Crossing the Threshold

on June 1, 2006

Okay, I’ll admit it. I love the hero’s journey. No, I don’t use it to plot my books. No, I don’t make sure that I have every step of the journey in my revisions.

What I love is when I finish a book and can see the hero’s journey seamlessly laid out, the layering of journey upon journey, intersecting at key points in the story. If I can’t see the journey after I’m done, I know I have some work to do. Why? Because the hero’s journey is part of our storytelling heritage, the nexus that unites all of us from a time when stories were handed down by word, to when they were written down for all.

I’ve espoused numerous times my belief that STORY IS CHARACTER. This week I’m doing my Vogler workshop for the East Texas RWA Chapter and in my summary post I said:

It is their choices, their backstory, their fears, their weaknesses and strengths, that propel the story forward, that drives the pacing.

Or, as Robert Gregory Browne said so much more succinctly:

Story is all about character reaction and action. The fuller the characters, the more believable and satisfying their action/reactions.

Since story is character, it’s all about what the characters DO and DON’T DO that make the story. Action and reaction.

One of my favorite steps of the hero’s journey is CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. This is the point of no return, where the hero is fully committed to the journey, where he completely leaves his ordinary world behind and embarks on the Road of Trials. Crossing the Threshold blends the first act with the second, and if done well will seem both seamless and poignant. It is a time of action.

** When Luke Skywalker sees his dead aunt and uncle and leaves Tatooine . . .
** When Neo swallows the red pill . . .
** When Dorothy takes the first step down the yellow brick road . . .

Everything leading up to that crescendo point has set the character to make a choice. A or B. Yes or No. Right or . . . the point is that the character willingly or unwillingly makes a decision that forever alters the course of his journey. They are fully committed to the adventure, warts and all.

Their actions have consequences that they must deal with. Even not doing something is an action, right? Standing on the sidelines has consequences, too.

One of the fatal flaws of unpublished writers is forgeting that every character in their book is on a journey. You don’t need page after page of narrative explaining this to the reader. By showing key elements of secondary characters that the reader–as part of the human race–can see and extrapolate other characteristics, we have created a well-rounded character using few words.

Take Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m working on adding the movie to my hero’s journey workshop because I think it expertly shows multiple journey’s and how they intersect and clash. (And, it gives me another excuse to watch the DVD again 🙂 . . . but I digress.)

Yes, you have Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner and Jack Sparrow . . . each on their own journey that sometimes work together, and sometimes oppose each other. But then you have Barbarosa . . . the villain, the “shadow” who is seeking to reclaim his life. Remember his last words? “I . . . feel.”

You have the Commandore (okay, I know I spelled that wrong but I don’t write historicals) who at times is an enemy, and an ally, but is also on his own journey to protect the fleet and the fort and those under his colors. He takes his command seriously, has a strong sense of duty and honor, and while we know Elizabeth couldn’t possibly love him (I mean, over Orlando Bloom? I think not,) we see a strong noble streak at the end when he willingly lets her go to be with her true love.

But there’s nothing better than the point in the movie where you’ve fully commited YOURSELF to enjoying it. Ironically, it almost always comes at the same time the hero crosses the threshold. At the beginning, we watch, hoping to be entertained, but still a little reticient–we’ve been burned in the past by movies that have failed to deliver on their promises.

So we watch the beginning, a little distant from the action. We see the characters. Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner as children. The pirate’s medallion she takes from his neck. Okay, getting interesting . . . and Jack Sparrow arriving at the fort. Okay, getting better. It’s fun, it’s different, but you’re not fully commited . . . until when? When Elizabeth invokes the rule of parlay? When Will breaks Jack out of jail? When the Commandore goes after them? Aw . . . we have three crossings, three journeys all making irrevokable decisions.

What’s going to happen next?

And that is when you’re as committed to the journey as the hero and you can lose yourself in the movie . . . or a good book.