Step 5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Until stage 5, the protagonist isn’t a hero, and he isn’t on a hero’s journey yet. Step 5 in the hero’s journey begins around the end of Act One or the beginning of Act Two. This is a turning point because it’s the point of no return for the hero. The hero may leave home for the first time, like my character Cutie Pye did in my novel To Daddy, Who I Never Loved.
Maybe the hero is doing something he is afraid to do, like Charlie Babbitt crossing the threshold between the Ordinary World and the Special World of disabled people.
Your hero must leave the ordinary world and cross the threshold into a new region with unfamiliar rules and values. Professor Campbell, who wrote Hero with a Thousand Faces, calls this the Special World.
But the hero won’t just cross one threshold, the hero may cross several. Don’t think of threshold too literally. What’s the threshold for Baby in Dirty Dancing? It’s the same for Ren in Footloose, and for Alex Owens in Flashdance.
In Thelma and Louise, Louise – Susan Sarandon – crosses a legal and moral Threshold by shooting the man who was assaulting Thelma. Well, if she hadn’t, I would have. Right? Thelma – Gina Davis – crosses a threshold when she holds up a convenience store.
In Prince of Tides, when his twin sister tries to commit suicide, Tom Wingo leaves South Carolina, which sets up his adventure. When he gets to New York City, Nick Nolte wants to see Savannah, who is in a mental hospital. Dr. Lowenstein – Barbara Streisand – and the nurses refuse him, so they’re Threshold Guardians.
When Louise killed Harland – who was about to rape Thelma – Louise didn’t think she could return to the ordinary world without arrest and prosecution.
That point of no return is called anagnorisis. Anagnorisis is a moment in a story when the hero recognizes his true nature, or identifies another character’s true nature, or discovers the importance of his situation, and that anagnorisis moment leads to the resolution of the story. During anagnorisis in a romantic comedy, the hero will fall in love and realize he can’t go back. He has to propose marriage.
Anagnorisis comes at the climax of When Harry Met Sally. Harry Burns and Sally Allbright split as best friends. Harry wanders New York City alone. That’s when realizes he loves Sally more than he loves single life. It’s his point of no return. Uh oh, I’m in love.
Harry rushes to the New Year’s Eve party, finds Sally, and confesses:
“I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
WRITING EXERCISE 5
Identify one point of no return in your life. What happened? When did it happen? Who were you with? What did you realize? How did it affect your path forward? Write down all the details you can think of: where were you, what were you wearing, what did you smell, was it raining or were the birds chirping, what was the time of day, why was that moment of anagnorisis was so significant?
Step 6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
You don’t have to use the Hero’s Journey in the one, two, three, four, five order, like you see here on the page. In Rain Man, Charlie Babbitt crosses threshold into the Special World first, then meets his brother Raymond. Raymond – played by Dustin Hoffman – is in a mental institution because he’s autistic. He’s high functioning, but he adheres to strict routines. He has superb recall, but he shows little emotional expression except distress.
Charlie, played by Tom Cruise, is a slippery car dealer. He cares about nothing but making money. He gets angry at anyone in his way. And in Stage 6, Charlie realizes his wealthy father died and left Charlie nothing but a 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible. The estate was left to what Charlie thinks of as his idiot brother. So Charlie virtually kidnaps his brother and makes his getaway in the old car. He wanted to fly, but Raymond throws a tantrum and won’t get on an airplane.
So Charlie has to drive 2,200 miles from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. It’s his Road of Trials. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Raymond will drink only orange juice with pizza. They have to stop in the middle of the day and watch Judge Wapner and eat cheesy puffs. Boxers can only be purchased from Kmart. Don’t even get him started on fish sticks.
Charlie is forced to make allies. He knocks on a woman’s door and begs her children when Raymond insists it’s time to watch Judge Wapner. Charlie unsuccessfully tries to bribe Dr. Bruner into letting Charlie to take Raymond from Wallbrook where Raymond is safe and happy.
Professor Campbell calls these tests thresholds. Wallbrook is a threshold; Dr. Bruner is a threshold guardian. The woman’s house is a threshold; she is a threshold guardian.
The Yellow Brick Road is a series of Thresholds. Lion, Scarecrow and Tim Man are Threshold Guardians.
