Liminality is a simple construct with a lot going on within it. Moving through the in-between spaces is messy, awkward, difficult, challenging and often painful. While there is structure on the outside, navigating the in-between spaces is much more uncertain and fuzzy. And yet, embracing liminality provides an essential framework for thinking about change.
Liminality describes the three stages that are the essential steps of transformation. The perceived simplicity of this construct is key to its appeal, but there is a great deal going on beneath the surface. Storytelling—whether based in stories, novels, plays or films—also conforms to a three stage structure. This is not an accident.
The three-act structure lies at the heart of narrative storytelling. It is the arc that virtually every classic tale follows. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. What’s useful to recognize is that there is an underlying pattern to what makes for a good beginning, a meaningful middle and a satisfying conclusion.
The stages of the three-act structure are “setup,” “confrontation” and “resolution.” The setup establishes the essential characters of the story and the situation they find themselves in. The act builds to the presentation of a problem that the protaganist needs to solve. The second act—the confrontation stage—is where our protaganist tries to resolve the problem, only to face growing complications and challenges. The third act features the resolution, where the problems experienced come to a head, and are finally resolved.
In other words, in a phrase often attributed to Vladimir Nabokov but likely rooted in early farce: “In the first act get your principal up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him; in the third, get him down gracefully.” Story consciously depends on drama and conflict. It starts with a (usually) likeable person in a relatable situation. It descends into an unforeseen and significant challenge, one that largely keeps getting worse. At the last possible moment, our hero figures out how to resolve the situation, and everyone lives happily ever after.
There are variations, of course. But not many. The reality is that an astonishing number of renderings (in new and original ways) largely cleave to this narrative structure. Take Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. Any Sherlock Holmes mystery. Any Agatha Christie mystery. Any mystery whatsoever. And most thrillers, for that matter. All of them (at different paces, and with varying numbers of pages) follow this same essential structure.
What’s really interesting about the underlying framework that gives the three-act structure its purpose is a couple of essential nuances that tie back incredibly well to liminality. In particular, there are considerations around personal growth, collaboration and self-actualization that are essential to good story.
Let’s tackle growth, first. The reason that the three-act structure works is in part that—starting with the problem that gets presented in the first act—things keep going from bad to worse. In the best of stories, the situation gets so abysmal as to be seemingly unsolvable. While this would be a bad end (and a crappy way to finish a story) we suspend our disbelief, and go along with the premise anyway.
Take, for example, the first Harry Potter book (although, arguably, any and all of them can stand in, and they all to a certain extent share the same essential formula). Take unknown, unproven boy wizard. Ship into completely new environment, where he’s alone, untested, unproven and yet not without expectations. Add hostile teacher (Snape), hostile student (Malfoy), high standards (Hermione). Seed all of this with a healthy dose of unrelenting evil (Voldemort) that no one wants to speak of, let alone remember. Create a number of scenarios that point to Voldemort if true, but reflect badly on Harry Potter instead, because nobody wants to actually believe that Voldemort is back. And ultimately, at the very last minute, find a point of redemption that allows Harry to succeed, Voldemort to fail and the universe to unfold for another day.
What’s happening in this situation is that Harry is growing. He’s learning. He starts the book unprepared, unaware and wholly lacking in confidence (and even self esteem). And he finishes having learned that magic is real, he’s a magician and that he has developed sufficient mastery to accomplish a feat that experienced wizards cannot. It’s that sense of growth, challenge, exploration and discovery that not only define the second act of our three-act structure, but wholly resonate with moving through the liminal stage in our in-between spaces. Challenges are encountered, skills are developed, growth occurs. From the insurmountable obstacle that we started with, we let go of who we once were, we develop the capacity to respond and resolve a far greater and more obstinate challenge.
Collaboration is often at the heart of story. It’s also an essential component of liminality. In the first Harry Potter book, Harry finds like-minded companions in Hermione and Ron (each of which complement aspects of his personality). He finds a loveable mentor and guide in Hagrid. And he finds an aspirational—if distant—inspiration and sage in Dumbledore.
Harry cannot succeed alone. He relies on insight, collaboration, support, encouragement and the odd well-placed kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants to keep moving forward. And so too with liminality. A core feature is that the liminal process is guided. There are mentors and supporters that assist us in the journey, that monitor from afar, and that exercise only enough influence to have an impact—without necessarily being seen. The result is that we feel we have succeeded and overcome obstacles, but those results are very often aided, guided, nudged and supported by others.
What emerges at the end, however, is self-actualization. In the third stage of our three-act structure, we find resolution. The challenges are addressed, the obstacles are overcome and the problems are solved. In doing so, our protagonist—regardless of preferred pronoun—discovers, or at the very least begins to come to terms with, who they really are.
It is this stage of the journey that liminality is designed to support most specifically. In the preliminal stage, we set the scene and come to terms with the situation as it is. The status quo quickly becomes challenged, and we embark on the liminal stage of the journey, working to address the challenges and overcome the obstacles we face. In most stories—as well as in real life—this is where we face ups and downs. Obstacles mount, challenges grow, outcomes become distant and we start to doubt our capacity to succeed.
This is the point where we begin to dig deep, in real life as well as in fiction. This is where we come to terms with the true scale and scope of our obstacles, and where we find the reserves of knowledge, energy, insight and inspiration necessary to overcome them. This is the power and gift of the liminal stage. We step off the cliff, and we figure out how to fly.
What results at the end is the realization is that we aren’t the person we were when we started. We have changed. We have grown. We have proven ourselves, partly to others, but mostly to ourselves. We have come out the other side, and entered the postliminal stage of embracing who we have become. We have a new identity, a new status and a new outlook on where we are, and what is possible from here.
That’s the gift of story. That’s also the gift of liminality, of inhabiting and navigating the in-between spaces. We begin with a challenge, we face the challenge and we ultimately overcome the challenge and step into a new role with a new identity and a new sense of status and self.
What’s important in how storytelling relates to liminality is that story illustrates what’s possible. What makes fiction and drama so powerful is that it shows us who we can be. It helps us understand the challenges that we might face. It provides insight into what we might be called upon to do in order to overcome those obstacles. And it particularly asks us to suspend our disbelief, and to accept that we can indeed emerge out the other end as a new, different, more capable person.
Liminality and story are closely intertwined. The three-act structure is the essence of liminality, laid out in a fictional narrative. Our appreciation of story and our willingness to suspend our disbelief allows us to explore what is possible, and to imagine ourselves in a different role. It lest us model possible future behaviours. We get to go on journeys of the imagination first, before we are called upon to replicate those journeys in real life. Most importantly, story gives us the belief that the journey is possible, that the result can be realized and that we can continue to grow and develop as individual human beings.
Liminality is an abstract way of exploring who we can become. Story is a concrete way of experiencing the journey and its consequences, by inhabiting the world of characters that aren’t real, but that we can relate to. Our ability to relate to story—and to see ourselves in the characters that story represents—is what truly allows us to freely step into the liminal, in-between spaces of our lives. And it provides guidance on how we might finally attain the postliminal realization of a new us.
Story lest us explore, experiment and fantasize before we need to do it for real. The power of story to stimulate, to question and to challenge is part of what allows us as individuals to tap into and learn from the in-between spaces that liminality represents. Most importantly, story models the behaviours and strategies that make success possible. It shows us our heroes, flawed and struggling. It enables us to step into their shoes. And it allows us to bring those lessons forward into our own lives, where they are no less relevant, useful or applicable.
The power of story is the power to imagine and experiment with our future selves. And it’s the power to evaluate the steps required to get there. There is power and meaning in story, because story is what ultimately brings liminality to life.