Continuing from the previous post on Act II of the Hero’s Journey, the third act starts. The Hero has received ample training from the Mentor, support from allies, and growth from tests and enemies. The quest nears the Darkest Cave, or the big confrontation for the Hero. This ordeal results in hardship, near-death, and character rebirth. The Hero seizes the Sword, one of the treasures for victory, and defeated the antagonist.
Note, this article is written from a hero-as-protagonist perspective. Some stories have the Hero as an antagonist or an anti-hero/split-protagonist.
With Act II done, additional worldbuilding should be minimized. Readers should understand the story’s universe, the forces of good and bad, and where the story promises to head. Acts III and IV are about fulfilling those promises. They are the payoffs to readers for their time and attention.
The Darkest Cave is the apex of the Hero’s Journey. It’s what the Hero has trained to face since Act I. All their training from the Mentor, allies, smaller ordeals, and enemy battles has prepared them for this moment. To think about the Darkest Cave alone should send shivers down the Hero’s spine. It’s terrifying, embodying their greatest fears. If written well, the Cave should terrify readers too.
The antagonist forms the backbone of the Darkest Cave, which guards the Sword, the treasure for victory. But first, the Hero must throw all they have against the Cave. Otherwise, they will die, and their Ordinary World will be annihilated.
Ordeal, Death, Rebirth
Now engaged in the Darkest Cave, the Hero struggles against the antagonist force through this Ordeal. It could be a war, a duel, an act of great feat like climbing a mountain, or something innocent—but no less horrifying—like confronting a lover.
Regardless, the Hero inevitably fails to succeed. They are not prepared for victory—not in the conventional sense anyway—and succumb to near-Death. In this hopeless moment, the Hero resurrects through a shred of resilience within. They emerge like a phoenix turned from ash to firebird, blazing with new glory.
It’s important not to use a deus ex machina for the Rebirthing process, as this comes off as uninspiring and cliché. Deux ex machina is when some unpredicted, divine force intervenes to rescue and strengthen the Hero. Instead, the Rebirth should come from within. Through the will to survive and succeed.
Seizing the Sword
The Hero emerges victorious, albeit changed and reborn, and receives the Sword. Through this victory, the Hero has taken a big step towards completing the Journey. The antagonist is defeated and flees before the Hero—but evil is not so easily defeated, as we will see in Act IV.
Act III builds off the first and second acts, and enacts the big battle for the hero—the reason why readers read. Character growth is optimized here, as the Hero emerges as something different. Transmuted and reborn. As we turn to Act IV, the the story addresses any outstanding conflicts and finishes the Hero’s transformation.