Threshold guardians test the hero in Stage 6. Every time he fails, the hero loses confidence. But when he wins, the hero gains confidence for the first time. When he wins, the hero earns allies and finds out who can be trusted. When he beats an enemy, the hero is prepared for greater ordeals. He gains deeper insight into his own character. Readers identify with him even more.
One time, when Raymond was being pesky, Charlie irritably told Raymond to read the phone book. Later, they stop at a pancake house and Charlie learns about Raymond’s gift. The waitress’s name is pinned to her uniform.
RAYMOND: Sally Dibbs. Dibbs, Sally. 461-0192.
SALLY: How did you know my phone number?
CHARLIE: How’d you know that?
RAYMOND: You said read the telephone book. Dibbs, Sally. 461-0192.
CHARLIE: He remembers things, little things, sometimes… Did you memorize the whole book? How far did you get?
RAYMOND: Gottsaken, William Marshall.
CHARLIE: You memorized to ‘G’?
RAYMOND: Yeah, ‘G.’
CHARLIE: A, B, C, D, E, F, G?
RAYMOND: Half of ‘G.’
CHARLIE: That’s good, Ray. I Like that.
Stories incorporate multiple thresholds: those endless corridors of hallways inside Titanic, the rising seawater, Jack Dawson’s handcuffs, the locked gates, are all thresholds. The hoity-toity passengers, Cal Hockley and Spicer Lovejoy, the unhelpful Titanic crew, are all threshold guardians to Jack and Rose.
By the way, romances and buddy movies always have two heroes: Thelma and Louise, Jack and Rose in Titanic, Harry and Sally. Hero teams have multiple heroes – Star Wars has five principal heroes: Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and Obi-Wan.
Jack saves Rose from jumping overboard. Jack passes that test, so he’s rewarded by being asked to dine in First Class dining room. Cal Hockley ridicules Jack and expects failure. Jack passes the test, which is how he earned Rose’s respect.
Rose’s Special World test was the opposite: she was invited to a dance in third-class.
Do you recall how Rose passed that test? She hiked her skirts, danced, drank beer and smoked. Both Jack and Rose proved they belonged in each other’s Special Worlds.
Rose tests Jack again by taking off her clothes and allowing him to draw her. How did Jack pass? He responded as a gentleman and as a professional artist. Rose’s rich fiancé tried to buy her affections, he acted as if he already owned her, he smacked her around when she displeased him, and so Cal failed.
What’s the purpose of so many tests? Glad you asked. The ultimate purpose of tests is to bond the Hero to his allies, Rose bonded to Jack; Dorothy bonded to Scarecrow and Tin Man and Lion.
From the beginning, the judgment of Thelma and Louise is tested: Thelma can’t summon the courage to tell her husband that she’s taking a weekend with Louise. Thelma symbolically cheats on her husband by drinking and dancing with Harland in a honkytonk. Louise shoots Thelma’s attempted rapist when she didn’t have to. Thelma’s poor judgment to bed Brad Pitt leads to him stealing all their money. Yes, it’s bad judgment to go to bed with Brad Pitt.
That’s when Thelma’s story changes from a buddy movie to a tragedy. Because Brad Pitt, the enemy, stole their money, Thelma holds up a grocery store. Then they both blow up a gasoline truck to teach a rude driver a lesson. Then they kidnap a highway patrol trooper and lock him in the trunk. Then they evade pursuing police cars, and when they fail every judgment test, Thelma and Louise drive off the Grand Canyon.
Every ally – Mentor, Goddess, Trickster, Wizard, Threshold Guardian, Shapeshifter – tests the hero. It’s what we do in our society, we test our boyfriends and our mothers and our public servants, and it’s what should happen to the protagonist in the Hero’s Journey you’re writing.
How does Dorothy respond to Lion’s test? She’s scared, but she summons courage, and then scolds Lion for frightening her and Scarecrow and Tin Man. Lion not only allows her to pass, but the potential enemy becomes her ally. Think about it in your own life. You’ll realize it’s true.
As heroes battle threshold guardians, heroes learn tricks and proceed. Luke learns Jedi mind tricks and waves his hand too, right?
Allies – however unlikely – are a must for every hero, no matter how helpless or self-reliant. The hero’s first ally is usually the herald, then a mentor. All allies mentor the hero, but there’s usually one principal truth teller or wizard: Charlotte the spider, Dorothy’s Glinda, Luke’s Obi-Wan.
