Every great story begins with a “bang!” That bang must be the Call to Adventure, or Inciting Incident, that triggers your hero's first major choice.
In Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, the opening scenes establish the hero's normal life, also called the Ordinary World. But to get the story started, you need this next stage: the inciting incident.
It's your first chance to establish your story's core value by showing the reader what the hero is willing to suffer and sacrifice for it.
But not right away. Because after the call, there must be a refusal of the call. Why in the world would your hero refuse their call to adventure?
Let's find out!
How to Start The Hero's Journey
At this point, you've established your story's Ordinary World. This is where you clue the reader in on the day-to-day routines of your hero's life. It's probably boring, mundane stuff. However, it's stuff that stands for something, like life, safety, honesty, purity, and so on.
Once this groundwork is laid, it's time to introduce a little chaos. That's the Call to Adventure.
This classic story opening comes to us courtesy of Joseph Campbell, a professor of mythology, who examined hundreds of myths in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Later adapted into a “12 stages of the hero” model by Christopher Vogler, this mythic structure works for practically any story with any plot type. It is a wild card for anyone on the writer's journey who is trying to create a bestseller that readers love.
That being said, the Hero's Journey isn't just a powerful formula for storytelling. It's a study of the human heart. The only reason Joseph Campbell discovered this “monomyth” is because he noticed patterns across all great stories. It seems, he noticed, that all humans long for the same story.
The Inciting Incident is a key piece of that story. Academically, the Inciting Incident is easy to describe: It's the action or change that gets your story going. It's usually a moment of sudden conflict. In movies, it's often an action scene.
But the conflict is only half of it. What this description completely misses is the second half of the Inciting Incident, which is its own necessary step of the Hero's Journey. It is the humanizing step, making even the most monumental heroes relatable to simple readers like us.
Steps 2 and 3: The Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call
Let's begin by looking at what comes next in a well-written Hero's Journey:
The Call to Adventure occurs early in the story when the hero is informed of a danger or need facing the community. The hero may be specifically asked to take up the journey, or may react to an existing situation.
The Refusal of the Call happens almost immediately afterward as the hero realizes the immense danger of what lies ahead. This “refusal” can take several forms, including fear, despair, attempting to flee, or foolish choices that result in a botched start to the journey.
Let's explore each of these steps in a little more detail, and then learn how you can easily begin planning each step in your own heroic journey.
The Call to Adventure
Several weeks ago we explored the beginning of every great story, Step #1: An Ordinary World with an ordinary, relatable character (who will become the hero).
To begin your hero's story, something needs to push them out of their comfort zone. This sudden push is known as the Inciting Incident. Conflict comes from within, or without, and upsets the status quo.
Example: The Hunger Games
An example of “from within” would be The Hunger Games. Katniss's world of District 12 is waiting for the “Reaping,” when participants in the Hunger Games will be chosen. Her moment comes when the injustice of her own world becomes horribly personal.
Example: Star Wars
An example of “from without” would be Star Wars. Luke Skywalker begins his adventure as a lowly farmhand, helping his uncle prepare some new droids for the upcoming harvest. Then a squad of stormtroopers murder his uncle and aunt, forcing him to make a life-altering choice.
Example: Lord of the Rings
The threat can also be two-sided (and often is). In The Lord of the Rings, the threat of the Ring rises from within, as the ancient weapon cries out to its evil master, summoning the dreaded Nazgul to invade the Shire.
Example: Toy Story
In Pixar's Toy Story, the external change comes in the form of Buzz Lightyear, a new toy that unseats Woody as the favorite plaything. Buzz is not the antagonist or Shadow, however; Woody is his own nemesis, at least until the film's later scenes. He is his own worst enemy, an insecure and jealous leader who must learn how to share the heart of his “kid.”
Dreaming up your Inciting Incident may seem complicated, but it can easily be as simple as asking, “What's wrong with the world I'm building?” Then throw that “wrong” in your hero's face. Make them feel the brunt of it.
This, in the Hero's Journey, is Step #2: The Call to Adventure.
No matter where your conflict comes from, it needs to demand action from your hero. They need to be put on the spot, having come face-to-face with some version of the world's ultimate evil.
And here's the thing.
Your hero cannot simply say “Yes” and answer the call.
Your hero needs to fail.
Step #3: Refusal of the Call
A common mistake of amateur writers is to create heroes who are too strong. These authors dream up “powers” and “abilities” and other features to make the characters “cool.”
But “cool” isn't interesting. Conflict is.
