Thursday 9 October 2014

Crossing the Threshold by Caroline Lawrence

As he moved towards the mist of the fountains, Langdon had the uneasy sense he was crossing an imaginary threshold into another world. 
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code p 37

Crossing the Threshold in The Assassins of Rome
Next weekend I'm going to hear a man named Christopher Vogler present his Essence of Storytelling Masterclass. Even though I've been a published author for nearly fifteen years, I still enjoy the occasional writing workshop or weekend seminar to hone my craft. Vogler is one of those Hollywood script doctors who never fails to inspire and excite. I look forward to hearing some of his gems on the craft of writing, especially plot.

Vogler was the Disney executive who – nearly forty years ago – wrote a memo suggesting that his fellow Disney screenwriters could base their plots on what he called The Hero's Journey. This was an outline derived from anthropologist Joseph Campbell's study of hero in world mythology: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It set out 12 steps of the cyclical journey that a hero often makes. The memo went viral and soon writers from all studios were clamouring for it. George Lucas "discovered" Campbell's about the same time as Vogler and used it for Star Wars. The rest is history.

Some people claim that The Hero's Journey, also known as the Monomyth, is too constricting and has rendered all Hollywood formulaic. Like any tool, it depends on how you use it. I personally find it exciting because some of my favourite books and movies employ it. You can see a brief outline of the Twelve Steps of the Hero's Journey HERE.

I've heard Vogler speak before, but am looking forward to a return visit. At the moment I'm excited about step 5 of The Hero's Journey: Crossing the Threshold.

This is the point in any story where the hero leaves his ordinary world and enters the world of adventure. Sometimes it happens very early on in a story. Sometimes it happens at the end of Act 1, which some screenwriters mark as the Point of No Return. Sometimes there are several thresholds to be crossed.

Sometimes the hero Crosses a Threshold unwittingly. When Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she leaves her ordinary world and enters an amazing world of giants, miniatures and hookah-smoking caterpillars. When Lucy pushes through fur coats in a musty wardrobe she emerges into winter-gripped Narnia.

Sometimes the hero refuses the Call to Adventure and has to be urged to cross the Threshold. This urging is often the job of the mentor. Think of Obi Wan urging Luke to come with him to fight the Empire. Or of Morpheus urging Neo to take the red pill.

Sometimes the hero does not hesitate, but runs to enter the World of Adventure. Think of Katniss in the Hunger Games. In this case she meets the anti-Mentor Hamitch after she steps onto the train. Katniss will cross several thresholds and actually gets a second mentor in the form of Cinna. Another example of a hero who runs to cross is Mattie Ross in True Grit, when she rides Blackie across the icy river into Indian Territory.

Rivers are a popular obstacle to pass through when entering the World of Adventure. The River Styx is the border between the world of the Living and the World of the Dead. The Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. Jesus emerged from baptismal waters and went straight into the wilderness to be tested.

In film, fantasy and myth-based stories, the moment of crossing the Threshold is often visually stunning. Think of Neo melting into the mirror. Or of the tornado that whisks Dorothy out of black and white Kansas and drops her into technicolor Munchkinland.

Often the Hero will encounter "Threshold Guardians" at the moment of Crossing the Threshold. Storm troopers try to stop Luke from leaving Tatooine. Percy Jackson must fight the Minotaur before achieving the refuge of Camp Halfblood. We encounter them every time we go to an airport or cross a border!

One of my favourite examples of a Threshold Guardian is a spoof of this step from Monty Python and The Holy Grail:

Bridgekeeper: Stop! Who would cross The Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
Sir Lancelot: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your name?
Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your quest?
Sir Lancelot: To seek  Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your favourite colour?
Sir Lancelot: Blue.
Bridgekeeper: Right. Off you go.

"Devils' Gate" Nevada
In my first Roman Mystery, The Thieves of Ostia, I have my girl detectrix Flavia Gemina cross a threshold in the very first chapter when she leaves her Roman town house to venture into the necropolis surrounding the port of Ostia. I didn't consciously know it was a literary trope when I wrote that chapter back in 1999. But we know how stories work by instinct. Now I that I do know about it, I try to use it wherever appropriate. In my first P.K. Pinkerton novel I have P.K. ride through Devil's Gate (left) on the way to Virginia City.

"Devil's Gate!" cried the driver, and I lifted my head to see two demonic rocks rearing up on either side of the road and the stagecoach about to pass between them… There was no going back now." The Case of the Deadly Desperados p 27-28

One of the reasons we derive so much satisfaction from watching our hero cross a threshold is that it is something we do every day of our lives. Every time we step outside our door.

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings

When speaking to primary school aged kids, I ask them to think of the Seven Thresholds We Cross in Our Lives. They usually come up with.

1. Birth
2. First Day at School
3. Trips Abroad
4. Leaving Home
5. Every New Job
6. Marriage/Moving In
7. Death

That's why this is such a great beat to put in our stories. It resonates with every human being.

What are some of your favourite Crossing the Threshold moments in stories, plays, movies or TV? 


Sue Bursztynski said...

I used a simplified version of the Hero's Journey with my Year 8 class. When I explained the steps and asked if it sounded familiar, they all came up with films and books that followed it. Then two girls opened their exercise books immediately and started to write. One wrote a long dramatic tale of a young man going to find his mother and the other a thriller, but both used the concept well. It's a great template for those who need somewhere to start. And when I broke down my YA fantasy novel I found even I had used it, without thinking about it. :-)

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, Sue! It's in our DNA! :-)

Sue Purkiss said...

How interesting! Off to find out more...

Karen Maitland said...

You are lucky to take take a class with Vogler. When I first started writing I was given a copy of his book 'The Writer's Journey' by an experienced writer, who said all good story tellers follow this model even if they are not aware they are doing it. I still treasure the book. Enjoy the workshop!

Unknown said...

Two weeks ago today I was listening to Christopher Vogler at a conference in St. Louis! His class was wonderful!

One of my favorite, very visual, threshold scenes is in the Prince Caspian movie when the Underground station is replaced by a cave next to a beautiful beach.

Deb Watley

Caroline Lawrence said...

Great Crossing of the Threshold, Debbie! I'll revisit Prince Caspian on YouTube. Thanks for positive comments everyone.

adele said...

I heard you talking about this, Caroline, last week. And it was quite fascinating...must search out that book!