“Just follow the yellow brick road”
– from The Wizard of Oz, screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf
Now the hero stands at the very threshold of the world of adventure, the Special World of Act Two. The call has been heard, doubts and fears have been expressed and allayed, and all due preparations have been made. But the real movement, the most critical action of Act One, still remains. Crossing the First Threshold is an act of the will in which the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.
The ranks of the Seekers are thinner now. Some of us have dropped out, but the final few are ready to cross the threshold and truly begin the adventure. The problems of the Home Tribe and clear to everyone, and desperate – something must be done, now! Ready or not, we lope out of the village leaving all things familiar behind. As you pull away you feel the jerk of the invisible threads that bind you to your loved ones. It’s difficult to pull away from everything you know but with a deep breath you go on, taking the plunge into the abyss of the unknown.
We enter a strange no-man’s-land, a world between worlds, a zone of crossing that may be desolate and lonely, or in places, crowded with life. You sense the presence of other beings, other forces with sharp thorns or claws, guarding the way to the treasure you seek. But there’s no turning back now, we all feel it; the adventure has begun for good or ill.
APPROACHING THE THRESHOLD
Heroes typically don’t just accept the advice and gifts of their Mentors and then charge into the adventure. Often their final commitment is brought about through some external force which changes the course or intensity of the story. This is equivalent to the famous “plot point” or “turning point” of the conventional three-act movie structure. A villain kill, harm, threaten, or kidnap someone close to the hero, sweeping aside all hesitation. Rough weather may force the sailing of a ship, or the hero may be given a deadline to achieve an assignment. The hero may run out of options, or discover that a difficult choice must be made. Some heroes are “shanghaied” into the adventure or pushed over the brink, with no choice but to commit to the journey. In Thelma and Louise, Louise’s impulsive killing of a man who is assaulting Thelma is the action that pushes the women to Cross the First Threshold into a new world of being on the run from the law.
An example of the externally imposed event is found in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Advertising man Roger Thornhill, mistaken for a daring secret agent, has been trying his best to avoid his Call to Adventure all through the first act. It takes a murder to get him committed to the journey. A man he’s questioning at the U.N building is killed in front of witnesses in such a way that everyone thinks Roger did it. Now he is truly a “man on the run”, escaping both from the police and from the enemy agents who will stop at nothing to kill him. The murder is the external event that pushes the story over the First Threshold into the Special World, where the stakes are higher.
Internal events might trigger a Threshold Guardian as well. Heroes come to decision points where their very souls are at stake, where they must decide “Do I go on living my life as I always have, or will I risk everything in the effort to grow and change?” In Ordinary People the deteriorating life of the young hero Conrad gradually pressures him into making a choice, despite his fears, to see a therapist and explore the trauma of his brother’s death.
Often a combination of external events inner choices will boost the story towards the second act. In Beverly Hills Cop Axel Foley seeks a childhood friend brutally executed by thugs, and is motivated to find the man who hired them. But it takes a separate moment of decision for him to overcome resistance and fully commit to the adventure. In a brief scene in which his boss warns him off the case, you see him make the inner choice to ignore the warning and enter the Special World at any cost.
As you approach the threshold you’re likely to encounter beings who try to block your way. They are called Threshold Guardians, a powerful and useful archetype. They may pop up to block the way and test the hero at any point in a story, but they tend to cluster around the doorways, gates, and narrow passages of threshold crossings. Axel Foley’s Detroit police captain, who firmly forbids him from getting involved in the investigation of the murder, is one such figure.
Threshold Guardians are part of the training of any hero. In Greek myth, the three-headed monster dog Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld, and many a hero has had to figure out a way past his jaws. The grim ferryman Charon who guides souls across the River Styx is another Threshold Guardian who must be appeased with a gift of a penny.
The task for heroes at this point is often to figure out some way around or through these guardians. Often their threat is just an illusion, and the solution is simply to ignore them or to push through them with faith. Other Threshold Guardians must be absorbed or their hostile energy must be reflected back onto them. The trick may be to realize that what seems like an obstacle may actually be the means of climbing over the threshold. Threshold Guardians who seem to be enemies may be turned into valuable allies.
Sometimes the guardians of the First Threshold simply need to be acknowledged. They occupy a difficult niche and it wouldn’t be polite to pass through their territory without recognizing their power and their important role of keeping the gate. It’s a little like tipping a doorman or paying the ticket-taker at a theatre.
Sometimes this step merely signifies we have reached the border of the two worlds. We must take the leap of faith into the unknown or else the adventure will never really begin.
Countless movies illustrate the border between two worlds with the crossing of physical barriers such as doors, gates, arches, bridges, deserts, canyons, walls, cliffs, oceans, or rivers. In many Westerns thresholds are clearly marked by river or border crossings. In the adventure of Gunga Din, the heroes must leap off a high cliff to escape a horde of screaming cult members at the end of Act One. They are bonded by this leap into the unknown, a Threshold Crossing signifying their willingness to explore the Special World of Act Two together.
In the olden days of film, the transition between Act One and Act Two was often marked by a brief fade-out, a momentary darkening of the screen which indicated passage of time or movement in space. The fade-out was equivalent to the curtain coming down in the theatre so the stagehands can change the set and props to create a new locale or show elapse of time.
Nowadays it’s common for editors to cut sharply from Act One to Act Two. Nevertheless the audience will still experience a noticeable shift in energy at the Threshold Crossing. A song, a music cue or a drastic visual contrast may help signal the transition. The pace of the story picks up. Entering a new terrain or structure may signal the change of worlds. In A League of Their Own the Crossing is the moment the women enter a big-league baseball stadium, a marked contrast from the country ball fields where they’ve been playing.
The actual Crossing of the Threshold may be a single moment, or it may be an extended passage in a story. In Lawrence of Arabia, T.E Lawrence’s ordeals in crossing “the Sun’s Anvil”, a treacherous stretch of desert, are an elaboration of this stage into a substantial sequence.
The Crossing takes a certain kind of courage from the hero. He is like the Fool in the Tarot deck: one foot out over a precipice, about to begin freefall into the unknown.
That special courage is called making the leap of faith. Like jumping out of an airplane, the act is irrevocable. There’s no turning back now. The leap is made on faith, the trust that somehow we’ll land safely.
Heroes don’t always land gently. They may crash in the other world, literally or figuratively. The leap of faith may turn into a crisis of faith as romantic illusions about the Special World are shattered by first contact with it. A bruised hero make pick herself up and ask, “Is that all there is?” The passage to the Special World may be exhausting frustrating, or disorienting.
QUESTIONING THE JOURNEY
- What is the First Threshold of City Slickers? Rain Man? Dances with Wolves? How does the audience know we’ve gone from one world to another? How does the energy of the story feel different?
- Is your hero willing to enter the adventure or not? How does this affect the Threshold Crossing?
- Are there guardian forces at the Threshold and how do they make the hero’s leap of faith more difficult?
- How does the hero deal with Threshold Guardians? What does the hero learn by Crossing the Threshold?
- What have been the Thresholds in your own life? How did you experience them? Were you even aware you were crossing a threshold into a Special World at the time?
- By Crossing a Threshold, what options is a hero giving up? Will these unexpected options come back to haunt the hero later?