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Thoughts on Mythic Structure: Crossing the First Threshold

This is Part 4 of my series on monomyth, or the hero’s journey.

1. Crossing the first threshold is the transition from Act 1 to Act 2 of your story.

Up to this point, your hero is still connected to her ordinary world. In many models of mythic structure, the first part of the story is referred to as “separation,” the second “initiation” and the third “return.” Crossing the threshold is the final separation from everything that is familiar to the hero and begins her initiation into a new world–the world of the adventure.

2. It is important that the separation is complete.

The last thing you want is for your readers to ask themselves why the hero doesn’t just turn around and go home.

Make certain they CAN’T turn around.

3. That doesn’t mean the hero can never return.

In fact, in the third act of the story, the hero will usually in some sense return to their ordinary circumstances. But to accomplish this, they must go forward, not back. This is why models of monomyth are nearly always presented as a circle.

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In the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wonka takes his guests into a hallway that gets smaller and smaller as they walk through it. As they get squished together, they realize the door they came through has disappeared. In the ensuing panic, the parents ask to turn back. Wonka replies: “You’ve got to go forward to go back. Better press on.”

Going forward to go back is exactly what the hero must do.

4. Crossing the threshold may be a conscious decision by the hero, or at the least an unconscious decision.

I’m sure some may disagree that Elsa in Frozen crosses the first threshold when she creates the ice bridge–others might argue it happens when she first unwittingly reveals her powers to others, or when she runs across the fjord. I think in both instances, she still had the choice to stay and face what happened in her ordinary world. As she steps on and crosses the ice bridge, she makes a conscious choice to cross over into the extraordinary world. It’s a perfect visualization of the acceptance of the Call to Adventure, which she has been refusing for years by hiding and repressing her powers.

In the TV show Lost, it is revealed during the characters’ flashbacks to when they board the flight that all of them at some point had an opportunity to choose NOT to board it. While they may not have consciously agreed to cross into the extraordinary world, they all chose to do it unconsciously.

(Lost is a special case because it begins AFTER the heroes cross the first threshold. The flashbacks are the first act of the story.)

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5. The crossing of the threshold is an opportunity to present a highly dramatic scene.

Movies are great to study for this moment in the story, because, as I mentioned in the Frozen example, they will visually convey what is happening to the hero psychologically.

For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy literally crosses a threshold–of the house that was torn away by a tornado and deposited in the land of Oz. The moviemakers emphasized Dorothy’s transition from the ordinary world into the extraordinary world by having the sepia-toned B&W change to brilliant color as she emerges from the house.

In other movies, you may see heroes have a “take a leap of faith” moment–sometimes literally. In the movie The Fugitive, protagonist Richard Kimble is cornered by the cop pursuing him. He is positioned over a waterfall. He has only two choices–surrender or jump. He jumps. This is when he irrevocably enters the world of the adventure, where he fights to prove his innocence.

In Aliens, the “leap into the unknown” is Ellen Ripley being dropped on a planet with the alien creatures that almost killed her once before. The space shuttle falls through tremendous turbulence–mirroring Ripley’s own inner turbulence.

In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder tries to cross a rickety bridge and ends up swinging on a vine, then going down a steep ravine in a mud slide. Again, there is a sense that after this point, there is no way back but forward.

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6. The crossing of the first threshold is also an opportunity to be subtle and clever.

When I was first studying story structure, I would read books and watch movies to analyze their structure. One day I watched the Bill Murray movie Quick Change, about a man, his girlfriend, and their buddy pulling off a bank heist in Manhattan.

The movies starts with Murray’s character taking over a bank while in clown makeup. The plan proceeds brilliantly. He and his cohorts rob the bank and escape by pretending they were hostages. By the time they make it to Queens, the cops are still convinced he’s in the bank because he keeps calling them periodically. (Yes, I know. This was back in the olden days before caller I.D.)

I was completely flummoxed by the movie up to this point. This is wrong! I thought. This movie is STARTING WITH THE THIRD ACT! It can’t be right. There’s nowhere for the story to go from here.

Ha. I was totally wrong.

The three robbers celebrate their success, convinced all they have to do now is call a few more times, board a plane, and leave the country before the cops ever realize the clown is no longer in the bank. They stop at a pay phone. While Murray’s character taunts the cops over the phone, his friend accidentally leans on the car horn.

The sound of the car horn tips the cops off that he is no longer in the bank.

From that moment on, the plan that was proceeding with the precision of a Swiss clock falls to pieces. As they desperately try to make their flight before the cops catch up to them, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. (I must applaud how the movie makes Queens–where I grew up–into a land almost as strange as Oz.)

That one subtle act–beeping the horn–is how the characters cross the threshold into the extraordinary world. Its effect is irrevocable. That one little thing is all the story needed to go into a new–and very funny–direction. The characters are undone by their arrogant assumption that they had already succeeded. By doing so, they unconsciously accept the cross-over into the world of the adventure.

(Really, see this movie. It’s an underrated gem.)

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7. The hero may feel disoriented after he crosses the threshold.

It is not unusual for the hero to physically react to crossing the first threshold. The main characters in Galaxy Quest have strong physical reactions when they are transported from Earth to the Thermians’ space ship. (Except for Fred, who seems to love the experience.) Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married is so disoriented when she goes back in time, everyone thinks she is ill.

8. The hero may be in complete denial that anything has changed.

It may take the hero a while to accept that they have crossed over into a new world. In Lost, it takes several episodes for the characters to accept both that the island they crashed on is unusual, and that no one is coming to rescue them. It takes just as long for Jack, the main hero, to accept his role as leader of the survivors.

9. The hero must quickly learn the “rules” of the extraordinary world after she crosses the threshold.

It is usually the mentor who dispenses the rules of the extraordinary world to the hero. In Oz, Glinda lets Dorothy know there are both good witches and bad witches, while in her world, witches are always thought to be bad. She gives her the ruby slippers and tells her she must never take them off.

Kyle Reese dispenses the rules to Sarah Connor in The Terminator:

“That Terminator is out there. It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with…it doesn’t feel pity of remorse or fear…and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”

It may take the hero a while to figure out the rules (i.e. the characters on Lost) but it should be obvious right away that the world they are in now is different from the one they have known. In his ordinary world, Richard Kimble in The Fugitive was a respected doctor who believed he could trust the system. Once he runs, the rules change on him.

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10. After the crossing of the threshold, the hero is given or realizes she must complete a task.

Follow the yellow brick road and see the Wizard.

Save the Thermians from a villain who wants to exterminate them.

Become the mother of the savior of humanity.

Simply survive.

It’s possible there’s something the hero must do but is unaware of it. In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, all the children are being tested for worthiness to inherit the factory, but they are never told this.

11. The hero will often start to change almost immediately after crossing the threshold–both physically and internally.

Jack acts as a leader even as he refuses the formal role. Dorothy dons the ruby slippers. Jason Nesmith in Galaxy Quest embraces his role as a real-life leader instead of an actor pretending to be a leader. Elsa uses her powers in ways she never has before and transforms her physical appearance.

The song Let it Go is the perfect anthem for threshold-crossing. It articulates the total separation from the ordinary world and acceptance of the extraordinary world of the adventure.

12. Don’t forget the threshold guardians!

Read my article about the threshold guardian here.

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mythic Structure: Crossing the First Threshold

  1. Nice article.

    There are a ton of tips at Kal Bashir’s 2100 stage hero’s journey website, where he’s applied HJ to the Academy Award best films.

    All fascinating stuff.

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