Writers use Gatekeepers for two conflicting purposes: to take the reader out of the middle of the novel and into the climax, and to keep the hero from immediately reaching the villain.
Think about it: in Super Mario Bros., could Mario just pick a fight with King Koopa any time he wanted?
Nope, he had to go through that terrible castle with all the lava, scary music, and fireballs. My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about the stress of navigating that castle level– and that’s how we want the reader to feel with our story’s Gatekeeper.
In Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, each hero is stopped just before reaching the villain. Harry Potter is blocked by Fluffy, the three-headed dog. Katniss is blocked by the wolf-like Muttations, and Bella is blocked by the vampires Alice and Jasper.
Here are 5 steps to nailing this scene in your own novel.
1. Give an intimidating physical description of the Gatekeeper
When describing the Gatekeeper, it’s time to pull out all the stops by adding fantastic (as in fantasy) qualities. In Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, each Gatekeeper has fangs! The more fangs, the better. 🙂
- In Harry Potter, Harry meets a three-headed dog straight out of greek mythology. “They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog . . . . It had three heads. . . . three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs.” (HP Ch.9).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss must fight off Muttations before she can exit the arena. “They resemble huge wolves, but what wolf lands and then balances easily on its hind legs? . . . The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human.” (HG Ch.25).
- In Twilight, Bella is blocked from going after the evil vampire James because Alice and Jasper are watching over her. (Remember, they are vampires so they have fangs.) Though they want what’s best for Bella, she must escape them to save her mom. This is difficult because Alice can see the future and Jasper can directly manipulate emotions. “Alice looked meaningfully at Jasper. A deep, heavy fog of lethargy washed over me, and my eyes closed without my permission. My mind struggled against the fog, realizing what was happening.” (TW Ch.21).
2. Explain why no one get pasts the Gatekeeper
After you have awed the reader with the description of the Gatekeeper, explain why the Gatekeeper is a worthy opponent. Harry, Katniss, and Bella each acknowledge that it will be difficult to get past the Gatekeeper.
- Harry Potter realizes that only one person knows how to get past Fluffy. “’Not a soul knows except me an’ Dumbledore,’ said Hagrid proudly.” (HP Ch.14).
- Katniss recognizes that the wolves are Muttations. “No question about it. I’ve never seen these mutts, but they’re no natural-born animals.” (HG Ch.25). Earlier she explained how she reacts to tracker jackers, a different Muttation: “When Gale and I come across a tracker jacker nest, we immediately head in the opposite direction.” (HG Ch.14).
- Bella knows that Alice will be able to see the future change if she tried to escape. “I was afraid to be in the same room with her, afraid that she would guess . . . and afraid to hide from her for the same reason.” (TW Ch.22).
3. Give an example of the Gatekeeper’s Power
Really bring it home by showing another person getting blocked by the Gatekeeper, or have another character acknowledge its power.
- Harry knows that even Professor Snape was unable to get past Fluffy. “He tried to get past that three-headed dog on Halloween. It bit him.” (HP Ch.11).
- After Katniss defends herself with her bow and arrow, the Muttations change their strategy and use teamwork to reach her on the cornucopia horn. “. . . the mutts begin a new assault on the horn. They’ve split into two groups at the sides of the horn and are using those powerful hindquarters to launch themselves at us.” (HG Ch.25).
- The evil vampire James acknowledges that it will be difficult for Bella to reach him because of Alice’s ability. “I’m sure it won’t be easy, but if I get the slightest hint that you have any company, well, that would be very bad for your mother[.]” (TW Ch.21).
4. Have the hero develop a plan to get past the Gatekeeper
Now that the reader understands what a hurdle this will be, it’s time for the hero to formulate a plan. This shows how sharp the hero is, and raises the reader’s anticipation of how it will work out.
- Once Harry knows that music will put Fluffy to sleep, he gets prepared. “He pulled out the Cloak and then his eyes fell on the flute Hagrid had given him for Christmas. He pocketed it to use on Fluffy . . . .” (HP Ch.26).
- Katniss’s plan involves waiting it out and saving her arrows. “I have been waiting to fire, only too aware of my dwindling supply of arrows. Waiting to see if the creatures can, in fact, climb.” (HG Ch.25).
- Bella thinks up a plan to escape by relying on a restroom with two entrances in a busy airport. “But it was the terminal I needed: the biggest, the most confusing. And there was a door on level three that might be the only chance.” (TW Ch.22).
5. Let the hero go for it!
Finally, the hero executes his plans and gets past the Gatekeeper. With all the build-up in steps 1 through 4, the reader should be really cheering for the hero at this point.
- Harry approaches Fluffy with his flute. “’It must wake up the moment you stop playing,’ said Harry. ‘Well, here goes . . .’ He put Hagrid’s flute to his lips and blew.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss is finally able to get out of the Muttations’ reach and to a higher point on the cornucopia. “I feel a moment’s relief because we must finally be up above the mutt line . . . . we drag ourselves toward the top where the lesser of two evils awaits.” (HG Ch.25).
- Bella tricks Alice and Jasper by exiting the restroom on a different side. “As soon as the door shut behind me, I was running. I remembered the time I had gotten lost from this bathroom, because it had two exits. Outside the far door it was only a short sprint to the elevators . . . .” (TW Ch.22).
Why it Works
The Gatekeeper scene transitions the middle of the novel into the whirlwind of the climax. With all the intimidating detail about the Gatekeeper, we know that the journey and stakes have suddenly become very serious for the hero. And, by giving the hero a set of rapid-fire obstacles, the reader really will turn the pages faster to find out what happens next.
After getting past the Gatekeeper, there is no rest for the hero– instead, he goes immediately on to his next obstacle (which we already analyzed as firing the figurative Chekhov’s gun), and then ultimately to the final climax scene.
Remember when we counted the number of obstacles along the hero’s journey, and we categorized them as win, lose, or draw? The Gatekeeper card fits in nicely to the “win” slot we dropped in Chapter 18. (It’s a win because the hero succeeds in getting past the Gatekeeper, even if it’s on to more terrible challenges.)
Go ahead over to the master outline to see it all in action.
P.S. Twilight uses a big canine character too– but unlike Fluffy and the Muttations, it doesn’t act as a Gatekeeper. The werewolves only appear in Bella’s dreams (in the first book): “The wolf faced away from me, pointing toward the shore, the hair on the back of his shoulders bristling, low growls issuing from between his exposed fangs.” (TW Ch.7). Coincidence? Will you write a giant dog into your story?