Posted by: Alastair Rosie | September 30, 2012

Part Eight The Ordeal


I thought I’d start this article about the ordeal with an example from the movie Notting Hill, which I’ve just watched again last night. It’s one of my favourite romantic comedies.
The word ordeal conjures up images of fighting dragons, demons, a master criminal or at least the bad guy but in Notting Hill the demons are found within the two central characters, Anna Scott and William who are thrust together when Anna takes refuge in his apartment.
It’s a classic ordeal scene that illustrates the ordeal doesn’t have to be life threatening, there are no monsters or external villains to overcome. They are both seekers for the ‘other’ who will complete them. He has been meeting other women and although he finds one who is ‘perfect’ she’s not Anna, and then we cut to the scene just after he’s met this woman and Anna knocks at his door in a panic. He’s been trying to find her replacement and now the real Anna is in his apartment desperate for refuge from the British press. William is facing an ordeal because he feels inadequate in her presence. She is a screen goddess, which equates in a mythical sense to the goddess of ancient mythology who joins with a mortal man in sexual union. Anna Scott on the other hand is running from her past, those pictures have come to haunt her. She turns to the only man she feels can shelter her from the storm. Her ordeal revolves around pride, vanity, and a loss of control and to her way of thinking, a death. That night when they disrobe and become not goddess and mortal but man and woman there is a death that involves their inner selves. In the morning the press descend on that house in Notting Hill with the blue door, thanks to William’s freakish house mate. But even as she flees leaving a shattered and bewildered William, we know they’ve passed through a second door and there is no return to normality without scars. They must reunite in the future or forever carry the burden of their actions.
So you see perhaps that the ordeal doesn’t have to be dragged out over a dozen pages or ten minutes of film time, it can be a page or two but it’s what happens in that scene that prepares your hero or in the case of Notting Hill, heroes, to drive forward and seize the sword.
In other films and books the ordeal is a life threatening situation or at least threatens to overwhelm your hapless hero. Is she in danger of being exposed as a fool, will he suffer a professional death? Is your hero in danger of losing their life as Ripley in Alien? Whatever the ordeal it has to push your hero or heroes to the wall. Like a boxer against the ropes they can go down at any time and yet they stand there taking it before exploding with a counter punch that sends the villain reeling. It’s the act that defines them as a hero brave enough to take the reward and bring the elixir of life back home again. We, the reader have invested time in your hero, we’ve identified with them and almost feel as if we’re walking around in their skin. If we aren’t by now you’re doing something wrong and need to revisit your work in progress.
This ordeal is not to be confused with the final ordeal or climax. In movies it comes about halfway through or towards the end of the second act. In books it comes about halfway through, it’s known as plot point two or the second door. Your hero has gone through a series of tests culminating with the second door or a death and rebirth. Think of Luke Skywalker deep within the Death Star and the robots think he’s dead but then he re-emerges victorious. He has survived death and been reborn as a Jedi, he is now ready for the final challenge.
So why not put that bit at the end?
The reason is that we need to draw the reader onwards and upwards. You throw all kinds of things in your hero’s path, evil trolls, threshold guardians, frightened parents, a jilted lover and all these tests are moving towards a climax that will bring some kind of death to your hero. She might lose her job and be forced to draw on the things she’s learned from her tests. You might introduce an ally or bring a mentor back into the story, or one of her ‘enemies’ might actually turn out to be a friend and powerful ally. The ordeal is the bit that props up the middle, like a tent pole it keeps your story from sagging in the middle and how many books have you read where you felt like you were treading through quicksand?
John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves leads the remnants of the tribe against the Pawnee. They consist of women, children and old men as the other warriors have gone off raiding. First he must convince Ten Bears that the guns he’s hidden at the fort will benefit the tribe, then he must enlist help to retrieve them. Ten Bears gives him Smiles a Lot and so he sets out for the fort in the rain and just when they’re about to give up the boy finds the bone buried in the dirt and they return with the guns. The ensuing battle defines John Dunbar and although he survives, the white part of him dies and is resurrected as Dances With Wolves. He is now ready to receive his reward, Stands With A Fist and become a formal member of the People. He has gone through a series of tests beginning with the buffalo hunt and culminating with the battle.
In Terminator, Rhys has approached the inmost cave in the motel room with Sarah and here I feel as if the approach and the ordeal are one and the same, probably to save film time I suspect but in the lovemaking something is exchanged. The two shed their old lives and pasts and become something new in the end. Not long after that Rhys is wounded by the terminator and Sarah is now bound to protect Rhys as much as he is bound to her. The chase begins anew as they flee the terminator and Sarah is now beginning to take on the warrior role she has been preparing for all the way through the movie. Rhys is the mentor who will pass the torch in the same fashion as Obi Wan Kenobi did in Star Wars. Without his eventual sacrifice Sarah will always play second fiddle to Rhys but with his death the flame is passed on and she goes on with part him inside her in the form of John Connor the future leader of the resistance.
In the myth of the Minotaur, Theseus is given a ball of thread by Ariadne and while she holds one end he enters the house of the dead to slay the monster. Only by keeping hold of the thread that binds him to Ariadne can he hope to escape the maze.
In the first Nancy Drew book (1930), Nancy is taken prisoner and kept in a room while the burglars drink heavily, alcohol was illegal back then. In The Hunt For Red October, the ordeal comes when Jack Ryan comes aboard the submarine and Ramius announces his intention to defect to the United States and surrenders his ship to the US government. This comes after a tense hunt across the Atlantic where Ramius is pursued by Captain Tupolev, the Russian navy, and the US navy. He has already left a message for the Kremlin stating his intention to defect and when he stages the fake accident, it initiates the entrance of the Americans. Surrendering command is a death because he is the captain, the crew are convinced the ship is sinking and therefore the ship to them is dead. Only Ramius and selected officers know the truth. Once Ryan is aboard however they come under attack from the Russian fleet and former enemies have to work together to survive.
Basically whatever the ordeal in your book it has to be a real threat. Whether you have a life threatening situation or a professional death, it has to act as the central point of your book and elevate your hero to the podium. She is now ready to face the final challenge, seizing the sword and returning home. Going back to Notting Hill and that scene where Anna takes refuge, William becomes her hero in the space of a day and a night, and she sheds her goddess plumage and becomes just a girl, something she will remind him of vocally towards the end. The scene was what propped up the middle of the film and kept the plot from sagging, once they’ve made love you know that the film can’t finish without some kind of resolution. They will either acknowledge their feelings and failures and walk away, or come together and realise they are soul mates drawn together for a purpose. In the final scene of Notting Hill you see the reason when Anna is lying with her head on William’s lap and she is pregnant, new life will complete the circle of life.
So what is the ordeal for your hero? Will she be dangling from a high building? Will he be escorted from his plush penthouse office and thrown to the wolves? Will your detective have to go it alone when her captain thinks she’s chasing the wrong guy? This is the acid test so what are you waiting for? The prize is within reach.

