Into The Special World

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I was watching Collateral a few days ago, one of the best mainstream thrillers to come of Hollywood in ten years, I think (and anyone who says Tom Cruise can’t act is just plain wrong). Besides being maybe the most accurate and weirdly beautiful depiction of LA I’ve seen on film (actually digital video) since Chinatown, with wonderful characterizations from a stellar cast, it just hits so many things perfectly, seemingly without trying.

But a lot of “not trying” comes from having learned your craft so well that you make the right instinctive choices.

I’m thinking of a moment early in the film that on the DVD commentary director Michael Mann says he can’t explain, but he knew he had to have the shot because it summed up the whole story for him.

I was thrilled to hear it because it had been a goosebump moment for me when I rewatched the film.  But I know why, for me at least.

The shot I’m talking about is when cab driver Jamie Foxx heads out onto the downtown freeways to start his night shift (it’s late afternoon), and he drives seemingly head on into a huge, wall-sized Mexican mural that actually is sort of iconic, if you know downtown L.A: a painting of a desert canyon with a vaquero (cowboy) on a white horse, and a black bull.  The mural is unfinished, and the vaquero has no head.  And for a moment it really does look like Jaime Foxx is driving right into that landscape. It’s surreal, and mythic, and it totally sets up the action that is to come.

Well, that moment hits one of the most important beats in storytelling: the Into The Special World or Crossing The Threshold moment.

A story will usually begin by showing in some way the Ordinary World of the main character, which externalizes a lot of essential information about that character – especially why they are somehow stuck in the life they are presently living. Then it’s time to take her/him out of that old, familiar comfort zone and plunge them into the adventure – no matter what the genre is. And this is one of the most magical moments of storytelling; perhaps the most important one to get right.

Because it’s so big, this scene very often comes as the Act I Climax, although it can be as early as the Sequence 1 Climax. Once in a while it comes early in Act II, right after the Act I Climax. And once in a great while it doesn’t happen until the Midpoint, as in Jaws, when Brody and his team of Hooper and Quint finally head out (in that too-small boat) to open water to hunt down the shark.

It’s not uncommon to have several crossings of thresholds, as the hero/ine goes deeper and deeper into the Special World. This is always an effective technique to make us feel we’re really going on an adventure.

In Groundhog Day: the obvious Into The Special World scene is very early in the story, under the opening credits, in fact, when after the opening scene in the newsroom, TV weatherman Phil Connors, his producer Rita, and cameraman Larry drive out of Pittsburgh, over a bridge (an archetypal symbol of crossing a threshold), and into the snowy mountains of Pennsylvania. Out of the city, into a small mountain town. This kind of contrast underscores the feeling of newness and adventure we want to experience in an Into The Special World transition.

But there’s a second, more subtle Crossing The Threshold, when Phil wakes up in the morning to a replaying of the day he just spent. The filmmakers cue this moment with the shot of the clock alarm clicking over to 6 a.m., while “I Got You, Babe” plays on the radio. It’s a big visual that will repeat and repeat and repeat. The numbers on the clock are like a door, and they usher Phil into the real Special World: a time loop where every day is Groundhog Day and there’s no escaping Punxsutawney, PA.

The first Harry Potter is a great example of the many-threshold technique. There is often a special PASSAGEWAY into the special world, and in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone you first see Harry enter the new world of London, then Hagrid magically rearranges the bricks in a stone wall so Harry can step through into the very new world of Diagon Ally, then Harry has to figure out the trick of Platform 9 ¾, then the train takes Harry and the other first years into the wilderness, then finally the kids cross the dark lake (looking very much like the River Styx) in small torch-lit boats to get to Hogwarts.  The Into The Special World moment is very often turned into a whole scene or sequence to give it the weight it deserves.

Other famous passageways are the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz (and Dorothy stepping over the threshold into Technicolor Oz is certainly the most famous depiction of that moment in film history!), the red pill in The Matrix, the chalk sidewalk paintings in Mary Poppins, the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the tesseract in A Wrinkle In Time.

