This article is the fifth in a series about Dan Harmon’s take on the structure of stories. If you’d like to read the earlier articles I’ve indexed them at the bottom of: Dan Harmon On Story Structure.)
Today let’s look at ...
4. SEARCH: The Road of Trials
In Part 3 the protagonist crossed the threshold and descended from the Ordinary World—from the known, the comfortable—into the Special World of the Adventure. Now she must adapt to a land that is alien, strange, and frightening.
As Harmon points out, different writers have different names for this phase. Christopher Vogler calls it “Friends, Enemies and Allies,” producers call it, “The Training Phase.” Joseph Campbell called it, “The Road of Trials.” The point is that, “our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)
The Protagonist Gives Up Something: No Pain, No Gain.
The protagonist must jettison excess baggage. After all, to gain something one must first give up something. If one’s life is cluttered with trifles we’ve held onto for maudlin sentimental reasons we must clean house to make room for something new.
The protagonist must lose something, must divest themselves of something, before they can find what they’re searching for. This stripping of the cared for, of the familiar, will cause pain but will be transformative. But, then, pain and transformation are two sides of the same coin. Harmon writes:
“In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell actually evokes the image of a digestive tract, breaking the hero down, divesting him of neuroses, stripping him of fear and desire. There's no room for bullshit in the unconscious basement. Asthma inhalers, eyeglasses, credit cards, fratty boyfriends, promotions, toupees and cell phones can't save you here. [...]
“In Romancing the Stone, Michael Douglas cuts the heels off of Kathleen Turner's expensive shoes with a machete. Then he throws her suitcase off a cliff. If she's going to continue to survive in this jungle, she literally needs to drop her excess baggage and lose the fancy pants.” (Story Structure 104)
Identify What Things (Ideas, etc.) Hold The Protagonist Back
Why do we need to shed this excess? Harmon writes:
“We are headed for the deepest level of the unconscious mind, and we cannot reach it encumbered by all that crap we used to think was important.” (Story Structure 104)
While it’s fine to have a pair of expensive designer shoes—especially if you happen to be at an event where everyone else is wearing expensive designer shoes—the protagonist needs to shed anything unnecessary, she has to get rid of the trappings of the Ordinary World, they have no place here. In fact, if she refuses to give them up she will fail to find what she has been searching for.
Fun And Games: Fish Out Of Water
As Blake Snyder reminds us in “Save The Cat!,” this is also a time for Fun and Games. This is where the hero explores the Special World and blunders about like a toddler, figuring out how things work, learning the ropes. As he does, he will make new friends as well as an enemy or two.
For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke Skywalker visited the Mos Eisley Cantina with Obi-Wan Kenobi. That was a strange new world indeed!
The friends and allies the protagonist makes in the Special World are invaluable, for they not only help him acclimatize to the strange new world, but to excel in it.
I’ll talk more about this later, though if you’d like to skip ahead, read Dan Harmon’s article, “Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details.”
When we look at Part 6 we’ll see that it’s another road of trials, one that mirrors Part 4, only this time rather than descending to meet the goddess, the protagonist ascends on her return to the Ordinary World. Rather than being passive, rather than stripping away the excess, now our transformed protagonist is on the upward journey ready, ready to return to the ordinary world with what the goddess gave them.
That's it! Hope you had a wonderful week.