Other examples of the Ordeal:
The separation of Jack and Joan in Romancing the Stone when the car goes into the river and he thinks she has drowned. In this case she has to make her way to a meeting point not knowing if he will be there to meet her.
The battle on the ice-covered river in King Arthur, which results in Dagonet’s death but he is replaced by Guinevere who takes part in the battle. The Saxons are temporarily driven off but Arthur has lost one of his knights. This scene followed on from the previous day when he learns that his idol and mentor, Bishop Pelagius was killed in Rome for being a heretic.
In The Da Vinci Code (novel), the scene at Teabing’s house when Silas attacks and is disarmed. We are beginning to realise that Sophie is not just an observer or a helper for the central character, she could be the central character without realising it.
In Alien, the death of Ash, who has tried to kill Ripley. He is revealed to be an android and predicts that they will not survive. This leads into the final battle as they decide to activate the self destruct mechanism and escape.
The death of Birdee’s mother in Hope Floats. She has come through a dark approach to the inmost cave after running from Justin and going to see her father, who has been partially paralysed by a stroke. With her mother gone, Birdee now has to step out and assume the role of mother, something she has been battling with throughout the movie. It leads to the final confrontation with her ex and reunion with Justin.



  1. Hi Alistair – this is really interesting. I like the way you separate the ordeal from the climax at the end. As a writer I always throw my characters into situations to test them. In this sense it is their ordeal, but I’d never thought of it like that before.

    Great post 🙂

    • Yeah I have done that as well and it’s not a hard and fast rule to be honest. But it’s interesting to separate the stages out and see how it all goes together. I think the ordeal in the middle just heightens the tension to breaking point. Writing these blogs is actually helping me as much if not more than others. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

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