Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Crossing the First Threshold

I managed to sleep more or less through the night without Benadryl, so either the removal of large amounts of dust from my bedroom helped or I'm just on the upswing. Or maybe making it to ballet helped. It was rather alarming how dusty the carpet was behind the nightstand. The nightstand is almost flush against the wall, so I hadn't thought of needing to move it, but I got rather zealous about moving furniture and vacuuming once I got started

I'm continuing the discussion of the stages of the hero's journey, as discussed in The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. We started in the Ordinary World, then the hero received the Call to Adventure. Initially he Refused the Call, but after a Meeting with the Mentor, he's ready to move on. That brings us to the next stage, Crossing the First Threshold.

This is when the hero commits to the quest and takes action that moves him into the special world of the story. In the three-act structure used by screenwriters, this is usually the first major turning point of the story. Sometimes this is triggered by the actions of others that force the hero onto his journey. If the bad guys are after him, then he doesn't have much choice. In Star Wars, it was the stormtrooper attack on his home and the murder of his aunt and uncle that sealed Luke's decision to go off on the quest with Obi Wan, since he no longer had any reason to stay. In The Terminator, the killer robot from the future coming after her forced Sarah Connor into the story. There was no decision to be made when she was told "Come with me if you want to live." Frodo didn't have a lot of choice about leaving the Shire after he learned that the Ringwraiths were looking for him there, though later he did make the choice to go on the quest to destroy the ring.

In other cases, it's a choice the hero makes for internal reasons, out of a sense of duty or a realization that his life isn't what it should be. He may even have ulterior motives, so that he sees that taking on the adventure may get him closer to getting what he wants. The kids make the journey through the wardrobe into Narnia to see what's there. In Stardust, Tristan enters Stormhold to retrieve the fallen star because he thinks that will help him win the love of the girl he admires. In the first Pirates movie, Will Turner goes off with Jack Sparrow to rescue the woman he loves, even though he doesn't trust pirates. Indiana Jones agrees to the quest to get the head of the staff mostly because he doesn't want his rival to get to the Ark first (though he's also worried about the consequences if the Nazis get it).

During this phase, the hero may run into the Threshold Guardian character, someone who tests the hero by blocking the way at this key turning point, especially if the hero is choosing to cross the threshold. This was done humorously in the movie version of Stardust, where the ancient man guarding the hole in the wall turned out to have ninja skills and Tristan had to resort to magic to get where he needed to go.

The big part of this phase of the story is the crossing from the Ordinary World into the special world where most of the rest of the story will take place, that world that will test and try the hero and ultimately change him. In fantasy stories, this may be a literal crossing to a new world, like going to Narnia or Oz. In action stories, this may be marked by the hero going to a new location, like James Bond heading off to the exotic locale of his assignment. In the classic quest story structure it's a movement from the safe and familiar world into a more dangerous, more exciting place. But this can also be a metaphorical transition, and to challenge myself to come up with examples, I decided to focus on romantic comedies because these are generally very mundane and more or less based in the real world, and they aren't very action-oriented. Most of the journey in this kind of story is internal, so you really have to look for the transition to a special world when it looks a lot like the ordinary world.

There still can be a change of scenery. You see this a lot in fish-out-of-water stories, where the new world of the story is the new location for the hero or heroine, like in the movie Leap Year, which landed the spoiled city-girl heroine in rural Ireland; in Legally Blond, in which a California sorority girl goes to Harvard Law School; or in The Holiday, in which an Englishwoman and a Californian swap homes for the holiday season. Or the hero could move into a different world within the same setting by associating with a different kind of people or moving in different circles. In the movie Moulin Rouge, this was the poor writer moving into the glamorous world of the nightclub. In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, it was the vicar's daughter governess going to work for the flighty actress and landing in a world of fashion shows, salon makeovers, swanky cocktail parties and decadent nightclubs. In While You Were Sleeping, an orphaned loner lands in the middle of a large, noisy, loving family.

A new person can also change the Ordinary World into the Special World of the story -- or, more accurately, the arrival is the Call to Adventure, and the hero crosses the threshold to the special world when he accepts the change that person brings to his life. In The Philadelphia Story, when the heroine decides to go along with the pretense that the cynical, down-to-earth reporter there to cover her wedding is a wedding guest, her world and the way she sees it changes due to his influence. The arrival of a glamorous woman changed everything for the hero of Four Weddings and a Funeral, especially after he impulsively went to the inn where she was staying after the wedding. The hero's world was never the same when he accepted a Hollywood superstar's invitation after she showed up in his bookstore in Notting Hill. The hero of Breakfast at Tiffany's entered a new world when he accepted the cocktail party invitation from Holly Golightly.

It can also be a changed relationship or even just a changed mindset. The commitmentphobic loner of About a Boy gets into a whole new world when he pretends to be a single dad in order to pick up single moms and finds that he can't break up with his date's son as easily as he breaks up with the woman. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry enters a new realm when he strikes up a friendship with Sally after believing that men and women can't be friends. Bridget Jones enters a new world when she makes the decision to try to get her life under control -- or at least record how out-of-control she is.

The main thing to remember about this stage is that it's a turning point. From this point, things aren't the same, and even if the hero gave up now and turned back, the old world wouldn't be the same for him. Even if the world is the same, he's already a little different or sees himself and the world in a different way. His only choice now is to keep going. Something needs to change at this point of the story to reflect the hero's movement into the adventure.

Next, the hero deals with this new world by encountering Tests, Allies and Enemies.

No comments: