Posted by: Alastair Rosie | September 9, 2012

Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the threshold is equivalent to the point of no return. In popular romantic tradition here in the West, the bridegroom carries his bride over the threshold of their new home, even if it is just a hotel room or a rented apartment. It’s a sign that they are entering a new world, going from the single world to the married world. In history Caesar crossing the Rubicon was another threshold crossing because it was the first time he was unleashing Rome’s legions on Rome. Once he crossed the river it was a declaration of war against his own government. The Boston Tea Party in American history was another threshold from recent history, and there are literally thousands of other examples where nations or individuals have committed an act that propels them forward and invites a response.
In theory Julius Caesar could have turned tail and gone back over the river but he would have been an outlaw and would have risked defeat or rebellion from his own men. When Germany invaded Poland, they could have retreated again but that would have been disastrous for Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.
In other words, your hero can accept the Call to Adventure and step over the threshold, but once they’ve made that step they’re committed and if they go back over it, they might survive but they will be forever haunted by the memory and wondering what if?
In mythology and popular fiction the crossing of the threshold is that moment when your hero steps into the extraordinary world. In the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Samwise crosses the threshold when he comes to a dead stop and announces to Frodo that if he takes another step forward it will be the furthest he’s ever been from his own home. His companion has crossed the threshold when he agrees to take the Ring to Rivendell. Later on Frodo crosses another threshold at Rivendell when he agrees to go a little further and take the Ring to Mount Doom. Both are arguably threshold moments because Frodo can refuse to cross or he can even cross and then turn back but the results will be disastrous for Middle Earth. The fate of the world hangs on his decision and courage, and in storytelling your hero doesn’t need to be bold and decisive. Sarah Connor in The Terminator faces her threshold moment when she’s in the police station and the terminator decides to take her out. Rhys comes to her side and takes her out of the station, and she flees with him. The result if she decides to go her own way would be fatal, Rhys understands the terminator. He is the mentor, the one with knowledge of the future and the past. Without him she’s doomed.
In Titanic, Rose crosses a physical threshold, the railing that separates her from certain death, Jack must also step up to the threshold and talk her back over. Once he succeeds of course they are bound to each other, he will follow her into her world and she will experience his world, both are extraordinary worlds because they are so different to their own ordinary worlds.
In traditional theatre, the crossing of the first threshold was often the end of Act One, the curtain went down and the audience had a breather while they contemplated what had gone on during that Act. The actors had set up the story, introduced the ordinary world, a threat or challenge for this world, the hero has been introduced and there is a definite threat to our hero if he or she accepts the call to adventure and crosses the threshold. It’s what keeps the reader turning the page or stops a viewer from changing channels. With film-making the transition is often so quick you might miss it and yet it is there if you look for it. When I did acting classes many years ago, I was taught the value of the concentrated look at the camera at the close of a scene. Soap operas use this to good effect because it often comes before a commercial break, your attention is drawn to the actor’s face and you will sit through the commercials to find out what happens next.
So when setting up your threshold moment in your novel or screenplay, make sure you’ve arranged the scenery beforehand. Do we care about this character and this world? If not, then now is the time to go back and revisit the previous chapters. Once your hero has crossed the threshold they will never be the same again, even if they retreat they will be changed. It has to be risky and here I must add it doesn’t have to be over the top, ramping it up to the level of ‘life as we know it will be destroyed’ is a cliché well avoided unless it’s actually true. The Pelican Brief has overtones of invisible government, big business, the CIA, FBI, all arrayed against our hero, Darcy but not the end of civilisation. All that’s going to happen is the President won’t be able to stay in office, not exactly the end of civilised life, but the risk is enough for the antagonists to go after Darcy and try to silence her permanently. It was an interesting novel and movie because even the antagonists are somewhat divided amongst themselves.
So now that your hero has crossed the threshold, boldly gone where no man or woman has gone before, it’s time to look at Tests, Allies and Enemies next week. Go back over your work in progress and try to identify the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusing the Call, Meeting the Mentor, and Crossing the Threshold.

Other examples of Crossing the Threshold.

Birdee in Hope Floats when she leaves the marital home. She’s actually running away from her extraordinary world and returning home as the scorned ex wife, an interesting variation of the threshold crossing.

Bella in Twilight when she confronts Edward with her suspicions or fears about his true identity. Note that she suspects he’s a vampire and has only read mythology and stories about vampires, she has ample reason to avoid him now if not for the fact he saved her.

Breaca (Boudica) in Dreaming the Eagle when she goes with her people to visit Cunobelin. In the novel this threshold moment is shared with her brother, Ban, who has to give up his prize horse to Amminios in order to regain his honour. This is the young Breaca’s first public appearance as a future queen of the Iceni.

John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves where he comes face to face with the Indians at the point of a gun, he doesn’t kill the warrior and instead falls into a dead faint. I’ve chosen this as the threshold moment because he has gone against his natural soldiering instincts and spared the man’s life, rather than the moment he leaves the fort for his new post, although arguably that too could also be seen as a threshold moment because he’s leaving his old world for the new world.



  1. Wow – you’ve certainly put a lot of work into researching this subject. There are some great examples here!

    Looking forward to reading about Tests, Allies and Enemies. Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    • No worries, Dianne. Just publishing the next blog now, thanks for reading and commenting.

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