exit to the adventure, now that things are getting tighter. “No matter how heroes try to escape their fate, sooner or later the exits are closed off and the life & death issue must be faced.” Picture “Stargate”’s scene where the scientist explains that the military man’s secret mission has complicated their trapped situation. There is no way out now but through. And THAT is how we get to the next phase, the thing we’ve been practicing for: The Ordeal.
But that’s next week!
Final Lessons and Questions Of The Approach: Does your character learn any of these? Fill in all that apply or add others.
Beware of Illusions: “Don’t be seduced by illusions and perfumes, stay alert, don’t fall asleep on the march.”
Be Prepared: “It’s good for heroes to go into the main event in a state of balance, w/ confidence tempered by humility and awareness of the danger.”
Emotional Appeal To A Guardian: “Sometimes, when the passport of experience no longer works to get you past the gate, an emotional appeal can break down the defenses of the threshold guardians. Establishing a bond of human feeling may be the key.” (Or, translated: When all else fails…BEG. Usually for the welfare of others, that’s always a bonus.)
They’re in Shamanic Territory: “As heroes approach the Inmost Cave, they should know they are in shaman’s territory, on the edge between life & death.” Shamanic just means that often, deciding who lives and dies is a spiritual decision that not all heroes are ready, trained or believe in enough to handle. “The Mummy Returns” is a great example of this, when Rick O’Connell learns that he’s a knight for God and most of the events were predetermined. He doesn’t know the language, he doesn’t know the prophecy and he doesn’t believe it’s true. He’s out of his depth…but he’s pretty sure he can handle it. The viewer soon learns, though, that his price for that is high.
As Rick learns, “We must all pass tests to earn approval… Sometimes the very people you naturally turn to in a crisis will push you away. You have to face the big moment alone.”
Get Into Your Opponents Mind: “This aspect of the Approach teaches that we must get into the minds of those who seem to stand in our way. If we understand or empathize with them, the job of getting past them or absorbing their energy is much easier.” If we have an idea why our enemies are doing something, we can better counter their moves. Knowing the motivation is like knowing the destination on a map. Ultimately, there’s limited ways to reach that destination.
Which of the following will your character encounter in the Approach? Fill in all that apply:
Courtship: “(B)onding of the hero & heroine may develop here.”
The Bold Approach: “Some heroes boldly stride up to the castle door & demand to be let in.”
Heavy Defenses: “Heroes can expect the villain’s headquarters to be defended with animal-like ferocity.”
Reorganization: “The Approach stage is also a time to reorganize a group: to promote some members, sort out living, dead & wounded, assign special missions & so on.” Characters may be asked to perform new functions and new archetype masks.
Who Is The Hero At This Point?: “The Approach is a good time to recalibrate your team, express misgivings and give encouragement…There may even be bitter battles for dominance among the group at this stage…for control of the adventure.”