The most powerful stories–the ones that stay with us–are about change, and change comes from struggle.
By now, we’ve spent some time establishing the stakes of the story–what the character stands to lose, and what they stand to gain. This is where those stakes come into play. If we’ve done our work well, your Hero is standing at the precipice of a task for which he is unequipped. Time for Step 4.
Step 4 – Meeting the Mentor
So… why do we need a Mentor? Does he have to be old and have a beard?
To understand why we need a Mentor, we need to remember the role of sacrifice in giving your story meaning. If the task is easy, the eventual triumph will be hollow. Raise your stakes.
A word about stakes…
While establishing the stakes, understand that the scope doesn’t need to be epic and world-shattering. Writers often confuse stakes with scope. The two are not connected. You can have incredibly high stakes on a personal level, or a global level.
No one person will consider the death of a loved one as lower stakes than something involving nuclear codes. From an emotional standpoint–which is what really matters in a story–the death of the loved one is actually a higher stakes situation. It’s just the scope that is smaller.
This is why the absolute best “large scope” stories that deal with high global stakes must also involve high personal stakes. Redemption. Forgiveness. Revenge. Facing your past. It’s never just about nuclear codes.
If it is, the story probably sucks.
The kick in the pants
We’ve established the story’s stakes. The Hero has expressed his doubts, either externally or internally, and he is facing a truly monumental task which he is unable to perform, or at least feels unable to perform. If your character then rallies, gives himself a pep-talk, and jumps in with both feet… you’ve missed an opportunity for dramatic impact.
When the stakes are high enough, and there’s genuine sacrifice, the Hero will require some additional impetus to force them into a journey they’re not certain they can complete. They need a kick in the pants to get them going.
That’s where the Mentor comes in… and where it gets interesting.
The Mentor doesn’t need to be an old guy with a beard. He actually doesn’t even need to be a person at all. The Mentor is the source of clarity and determination your Hero needs in order to pursue the story goal, despite the doubts they expressed in the Refusal. This clarity and determination can come from a neighbor kid, a seemingly unconnected experience, the memory of a loved one, a map, letter, or other object. I remember reading a story in which a TV commercial acted as the Mentor, and it worked beautifully.
Sometimes, the Mentor provides something–a piece of new information, a skill, a weapon, or tool–that equips the Hero for the journey that lies in store. Or, the Mentor can simply offer the Hero enough emotional strength to overcome their doubts.
It’s important to note here that while this step is called Meeting the Mentor, the actual meeting doesn’t need to take place after the Refusal. In many cases, the Hero meets the Mentor before the Call to Adventure occurs, and it’s often the Mentor who offers the Call in the first place. However, the Mentor doesn’t perform their primary function (preparing the Hero for their journey) until after the Refusal.
repeating the steps
When we discussed the Call to Adventure, I mentioned the Hero can sometimes be faced with a False Call, which sets them on the path toward the wrong goal. In these cases, the antagonist can sometimes act as the Mentor, encouraging the Hero on this wild goose chase. Halfway into the journey, the Hero will gain new insight that will make the true story goal clear to them, and the story will change course.
When this happens, sometimes you’ll find yourself repeating The Call, The Refusal, and Meeting the Mentor. This is absolutely okay. Sometimes they’ll look a little different the second time around, but their presence is a good way to ensure you have the sacrifice and stakes necessary to make this new story goal meaningful.
Next up… Crossing the Threshold.