Planning Your Way Out Of That Big Empty Middle In The Plot

Vogler’s Step 7: Approach to the Inmost Cave

In the original Star Wars movie, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker free Princess Leia. Storm troopers chase them through the Death Star, so they blast a hold in the bulkhead and jump. They fall into the garbage dump, and it starts compacting trash.

That’s Step 7 of the hero’s journey, Approach to the Inmost Cave. But what the heck does that mean? 

First of all, inmost means innermost, so that small mystery is solved. Approach means the hero – in the case of Star Wars, the hero team – is approaching its biggest trial yet. 

Let’s take one step back: Step 6 is Tests, Allies and Enemies. Recall that Dorothy followed the Yellow Brick Road to find The Wizard of Oz and met Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man. Dorothy passed several tests and made allies of all three. They became loyal to each other. Then the Wicked Witch of the West sent flying monkeys to capture Dorothy. The girl was taken to the witch’s castle – the inmost cave. 

Like all heroes, your hero is on a journey. He or she will approach – or will be flown by winged monkeys – to an inmost cave, the heart of the hero’s journey. In other words, the central ordeal. 

If the hero is a prisoner, like Dorothy or Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, he uses this time to plan his escape. If the hero is attacking the villain, he’s planning the next move.

Chris Vogler wrote The Writer’s Journey, the definitive guide to the hero’s journey: “Maps may be reviewed, attacks planned, a reconnaissance launched, and possibly the enemy’s forces whittled down, before the hero can face his greatest fear or the supreme danger lurking in the special world.”

It’s a good time for the writer to have the hero team take a break and explain to each other (and reveal to the audience) what is coming. The hero team can reorganize their depleted ranks, add a new ally, remember the dead and wounded, and rekindle morale. It’s an opportunity to raise the stakes and start a ticking clock. 

In romantic comedy, Vogler wrote, the lovers can question their commitment. One partner may bring up marriage. 

The writer can repeat the approach several times in the journey. The 12 steps don’t have to come in order. Each hero on the team starts the journey at a different point. For instance, Obi-Wan was 57, Chewbacca was 200 in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. They had fought wars and were fully realized heroes when they met Luke Skywalker, a teenager. Han Solo was 29, but older than Luke.

In her approach to the city of Oz, Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road and meets  Scarecrow. He comes with her because the Wizard of Oz might give him brains. Scarecrow and Dorothy get hungry, so they trick the trees out of their apples. Bingo, she’s got an ally. 

They meet the Tin Woodsman; he’s rusted so badly, he can’t move, so they oil him. Bingo, a second ally. 

Finally, they meet a lion who tries to scare them. It’s just a bluff because he’s afraid. Maybe the Wizard will give Cowardly Lion courage.

Dorothy’s hero team is challenged by a series of obstacles – thresholds. Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion supply solutions for Dorothy. Along the Yellow Brick Road – their road of tests and trials – the hero team gains hope, and they prepare for the life-or-death struggle of Step 8. 

Remember, up the stakes, up the stakes, up the stakes all through the story. There’s the inciting incident of Stage 2; meeting the mentor in Stage 4; crossing the first threshold in Stage 5; several tests, trials and enemies in Stage 6; approaching the inmost cave in Stage 7; and the ordeal in Stage 8. More tests and ordeals are on the road back, which is Stage 10, and the resurrection climax is in Stage 11. 

In the Wizard of Oz, the approach to the inmost cave is when the Wicked Witch of the West commands the winged monkeys – yep, more threshold guardians – to kidnap Dorothy and fly her to the witch’s castle. They tear apart Scarecrow, drop Tin Man onto the rocks, and tie up the Cowardly Lion. 

Think of the inmost cave as a special world within the special world – the villain’s fortress, a temple, a forbidden kingdom. This isn’t the climax – that’s in Act 3. The Approach to the Inmost Cave is in the center of Act 2.

The inmost cave is an eerie region. It’s clear the hero has entered shaman’s territory; he’s at the edge of life and death, Vogler wrote. The inmost cave may Heaven or Hell or life or death. 

Before the hero crosses the Step 7 threshold into Stage 8, he is tested again. He fights through setbacks. He is stopped by what seems to be a complete roadblock. He needs a new idea, a new plan, maybe a new mentor.

Why is there an approach to the inmost cave? Step 7 is the middle of a long story. In a 300-page book, this would be page 150. The writer must hold the audience’s attention, so this is the chance to throw out what didn’t work well, set new thresholds (obstacles) for the hero, maybe squeeze in a love scene, recon the enemy, kill a few threshold guardians, and write a lock-and-load scene for Step 8.

In pacing terms, Step 7 is about the anticipation and the suspense of the set piece – the big action sequence of Act 2. At, Dan Bronzite wrote that the inmost cave may represent an inner journey conflict. The hero may fail, or may be injured by challenges and recuperate in the inmost cave. 

On, Jessica Davidson describes the Approach the Inmost Cave in the first Thor movie. Mjolnir is found in a desert crater 50 miles from town. Thor punches and kicks his way through soldiers (threshold guardians) and he reaches down to take his hammer. But remember, only the worthy can wield Mjolnir, so even Thor can’t reclaim his power.

In Casablanca, during his approach to the inmost cave, Rick Blaine met with and decides what to do about Elsa Lund and the letters of transit. Rick makes enemies with German Major Strasser; he cements his friendship with Captain Renalt; and he allies with Resistance leader Victor Lazlo. 

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes into the underground chamber where the Ark rests. 

In Star Wars V, Luke lands on Dagobah and his X-wing fighter sinks into the swamp. During telekinetic training, Luke learns to how to lift rocks with his mind. Yoda orders Luke to lift the plane from the swamp.

Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try.

Yoda: No. Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.

Luke fails, and declares it’s impossible. Yoda effortlessly frees the X-Wing from the bog, and that’s when Luke learns how powerful Yoda really is. Yoda becomes more than just a mentor, now he’s Luke’s ally. 

Luke: I don’t … I don’t believe it.

Yoda: That is why you fail.

And then Yoda sends Luke into a mystical cave – the inmost cave.

Luke: There’s something not right here… I feel cold. Death.

Yoda: That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.

Luke: What’s in there?

Yoda: Only what you take with you.

Luke: I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.

Yoda: You will be. You… will… be.

Luke finds Darth Vader’s helmet, sees his own face inside, and realizes he is connected to Vader.

The approach is where the hero finds hope. The inmost cave is where the hero loses hope.