Finding the Cave

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

April 8, 2014

Tips for WritersApril feels like it’s going to be an easy month, if there are ever such declarations. Easy in the sense that my first manuscript is now in the care of someone else.

No more tweaking, second-guessing names, plot and character development. It’s whole, revised and under review. The review I’ve requested from my editor at Write Divas is to assess the hero’s journey. Is it working?

To me, a story’s strength is in nailing the journey of the hero from call to adventure to final transformation. I like stories and I’ve always been drawn to narratives that focus on this age-old cycle. The hero’s journey is what I love to read and tell. It’s what I chose to write.

So, I look for this cycle in all stories whether in books or on the screen. Since it is the beginning of my easy month, I watched a movie this weekend, “Gravity.” And I was delighted to recognize the hero’s journey.

Without spoiling the movie, I’ll just relate a few points. The journey is small compared to “Star Wars.” But that’s the beauty of the archetype; it can be contained in a small story. The setting is vast, of course, as it opens in space with the hero (Sandra Bullock’s character) orbiting earth on a mission to install a piece of engineered hardware.

Her reluctance to accept the call (to adventure) is understood with her ambivalent attitude toward her space walk. She’s there to do a job. Space? Earth below? So what. What follows next is typical–the tensions of challenges, the revelation of a mentor, the approach to the cave.

Ah, the cave. Finding the cave for a character on the hero’s journey can be tricky. The cave is a metaphor for the hero being forced to face what is happening. To be a hero she must first refuse the call. Because the hero refuses the call yet life keeps sending her trouble, the cave becomes that inward reflection of “do or die.” Death isn’t always imminent, but it reflects a major loss if the hero doesn’t become the hero.

In “Gravity,” the cave is literal. Sandra Bullock is tucked up in a small, confined space that all but yelled, “cave!” And she had her most important choices to make in that space. It is a major shift in the progression of the movie.

Reflecting on my own novel, I wonder if I did not enclose my protagonist in her cave as clearly. This thought is a revelation to me and probably what ‘s been nagging at me about my own story. Finding the cave means leaving your character in discomfort (and your reader) until a decision is made. It’s not about plot twists; it’s about character evolution.

Now I realize that I will be using my easy month to reflect on the cave and how I might better define it. Watching movies like “Gravity” that deftly defines the hero’s journey will help.

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  1. Caffe Maggieato

    Yay! Congrats on getting off your MS to your editor.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks! It’s a rest stop on the journey, right?

      • Caffe Maggieato

        Lol true. Enjoy the break while it lasts. 😀

      • Charli Mills

        Ha, ha! I know “substantive” edits are headed my way like April rains!

  2. Annecdotist

    Interesting, Charli, I haven’t come across the concept of the cave before. But, if I’m understanding you correctly, I have used it in my own fiction: the protagonist (don’t think I could stretch to calling mine heroes) finds themselves in a dark place that feels like a trap but it’s only from here that the solution can be found.
    Thanks for giving me something to ponder

    • Charli Mills

      That’s the place, Anne. I have recognized it in some of your stories that I’ve read. I think the cave is also called other names–the abyss or the supreme ordeal. I like heroes that are not heroic in the idea of being “super.” Everyday people, or even flawed, broken people who make a decision that transforms their path…like your character who was running away from her stalking mother, but drives back and sees how flawed and frail that mother truly is. Thank you for your insightful comment!

  3. Norah

    Hi Charli,
    Congratulations on handing your manuscript over to someone else. i hope they take good care of it. Enjoy your easy month. I’m sure you will find plenty to fill your time.
    Like Anne I hadn’t heard of the “cave” reference before, but am certainly familiar with the concept.
    Best wishes for your manuscript.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Norah! I trust it is in good hands but I also understand that the work of an editor is to find errors and gaps. Funny how I realized this gap after I sent it off. I’ve also seen the cave called other names (abyss or supreme ordeal). I’m fascinated with the hero’s journey in stories, especially unlikely heroes.

      • Norah

        I appreciate your focus on the hero’s journey with a positive theme. I like these too.

  4. Diana Wenzel

    I find this concept of the cave fascinating. I’ve been living it without even knowing it.

    • Charli Mills

      You have been living it! Diana, you would have loved this Franciscan retreat that I went on several years ago. We studied the hero’s journey in writing and on our last day, our workshop leader revealed how the retreat was such a journey. I left with a whole new idea of writing and writer as hero. It gave me the courage to quit everything and go write! You’ve taken up that same journey and I see it in your writing.

  5. sylvestermouse

    My life has been a definite journey of interesting “plot” twists and I have certainly had my own cave battles. I will say though, there is nothing more glorious than emerging from the cave with renewed hope and direction.

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