Like most who study writing, I’ve explored The Hero’s Journey, though I’ve never been married to the idea. It smacks too much of formula too me. However, I just finished reading a book that makes me think the return with the elixir part might be essential to some stories.
I won’t reveal the name of the book that brought me to this conclusion (and I changed the plot descriptions below enough to make the true story unrecognizable), because other than an ending that left me unsatisfied, the book was excellent. Unfortunately, the ending diminished the strengths of the book.
In this story, the man goes on a quest to find his kidnapped son. In the end, he rescues his son and instead of going back to his life, the author ends the book at the rescue with “everything would now be alright.”
Gee, I would think an experience this profound would have some effect on the hero’s ordinary life and should have been addressed by the author.
This ending left several subplots back in the hero’s ordinary world unresolved. Granted, some of the subplots were minor, but two were major. First, the wife of the hero blamed him for their son’s disappearance, and their relationship had been fractured. Second, his work had put him on leave because the hero had been accused of involvement in his child’s disappearance and they wanted to distance their company from him.
These two subplots carried too much weight throughout the story to be abruptly dropped.
On the other hand, there are books like Stephen King’s Cell, which also didn’t follow the return with the elixir ending and left the reader to decide what happened next. However, there is a huge difference between these two stories. In Cell, there is no way to return to the ordinary world. The world as the hero and everyone else had known it, was obliterated by an unknown entity. The other big difference was that in Cell there are no hanging threads.
As an author, you need to know when you’ve left a thread hanging from the hem of your story and how to tie off that thread. Review your manuscript; have you introduced a character who disappears without warning? A relationship storyline that abruptly ends without resolution? If so then grab your little bottle of elixir and head back home to do some wrap-up. A one or two-page narrative telling the reader what happened in the ordinary world is effective enough to correct all the ills without making the book feel like it went on too long after the main story is over.