Allies can take any archetype role. Johnny Depp plays Tonto, a mischievous trickster and sidekick to The Lone Ranger. Tricksters are used by writers for comic relief: a clown (Sancho Panza), a funny villain (Loki), a funny hero (Roadrunner, Buggs Bunny). If heroes and villains thrill audiences or make them cry, the trickster makes them laugh.
Stage 6 is usually where the hero meets the villain, or realizes a friend is really an enemy, or where the friend betrays the hero. It’s at this point that Michael Douglas realized Glenn Close is a Fatal Attraction.
Glenn Close plays Alex, and Alex is a shapeshifter, someone who changes from one type into another. When they met, Alex only wanted to be a – well, let’s say friend with benefits. After the second time Alex and Dan made love, Dan got ready to leave, and Alex turned into a clinging vine.
ALEX: I had a wonderful time last night. I’d like to see you again. Is that so terrible?
DAN: No. I just don’t think it’s possible, though.
ALEX: I just wanna know where I stand.
DAN: I think you’re terrific. But I’m married. What can I say?
ALEX: Just my luck. What are you doing?
DAN: I gotta go.
ALEX: I thought you said she wasn’t coming back till tomorrow.
DAN: She’s not, but I got things to do. I gotta go home.
ALEX: I don’t think I like this.
DAN: Like what?
ALEX: The way you run away after every time we make love.
DAN: What difference does it make whether I leave now or in the morning? The fact is I gotta go.
ALEX: You’re not gonna leave now.
DAN: Jesus Christ. I mean, let’s be reasonable.
ALEX: Be reasonable? “Thank you. Good-bye. Don’t call me. I’ll call you.”
DAN: Look, you knew about me. I didn’t hide anything. I thought it was understood.
ALEX: What was understood?
DAN: The opportunity was there and we took it. Come on now. We are adults, aren’t we?
ALEX: What’s that supposed to mean?
DAN: I thought we’d have a good time.
ALEX: No, you didn’t. You thought you’d have a good time. You didn’t stop to think about me.
In the space of 12 hours, Glenn Close’s character morphed from smart editor (mentor) into audacious flirt (trickster), passionate lover (goddess), clinging vine (shadow opposite of Dan’s wife), vengeful vandal, insane woman, kidnapper and murderer.
Sidekicks bring Heroes down to earth, or point out folly and hypocrisy (Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Holly Golightly was the heroine, so Paul was her Mentor and her Sidekick in the movie.
List as many characters in your story as you can. Assign an archetype to each: hero, heroine, goddess, mentor, trickster, herald, shadow, shapeshifter. Some characters may take the part of two or more archetypes.
Now pick one and write a scene that illustrates how one of those characters is an archetype. Don’t tell the reader which archetype the character is, show the reader.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
That’s Professor Campbell’s academic language. The inmost (innermost) cave is the place or the situation where the hero will have his most disheartening setback. It’s the witch’s castle in Oz. It’s after the Titanic strikes an iceberg, and Rose and Jack are trapped below decks. In a romance, it’s the loneliest the romantic pair will feel before they begin to fall in love.
In an action story, the hero is at the edge of life and death when he is in the inmost cave. The hero must use every lesson he has learned so far. He will fail here. But it’s also the first test that the hero really passes. Examples:
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine approaches the Inmost Cave when he meets with Elsa (failure) and decides what to do about the letters of transit (success).
The trash compactor on the Death Star is the inmost cave. They pass because they rescue Leia, but they drop into the compacter and almost die (failure). But then Luke contacts C3P0, R2D2 shuts down the trash compactor, and they get out (success).
Remember, before the trash compactor, Luke and Han and Leia and Chewbacca bickered. After they escaped, they bonded as a team. And that’s another purpose of surviving the inmost cave. Bonding.
The approach to the inmost cave is the beginning of the middle of the story, the middle of Act 2. It isn’t the climax – that’s in Act 3. In pacing terms, Step 7 is the big action sequence of Act 2. That’s called a set piece. You’ve have three, maybe four set pieces, unless you’re writing a big action screenplay or book.
The approach to the inmost cave raises the stakes and creates more tension. The hero or the hero team fails, then meets the challenge, then rededicates itself to the mission. Inside the Inmost Cave is where the hero loses hope. Then the hero team finds hope again and off they go to Step 8.
Step 8 The Ordeal
In the exact middle of the story, the hero enters the center of the Special World. He again confronts death or faces his greatest fear. Out of that moment of death comes a new life.