But certainly the entering the Special World moment doesn’t have to be a supernatural experience. In While You Were Sleeping – the warm, bright Callaghan house is a special world to lonely Lucy, who wishes for a family of her own. When she gets out of the taxi and sees the big house covered in Christmas lights, you can see her longing to belong there on her face.  There she is confronted by a Threshold Guardian on the porch: the family friend who suspects she is lying about who she is.

Joseph Campbell talked about the idea of the Threshold Guardian: a character (or sometimes an animal or creature!) who tries to turn the hero/ine back at the gate.  It’s a great way of giving the Crossing The Threshold moment extra resonance.

Another trick is to use symbols we all have in our heads. Bridges, doors, gates, freeway on-ramps or off-ramps: these are all symbols that are used constantly by filmmakers and authors to create the sense of Crossing The Threshold.  And it’s very effective to have this sequence be a descent: Clarice descends multiple staircases and passes through seven gates to get to Lecter down there in that dungeon – a great, ominous Crossing The Threshold scene, that takes us down into the subterranean realms of the unconscious along with her.

So I’m wondering, Rati: are you aware of that Into The Special World  moment when you’re reading or watching a film? Writers, do you design that moment, consciously or unconsciously?

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers; hope everyone’s doing something special for their own!


18 thoughts on “Into The Special World

  1. judy wirzberger

    Good morning! I love the way you zero in on elements to make them clear. Makes me slap my head and say "Duh." I think for me and my current book, crossings come naturally. My mind says I want to show this and I put the two college girls in a rattletrap car and head them to the dark streets of a run-down city, where blue-grey lights shine from windows, weeds sprout from sidewalk cracks and the abortion mill is built of cinderblocks. I realize I've used airplanes to show my protagonist going from her current life back to relationships of her former life to solve problems or gain awareness for growth.

    Our writing group does exercises and looking for crossings will be a great one. Thanks.
    As usual, your writings inspire.

  2. Sarah W

    Holy Cow — you're right! I never thought about it before, but all my favorite stories have these elements.

    Shoot, even when Watson meets Holmes, he steps into a new world . . .

    My own MC does return to a "special world" in order to help her former boss. And there *is* a "guardian" — a former co-worker who may refuse to work with her . . . that part is mostly in her mind, and might be a little weak, but it's still there . . .

    Huh — how cool is that?

  3. Alafair Burke

    I've seen Groundhog Day about as many times as Phil wakes up to I Got You, Babe, and never thought of it as a cross-over moment. You're so good at this stuff it's scary!

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Judy, I love your images of your girls going into that ominous inner city, for such a desperate purpose. It externalizes their inner turmoil just as well as depicts a frightening special world. Aren't visuals wonderful?

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, there you go – I am NEVER saying anything that people aren't instinctively doing already! But getting conscious about where you're doing it helps you intensify the moment and really make it play.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, thanks – but what's scary is how many times I've seen Groundhog Day, too, and every single time I see dozens of things I never saw before. Now that's what I call a story! Just genius.

  7. Rob Browne

    Interesting that you were struck by the shot of driving into the mural, which, I believe was one of the few actually shot on film. The movie switches to HD video when night falls — an artistic choice to illustrate the harshness of L.A.

    I wonder if that shot would have been as effective if it was video?

    Or maybe I'm full of crap…

  8. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Your posts are always so friggin' helpful! They're like a mini writers workshop, always coming exactly when I need them. That's a great example from Collateral – now I'm going to have to watch the movie again, which I loved when I saw it to begin with.

    I do try to design that moment of entering the Special World in my work. Often I notice that I've done it unconsciously, but I still look for it so that I can consciously identify it and strengthen it if necessary. Sometimes it's as simple as a character entering a crime scene, if that scene is nothing he's ever experienced before.

    This doesn't relate to entering the Special World, but I thought it was a cute story moment anyway:

    My family and I caught the end of Back to the Future and my wife was explaining to our son why the terrorists were after Christopher Lloyd. “They're after him because he stole their….he stole their…” She looked to me, thinking I remembered what the bad guys were after. “Their maguffin,” I said. She smiled and nodded. “Yes, he stole their maguffin,” she replied. I love having a wife who understands story.

