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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

The Hero’s Journey – The Approach

We really shouldn’t go in there—but we have to!

star wars approach

We’re now well into the Middle Phase (Act 2) of a story. The characters have started to find their footing, acclimatizing to the new situation they’ve been put in. They have met new friends and foes and faced some initial challenges.

Having overcome these early tests, the characters now must tackle a bigger and more crucial challenge. After all, it wouldn’t make a very compelling story if the protagonist was thrust into a new situation—or a whole new world—but stayed on the fringes, never trying to learn something of value, unravel some underlying mystery there, or conquer/heal some evil. So, this is where the characters must approach a perilous place, possibly the most dangerous they could encounter, like a villain’s lair or some other den of darkness!

Christopher Vogler metaphorically calls this stage of a hero’s journey plot “Approach to the Inmost Cave.” As Shrek shows, many modern stories still carry on the old tradition of sending characters into dark, dank, challenging places like caves, dungeons, or haunted castles. In religious tales and ancient mythology, this often marked a time when the character would journey into the underworld, or under the sea, or into the belly of a some great creature.

But at this point, he's probably not having a whale of a good time.

But at this point, he’s probably not having a whale of a good time…

In fairy tales, the dark place a character approaches is almost always the woods. Hansel and Gretel’s Approach is one of the most memorable because they literally mark their path with breadcrumbs.


In the Ordinary Worlds post, I talked about how the Harry Potter books incorporate some fairy tale elements and they do so again at this stage of the plot. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry gets his first taste of Voldemort while on detention in the Forbidden Forest, the place where You-Know-Who has made his hideout. And in the Chamber of Secrets, Harry must again must approach the forest, much to Ron’s chagrin.

Of course, the Approach doesn’t have to lead somewhere dark and scary or even to a villain, but there is still some element of danger or at least uneasiness. The character is heading someplace where all is not well.

Realistic fiction might not always be so obviously symbolic as fantasy, but the Approach still leads the character toward an especially difficult trial. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the protagonist, Junior, has to return to his reservation as a member of his new high school’s basketball team to play against his old team and his best friend Rowdy. His whole community has turned up to call him a traitor and people throw things at him as he enters, so he ends up needing stitches and can’t even play. A basketball court is not a villain’s layer, but given his situation, there is no place more difficult for him to go.

Of course, if the characters approach some difficult place, then we can ask what happens once they are there? Usually something bad! They will be facing one of their darkest hours in the next stage: The Ordeal. Into the whale’s mouth we go!

Me, and my inner snowman, thank Olaf these links for pics!


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