And conflict requires weakness.
No matter what kind of plot type you are writing, it is imperative that your hero fails early on in your storyline. They must face challenges they can't overcome on their own. Why? Because they're human (or not immediately heroic) just like you and me.
When your hero is tested for the very first time, they can't pass with flying colors. They need to blow it, screw up, or chicken out. They can't get it right yet. Otherwise the story won't resonate with your reader's soul. Readers know that being a hero is hard, and no one can simply do it from the get-go.
Example: The Hunger Games
Sometimes the failure is small or internal.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen doesn't take back her entry into the Hunger Games, but she despairs, bidding her family farewell under the assumption that she will certainly die.
Example: Star Wars
And while in Star Wars Luke doesn't skip out on becoming a Jedi and joining the Rebellion, he regularly complains about how hard it is to learn the ways of the Force, even walking out on Yoda in the second film of the trilogy.
The Refusal of the Call must reveal your hero's weakness. This weakness should take two forms:
First, your hero's physical ability to complete the task must be in doubt. Perhaps they're not the strongest, the prettiest, or the most agile. Something about their physical strength must make the reader wonder.
This psychology is as old as human history. Every culture has its David vs. Goliath archetype because the story resonates in our hearts. There's something in our souls that knows that while it's a trope, it is still capital-t True.
Secondly, the Refusal must reveal your hero's emotional fragility. They can't “have it together” — at least not underneath. They may maintain a bold exterior, but the reader must be able to see this for what it is: a mask.
Because this, too, is psychologically true. Whenever we must face a new challenge — a new job, marriage, parenting, conflict at home, seeking weight loss, attempting something great — we always face a crisis of belief. Even the most confident, self-assured person in the world struggles with confidence sometimes.
Example: Lord of the Rings
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is nothing more than a simple hobbit, hoping to live out his days in peace and mild adventure within the Shire. Yet when he learns that the Ring of Power is in his possession, and that it must be carried all the way to Mount Doom and destroyed, he is overcome with despair.
He does all he can to give it away to his mentor, Gandalf, who must refuse the temptation due to the Ring's danger. In this moment of great vulnerability, we all can empathize with Frodo's fear and unwillingness to face challenges so seemingly impossible.
Example: Toy Story
And finally we return to Toy Story, as Woody must choose how to handle the unwelcome arrival of Buzz Lightyear. He could share, a difficult challenge even for many adults who are still learning how to play nice with others.
Yet he withers under the temptation to get Buzz out of the picture, and does so with a cruel trick. This choice to Refuse the Call to work with Buzz, rather than against him, leads to their expulsion from Andy's room into the dangerous, new world outside the house.
It is this step of the Hero's Journey that brings your story and its characters to vibrant, painful life. We've all felt called to something greater than ourselves, and we've all failed at such a call.
Sometimes it's the physical challenges set before us, like hard work, early mornings, late hours, and self-denial, that are just too difficult. Other times it's the emotional obstacles, like hard conversations, reliving painful traumas, or summoning the will to forgive, that turn us back before the journey can even begin.
The Refusal of the Call step of the Hero's Journey is absolutely crucial because it is absolutely human. Don't miss out on the chance to humanize your hero. Your readers may not notice that you did it with intention (how many of them can truly know all that the writer's journey entails?), but they will be inwardly grateful for the work you have done.
Begin with a Call and Refusal
Finding a strong Call to Adventure will hopefully be an easy thing to do. It's a fun moment to write, bursting with excitement, conflict, and gripping tension that puts your story's core value center stage.
But don't forget about the equally important Refusal of the Call. Make sure your hero says “No,” “I don't know,” or “I definitely know,” and then fails miserably in order to learn a difficult lesson.
It's moments like these that explain the Hero's Journey's enduring nature. We long for stories that are honest.
Yes, we adore heroes and want to be like them. But more than anything, we want them to be like us.
And that's what the Inciting Incident — the Call to Adventure and the Refusal of the Call — are all about.
Can you think of the Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call in stories you love? Tell us about them in the comments.
Freewrite a scene in which a regular, everyday character is called to adventure. Does the call come from within or without? How does the character repond at first? Why?
Play with the character both accepting the call right away, and then rejecting it. What fears hold the hero back? What weaknesses and inadequacies fill them with dread or hesitation? Consider the dramatic stakes you are building as you freewrite this key moment in a hero's journey story!
Take fifteen minutes to write your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here. Post it, and then find three other writers' comments and leave some feedback!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.