  9. David Corbett


    I concur with Judy: I love how clearly you explain these concepts, and how apt your examples are. I think your students are one lucky bunch.

    I think CHINATOWN provides an interesting example of how subtle that Into the Special World moment can be. Jake has structured his life so that he never returns to Chinatown, where you never know what's going on. He's left the force, opened a shabby little PI biz where he follows cheating spouses around. Nobody is ever gonna catch him with his pants down again. But then the real Mrs. Mulray appears — and she is clearly, strikingly different than what we've seen before. That moment, with Faye Dunaway in his office: "You agree we've never met." The world he thought he was in, the world where he's the wisecracking know-it-all, vanishes, and he steps back into the world where he doesn't know what's going on.

    The visual shift isn't flashy — just that rich, elegant woman in his office. Things are clearly different. Even though there's no visual fanfare to show it, he's already making his journey back to Chinatown. (Of course, there are cues: most notably the joke about "f**king me like a Chinaman" just as Faye Dunaway appears in that doorway, which is a master stroke. There are also a number of visual clues along the way — the most obvious being when he and Evelyn are in bed, and Dunaway's shot in a way that makes her eyes look slanted.)

    I always look forward to your posts, Alexandra. I always come away thinking a bit more deeply about craft and story. Thanks so much.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    No, Rob, I think you're on to something. I didn't know that the mural shot was on film, but there is definitely a softness about that shot that contributes to the otherworldliness of it, compared to the clarity of the video that comes after. Which to me PERFECTLY captures LA during the Santa Anas, that hyper clarity. It's amazing how HD allows layers of visuals the way it does. It was perfect for this film.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    SJS, love that story. Hitch would have, too. Macguffin is all you need to know.

    David, thank YOU. Faye Dunaway representing Chinatown – I could go on all day! Her makeup – it’s downright Kabuki.

    I think there are several entries into the special world in Chinatown, and the one I most love is when Jake follows Hollis Mulwray out to the LA River (a concrete drainoff, but we’re proud of it!) and you see that outside what passes for a city, LA really is a desert. Pure desert. It’s shocking, gets me every time.

  12. lil Gluckstern

    I'm just a reader, but I am also a Jungian trained psychotherapist. This means that I'm supposed to look at these small moments of change, of entry into another world, another life, a new way of looking at things. What I love about your post is that it encourages us to look at life with a fresh eye, to be open to that threshold, that door when it beckons, and sometimes when it is just there. I don't mean to get too psychological but this is what you evoked for me. My daughter used to live in L. A., and I loved the drive from Northern California through the desert wildness before I would see the shiny sunny colorful miles of the city emerge before me. I really liked your post, didn't I?

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lil, please get as psychological as you want, Jung rocks!

    It's true, those doors are opening for all of us all the time, and I think it's part of our job as storytellers to point out those doors to a reader or audience, and the consequences and payoffs of stepping through.

  14. KDJames

    I'm nodding right along with Judy and Sarah, realizing that I've done something without thinking about doing it. And for at least one character there are several thresholds, each one making him feel just a bit more uncomfortable and off balance. Now that I "see" it, I can enhance that aspect, can't I? Ha.

    Alex, you're brilliant. Thank you!

    Adding Collateral to my (very long, thanks to you) list of things to watch.

    [I'm having a terrible time posting comments here lately. Keep getting a message that the connection has been reset, try again. And again. Don't think it has anything to do with the captcha thing. You all having server issues? Anyway, if comments seem low, that might be why.]

  15. pari noskin taichert

    "I always look forward to your posts, Alexandra. I always come away thinking a bit more deeply about craft and story. Thanks so much. "
    What David said!

    What struck me about this post is how often those doors open in our own lives. I'm going through some really intense times right now and this tool of thinking of "crossing the threshold" fits in so well with the work I'm doing around classic mythology and my own personal myths.

    Thank you.

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