Can you believe it’s finally here? The final chapter of our Hero’s Journey study. Boy, that’s actually kinda sad! But here we go, home again, home again, jiggity-jig.
Return With The Elixir: When “heroes return to their startiing place, go home or continue with the journey. But they always proceed with a sense that they are commencing a new life, one that will be forever different because of the road just traveled.”
Your hero has finally become golden. He’s loved, he’s lost, he’s gained, he’s learned. He has paid prices that might seem somewhat unfair and he’s become a better person from his lessons. The journey–and the story–however, is not quite complete. Just because they have what they came for doesn’t mean that they get to take it home without some difficulty.
This truth also pertains to the author. There are some aspects of the story that need to be included for your tale to have a complete end. That’s right, folks, checklist!! Take a look at the following functions, check to see if your story has any of the below or ask if it needs them.
Functions Of The Return:
Denouemont: Did you tie up the loose plot ends? (”It’s all right for a Return to raise new questions–in fact that may be hightly desirable–but all the old questions should be addressed or at least restated.”) Ponder X2: The death of Jean Grey. The current plot is wrapped up, one character has died and it is a tragic ending…until the final moment when there is a hint that the story continues as Jean Grey reads the previous movie’s prologue and movement is seen beneath the water. As long as you give the reader a sense of completion on all fronts, they will be satisfied with the story.
Surprise: “A Return can fall flat if everything is resolved too neatly or just as expected. A good Return should untie the plot threads but with a certain amount of surprise.” There are few things more annoying than magically happy endings. Take in “Yours, Mine & Ours”. Kids that despised each other wonderfully in the first half have magically taken on protective sibling roles and best bud personas, leading the viewer to ask, “Where the hell are the kids I was enjoying?”. Don’t surprise them with magic. Surprise them with uniqueness.
Reward & Punnishment: This is where everyone gets what’s coming to them, but keep the punnishment/reward equal to the crime/sacrifice. (Unless you’re trying to prove life is unfair.) I love to watch movies for “justice”. Remember “Aliens”, where Paul Riser’s character, the nice-bad guy who attempted to implant Ripley and Newt, ditches the space marines to save his own neck? What happens to him? That’s right, he finds himself all alone with one hungry alien. Justice is served. Likewise, rewards will keep a viewer content. In the same movie, hot and understanding marine Michael Biehn survives, quite a bit worse for wear, but alive. (And Michael, if you’re out there, I’d really like if you could remember how to survive a movie. I love you dearly. Stop dying.) Movies that dissatisfy the viewer are ones where this sense of justice is ignored. To continue our stroll down Alien Lane, one needs only ponder Alien 3, where Ripley awakens on a prison planet not only to discover she’s been implanted with a queen, but that Newt and Michael are toast. They dicked with our sense of justice and a good ending. The movie bombed so bad they had to bring Ripley back to life in a fourth movie, just to apologize. Much like Jurassic Park 3, but I digress.
The Elixir: “What does the hero bring back with her from the special world…?” This is a requirement; be it love, knowledge that changes their world, tragedy who’s lesson is for the audience, a sense of being sadder but wiser or worse, sadder but no wiser. The hero must always learn. If they don’t learn, it should be because their entire journey is not complete and you have the next story planned, this is but a chapter, a la Star Wars.
Epilogue: Completing the story at some point in the future. This obviously is not a requirement, but it does serve as a cool down to many readers. They like to know they won’t be getting screwed like the did in Alien 3.
Of course, there’s also some common problems that occur in a story that can weigh it down or ruin a perfectly good story. Pitfalls of the Return: Do any of these apply to your story? How? Resolve accordingly.
Unresolved Subplots: “All the subplots should be acknowledged or resolved in the Return. Each character should come away with some variety of Elixir or learning.” Rule of thumb: sub-plots should have at least three “beats” or scenes, one in each act. Take your characters and show them learning or gaining something from the experience. “The Italian Job” shows each the members in the beginning introducing them by how they will celebrate their take of the theft. In Act Two, we see their individual origins. Finally, in Act Three, we see how they each finally acquire the things they have longed for. Always be sure to tie up your subs.
