In order for your hero to embark on an epic journey, they must first cross a threshold and leave their ordinary world. In fact, the fifth stage of the Hero’s Journey is Crossing the Threshold. Here’s how to master this pivotal scene.
Your hero has been called to adventure.
She’s trained with the Mentor and gathered her companions to her side.
If a Hero’s Journey story is going to keep a reader hooked, it needs to transition to its Second Act with thrills and new mysteries. Here’s how to absolutely nail this crucial step fo the Hero’s Journey.
Step 5: Crossing the Threshold
As we begin learning about our hero’s first step into the adventure, let’s define Step 5 of the Hero’s Journey:
Crossing the Threshold occurs when the hero leaves his or her Ordinary World and enters a new, dangerous world. This crossing may occur willingly or unwillingly, and before or after the Meeting the Mentor step. The Threshold is almost always a physical boundary of some kind, and it is guarded by natural perils or dangerous enemies.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
Every Hero’s Journey story begins humbly in the protagonist’s “Ordinary World,” where corruption lurks within, or danger attacks from beyond. When this threat finally materializes, the hero receives her “Call to Adventure” — and then prompty refuses it or chickens out . . . but only briefly.
That’s Step 5: Crossing the Threshold.
Step #5: Crossing the Threshold
First of all, what is a “threshold”?
Think of the Threshold as the boundary between your hero’s familiar, comfortable home and the new, dangerous frontier. It is almost always depicted physically as some kind of boundary, like a fence, chasm, river, or wall. The physical boundary must be crossed — and often, the way back across is cut off or destroyed, further isolating the hero from all she knows, stranding her in the new world.
I think of Samwise Gamgee pausing to say, “If I take one more step, that’s the farthest I’ll have ever gone from home.” I think of Neo taking the red pill, only to have his whole world as he knows it melt into digital nothingness. And I think of Marty McFly accelerating to 88 miles per hour and finding himself not in the parking lot of a mall, but in a bland field.
And, of course, one thinks of poor Dorothy, gazing about a world of color.
To get your Hero’s Journey going, you need that hero to cross a physical barrier. Without this crucial “first step,” it’ll be hard for your reader to know whether we’re actually on our way or not.
Guard the Threshold
Another key element of this step in the journey is that of antagonism. In Joseph Campbell’s research (which led to the identification of this “monomyth,” the Hero’s Journey), he found a whole category of characters known as “Theshold Guardians,” characters who appear when the hero starts her quest.
Sometimes they guard the threshold consciously, like literal castle guards or protectors of certain territory. Other times they guard it unconsciously, forcing the hero to act in a way that complicates the action.
One of my previous examples, Back To the Future, does this brilliantly, positioning antagonistic “guardians” on both sides of the threshold.
First, in 1985, Marty must flee from the Libyan terrorists who’ve murdered Doc Brown for filching their plutonium. As they shoot at him in the Delorian-turned-time machine, Marty accelerates to 88 miles per hour, accidentally triggering the vehicle’s flux capacitor. BOOM! — he’s zapped back to 1955!
Without this antagonism unconsciously guarding the threshold of time travel, Marty would never have ended up on his adventure to save his family from an emotionally-dead existence.
But it gets better! Marty doesn’t just arrive in 1955 and go about getting more plutonium for his return journey. Instead, he immediately runs into antagonism, keeping the tension sky-high.
He crashes into a barn and is mistaken for an alien, thanks to 1950s science fiction comic books. Farm Peabody shoots at him with a shotgun and Marty has to flee again, this time running over one of the farmer’s pine trees (beginning a long series of timeline-altering choices that pay off repeated viewings).
Neither force of antagonism is central to the film’s theme (live a life worth celebrating), and neither the terrorists nor Farmer Peabody play a role in George McFly’s resurrection or the Oedipus-inspired conflict between Marty and his mother. But they both force the hero, Marty, to make quick, desperate choices that lead to mistakes and missteps.
And that’s what makes a heroic journey exciting.
How to Plan Your Threshold
It’s important to plan your story with an open hand. Scenes like this will require multiple drafts — probably more attempts at them than you’d like!
But it’s essential to get the choices and stakes right. Here’s what I mean:
- Your hero must leave “home” strong enough to survive . . . at least for a while.
- Your hero must ALSO encounter incredible antagonism that pushes her past her comfort zone, up to her limits.
- Your hero must commit mistakes that make the journey even harder than it was already going to be.
In other words, use “Crossing the Threshold” as the perfect opportunity to complicate things. Use it to test your protagonist even more. Use it to bring her to her knees, either physically or emotionally, making her want to give up and turn back.
But don’t let her. A good way to do that is to destroy or block the road back. Sure, it’s a bit of a cliché to have your protagonist say, “There is no turning back.” But if you find new and innovative ways to block the road home, you can add this necessary layer of tension to your story.
In fact, here’s a very open-ended way to pull this off, and it will make your conflict even more irresistible: The hero’s goal is too damned desirable to turn back from.
If you build a deeply empathetic and fully motivated goal for your protagonist, this agonizing decision will make perfect sense.
“Who wouldn’t want to turn back?” your reader will think. “But she has to keep going!”
Your reader will cheer for that hero forever and ever. She can make mistakes. She can act rashly or foolishly or ambitiously.
As long as she is pursuing a goal that the reader is completely on board with and would possibly drop everything for, too, then you can throw the entire contents of hell at that protagonist along the entire journey.
Cross Over to the Other Side
If the Hero’s Journey is about going on a great quest to solve a societal ill, then the Threshold represents the first big step. It’s the taste-test for all the trials that are to come if this goal is to be achieved.
Remember: It must be physically represented in some way, it must be guarded, and it must humble your protagonist all over.
Just like your hero, you’re going to struggle with this scene. It will probably be an action scene, or at least an emotional scene with plenty of physical movement, and such scenes sound easy in our minds, but tend to be painfully arduous when we sit down to create them.
And just like your hero, you can’t lose hope. Keep on giving it your absolute best.
One great way to handle difficult scenes like this one, by the way, is to be a part of a thriving writing community that values feedback. The best community I know of is The Write Practice Pro, a growing group of selfless professional authors right here at The Write Practice. We know what it’s like to struggle through scenes like this, and we’d be honored to help you with yours.
Can you think of more Crossing the Threshold scenes from stories you love? Let us know in the comments.
Now, write the next step in your Hero’s Journey story: your hero crosses the threshold.
To do this, first think about your character’s goal. What is it they want? What are they trying to accomplish?
Then, consider what they need to do to get there. What is the first step your hero needs to take in order to begin his/her journey toward the goal? What physical boundary might he/she have to cross? Who or what guards it?
Take fifteen minutes to write a “treatment” of this scene, a rough sketch of the beats and dialogue and action. Post your treatment in the comments below. Then read someone else’s comment and leave a piece of helpful feedback!