Charlie and Raymond stop at a motel. While Raymond is brushing his teeth, Charlie discovers who Raymond really is. Let’s back up for a moment: Charlie tells his girlfriend Susanna the story.
CHARLIE: “When I was a kid, and I got scared, the Rain Man would come and sing to me.
SUSANNA: The rain what?
CHARLIE: You know, one of those imaginary childhood friends.
SUSANNA: What happened to him?
CHARLIE: Nothin’. I just grew up.
But back at the motel, Charlie tells Raymond to put down his toothbrush and listen, and that leads to an epiphany:
CHARLIE: I’m trying to talk to you. When I say stop it, why don’t you stop it? Why do you always have to act like an idiot? You think that’s funny?
RAYMOND: Yeah, funny Rain Man. Funny teeth.
CHARLIE: What’d you say?
RAYMOND: Funny teeth.
CHARLIE: Rinse. Why’d you say funny teeth?
RAYMOND: You said funny teeth, funny Rain Man.
CHARLIE: ‘Rain man’? I said, ‘Rain man’?
RAYMOND: Yeah, funny Rain Man.
CHARLIE: Was I trying to say ‘Raymond’ and it came out ‘rain man’?
RAYMOND: Yeah. Funny Rain Man.
CHARLIE: You? You’re the rain man? Who took this picture?
CHARLIE: You lived with us?
RAYMOND: Yeah, 10961 Beechcrest Street… Cincinnati, Ohio.
CHARLIE: When did you leave?
RAYMOND: January 21, 1965.
CHARLIE: You remember then?
RAYMOND: It was Thursday. Very snowy out. 7.2 inches. Snow that day.
CHARLIE: Just after Mom died. New Year’s.
RAYMOND: Yeah, Mom died. January 5, 1965.
CHARLIE: And you remember that day you left? You were the one that sang to me?
CHARLIE: What did you sing? What was that song? What did you sing?
RAYMOND: She was just seventeen/ You know what I mean/ And the way she looked/ Was way beyond compare/ So how could I dance with another/ When I saw her standing there
CHARLIE: Did I like it when you sang to me? (Charlie starts running hot water in the bathtub.)
RAYMOND (comes unglued): Scary! Hot! Scary bad! Scary bad! Scary!
CHARLIE: What’s scary about it?
RAYMOND: Hot water burn baby!
RAYMOND: ‘Hot water burn baby’?
CHARLIE: What baby? Me?
RAYMOND: Time for Wallbrook now.
CHARLIE: (realizes) That’s why they put you away. They thought you’d hurt me.
From this moment on, the mean, uncaring Charlie is dead. There’s a new, caring Charlie who loves and values and protects his brother. The goofy old Raymond is dead too. The new Raymond is smarter and more useful to Charlie.
It’s not one of Vogler’s 12 steps, but Apotheosis is Joseph Campbell’s step 10 of 17. The dictionary defines apotheosis as the culmination, the climax, the highest point in development, or the elevation of a human to divine status. Apotheosis can happen at any step in your Hero’s Journey:
At the midpoint of Thelma and Louise, Thelma is reckless and leaves Brad Pitt in her motel room. He steals Louise’s $6,700, which is what they needed to escape to Mexico. Louise unravels, because she realizes she’s going to be caught and will have to pay a terrible price for murdering Harland. It is at this ordeal in their journey that weak Thelma and strong Louise switch places. Louise, who has been the hero, dissolves into a hopeless puddle. Thelma rises in a moment of apotheosis; hustles Louise out of the motel room, and they hit the road again. Thelma, now the heroine, pulls into a rural gas station and robs it.
Apotheosis may also happen when your hero gains self-confidence, when a battered wife realizes she can survive on her own, when Rocky finally understands that he can beat Apollo Creed.
The apotheosis begins with the Hero’s recognition of the divine within himself, which is perhaps the realization that he can or will accomplish something ordinary men and women cannot, that he’s really a Hero with a capital H.
Apotheosis is the culmination, the climax, the highest point in development, or the elevation of a human to divine status. Apotheosis can happen at any step in your Hero’s Journey.
At some point in your own hero’s journey, you got a job and fed your family. You saved someone’s life. You won a race. You decided what you wanted to do in life. You did something that elevated your status. What did you do? When did that happen? What did you think? How did it change your life? Write down a few words, and then use those words to write a scene for a novel.