Too Many Endings: “(T)he story is over, but the writer, perhaps unable to choose the right ending, tries several.” I usually think of “AI”, Steven Spielberg’s Pinnochio story. This movie spends roughly 45 minutes on endings. The boy makes it to his maker’s office, all is well. No, no, maker turns out to be an evil bastard. Kid goes down into the ocean and finds the blue fairy. Great! He’s going to get his wish! No, no…he’s going to freeze to a solid hunk of ice, staring at this blue fairy for millennia. The end? You wish. No, now the boy is carved out of the ice by benevolent aliens who find him to be an amazing miracle of human engineering. He’s been rewarded with a new chance at life. No, no, Let’s give him a happy ending with his mom instead. For just one day. (See dicking with my sense of justice, Mr. Spielberg!) Thankfully, the movie blessedly ends when the kid dies/falls asleep. There’s no justice for his bear, either, I might add. No, I’m not bitter. Much. (if by chance you missed AI, don’t worry, you probably know what I mean by having watched the end of “Lord Of The Rings”. Nuff Said.)
Abrupt Endings: “A story tends to feel incomplete unless a certain emotional space is devoted to bidding farewell to the characters and drawing some conclusions.” This is what I like to call “The Hong Kong Cinema” ending. HK films love to have the most abrupt endings ever concieved. Chock full of action, drama and adventurethenyou’rebackhandedwiththeend.Bye. American films that adopted this type of ending are “Broken Arrow” and “Deep Impact”. In “Broken Arrow”, the hero saves the day, fires off a nuclear weapon and smiles at his sidekick. In three minutes. Roll credits. You might have the greatest adventure ever told, but if your limit is 200 pages and you spend 199 on plot and plot resolution, your reader is going to feel cut off from proper denouement.
Focus: “A Return may feel out of focus if the dreamatic questions, raised in Act 1 and tested in Act 2, are not answered now…The story will not seem focused unless the circle is closed by returning to the original themes.” A story is an artfully crafted essay. You open with a point. You prove your point. You reiterate your point in the conclusion. Remember those old “hamburger” paragraph structure sheets you used to fill in back in school? Line one is the bun, your Thesis statement. Lettuce, tomato and patty are concrete detail #1, 2 & 3. Bottom bun is your final statement. Make a burger. If you say in the beginning love can save everyone from terrible fates, Act 2 has to prove it, The end has to show that it is a fact. Never lose sight of the big picture while you’re filling in the details. Don’t miss the forrest for the tree.
Punctuation: “A story, like a sentence, can end in only four ways: with a period, an exclaimation point, a question mark, or an ellipsis.” “One way or another, the very ending of the story should announce that it’s all over…” I like to study the final page of a book. The end has to give a sense of closure, or a sense of excitement, pose a question or allow people to wonder what might happen next. Movie examples would be:
Closure: “Ever After”–the evil stepmother and her daughter are vanquished and our heroine lives happily ever after. The storytellers are sent on their way and the Queen of France feels better for having set the record straight.
Exclaimation: “Alien Vs Predator”–The hot sexy alien guy dies honorably and his body is taken to his ship to be laid in state. Until brand new alien leaps from his chest! You know the adventure will start anew for someone, just like it has over and over before. Cool!
Question Mark: “X2”–The surface of Alkalai Lake ripples and the birdlike shape of fire moving beneath it while Jean reminds us that evolution leaps forward makes us wonder, is she alive? Is there another sequel? Will I be able to afford the movie tickets??
Ellipsis: “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) We are given a wonderful moment of bliss between the Mr & Mrs Darcy at their new home and we know they will probably have a wonderful, challenging life ahead. We don’t see it. We also don’t see what becomes of the three remaining Miss Bennetts. We’re sure they’re going to be okay though as the screen goes to black.
Ask yourself what kind of finish have you provided for your hero and heroine. Does your story end? Is the adventure renewing? The only wrong way to end a journey is to not complete it. Home may be where the heart is, but for a hero, it’s also where he ends up when he completes his goal. That can be back where he started or in a place he can now call his own. The point, good reader, is that he makes a choice to be there.