March 12, 2012

back to basics: the hero's journey, stage five

Continuing with the series on the Hero’s Journey, today we’re going to talk about stage five of the mythic structure, the Crossing of the First Threshold. To see all the posts I’ve done so far, check out the “writing help” navigation tab at the top of the page.

Traditionally, up to this point, the hero has avoided entering the Special World; these first few stages have all taken place in the Ordinary World. But, as I’ve said before, the Hero’s Journey is not a rigid structure. You will find several stories that follow the Hero’s Journey pattern that do stick to the traditional layout, not approaching the First Threshold until after the first four stages have played out. You will also find lots of stories that Cross the First Threshold earlier, and there will be even more stories where the hero crosses several thresholds in quick succession. The actual Crossing itself can merely signify that the hero has reached the border of the two worlds. This boundary can be illustrated as an actual physical barrier… a wall, gate, door, bridge, desert, river, cliff, etc. Once the hero takes this final step into the unknown, the adventure really begins.

The idea of this stage is the hero now stands at the First Threshold to the world of adventure. He has heard the Call. He has doubted himself. He has prepared for what is ahead. Everything until now has led to this point, the most critical moment in the beginning of a story, where the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure. Oftentimes, the hero’s final commitment is brought about by an external force which changes the course or intensity of the story. They generally don’t just accept the Mentor’s gifts and charge on ahead. There has to be one finally kick in the rear to get them going. Crossing the First Threshold is also known as the “plot point” or the “turning point” and sometimes the “break into act two” of traditional structure. The actual moment may last seconds, or it could take an entire chapter to unfold.

A villain may harm someone close to the hero, forcing him to act. Forces of nature may compel the hero to take a certain path different from the one he originally chose. He may run out of options, or discover that a difficult choice must be made. Internal events may trigger the Crossing as well, where the hero must ask himself “Do I go on living my life as I always have, or will I risk everything in the effort to grow and change?” Most of the time, it is a combination of these forces, of both external and internal, that push the hero beyond the Threshold.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke faces this stage of the Hero’s Journey when he returns to the farm to find his aunt and uncle torched. He has nothing to hold him back from the adventure, so he joins Obi Wan, and they set off for Mos Eisley. In Tangled, Rapunzel faces two thresholds in quick succession—leaving the tower and leaving the hidden nook where the tower is located. In my book The Clockwork Giant, Petra crosses the First Threshold when she and Emmerich sneak into the University using maintenance channels in the subcity. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry enters the Special World when Hagrid takes him through the Leaky Cauldron and opens the way to Diagon Alley. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie Hatter crosses the First Threshold when she leaves her house so that her sisters and stepmother will not see her as an old lady, but she crosses a more important Threshold when she enters Howl’s moving castle.

As the hero approaches the Threshold, fully ready to face whatever awaits him, sometimes, he will come across someone or something that tries to block his path, to force him backward into the life he’s already decided to leave. These are Threshold Guardians, another of the archetypes. They can easily arrive at any time to test the hero and block his way, but most of the time, they appear around the doorways, gates, and passages involved with Crossing the First Threshold.

When the hero faces these Guardians, they must figure out a way around or through them. The hero has committed to his adventure. He cannot turn back now. Oftentimes, their threat is just an illusion, and the solution is to simply ignore their taunts and jeers. Other Guardians must be conquered. They can be considered gatekeepers between the Ordinary World and the Special World.

In the movie Stardust, Tristan Thorn faces the First Threshold in a rather literal sense—the wall. In order for him to enter the Special World of Stormhold, he must cross through the wall, but standing in his way is the Threshold Guardian, the old man with ninja staff skills. Ultimately, Tristan fails to pass over the Threshold and must find another way to enter Stormhold—the Babylon candle his mother left him.

There is a noticeable shift in energy after the Crossing of the First Threshold. Everything feels different, and not always for the better. Sometimes, this shift into the Special World can disorient the hero or make him question his motives for wanting to go on the adventure in the first place. The thing to remember is that now, it’s too late to go back. The hero has committed to the journey, and now the only way to go is forward.

If you have any questions about the Hero’s Journey, don’t hesitate to ask. I know a lot more about it than I’ve said here, and I would be happy to clear anything up, if you need me to. This is a rather general overview, since I don’t want you guys to have to read insanely long posts, but if you would like a more in depth analysis as it pertains to writing, check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. If you are just interested in the Hero’s Journey in itself, check out A Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

What other examples of the Crossing the First Threshold can you think of from books or films you’ve experienced lately?


  1. I'm reminded of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo and Sam set out on their journey, and Sam stops and says, "This is it. If I take one more step it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been." Then, with a deep breath, he takes that step.

    1. Good example! I tried thinking of a good one from The Fellowship of the Ring but kept drawing a blank. Thanks for pointing that out :)