You’ve established your story’s Ordinary World. What’s next? It’s time for your hero’s Call to Adventure — a call they must refuse.
Steps 2 and 3: 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.
The Magic of the Hero’s Journey
If you’re a frustrated writer looking for an easy way to tell a story, then the Hero’s Journey sounds like a great deal. After all, it’s only twelve steps long, and each one is an established and well-understood trope, right?
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 (and his student Christopher Vogler) discovered this “monomyth” is because they noticed patterns across all great stories. It seems, they 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.
Do you want to tell great stories?
Read on and learn why the beginning of your story needs more than an explosion or tragic moment.
Step #2: 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 encourage your hero to begin her journey towards greatness, something needs to push her out of her comfort zone. This sudden push is known as the Inciting Incident. Conflict comes from within, or without, and upsets the status quo.
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.
An example of “from without” would be Harry Potter. Harry’s life, while oppressive and boring, hums along quite normally until a letter from Hogwarts arrives. Then everything changes.
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.
Dreaming up your Inciting Incident shouldn’t be too hard. Just ask yourself, “What’s wrong with the world I’m building?” and throw that “wrong” in your hero’s face. Make her feel the brunt of it.
This, in the Hero’s Journey, is Step #2: The Call to Adventure.
So no matter where your conflict comes from, it needs to demand action from your hero. She needs 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.
She 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 without conflict. And conflict requires weakness.
No matter what genre you’re writing in, it is imperative that your hero fails early on. When you hero is tested for the very first time, she can’t pass with flying colors. She needs to blow it, screw up, or chicken out. She can’t get it right yet.
Otherwise the story won’t resonate with your reader’s soul. Readers have always known that being a hero is hard, and no one can simply be heroic on Day #1.
Sometimes the failure is small, or internal. 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. Harry Potter doesn’t run away from Hogwarts, but doubts his roots and often doubts his own abilities as a wizard.
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 she’s not the strongest, the prettiest, or the most agile. Something about her 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 it’s capital-t True.
Secondly, the Refusal must reveal your hero’s emotional fragility. She can’t “have it together” — at least not underneath. She 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.
And this step of the Hero’s Journey brings that reality to vibrant, painful life.
Begin with a Call and Refusal
Finding a strong Call to Adventure will probably be easy. It’s a fun moment to write, bursting with excitement, conflict, and gripping tension.
But don’t forget about the equally important Refusal. Make sure your hero says “No,” “I don’t know,” or “I definitely know,” only to fail miserably and 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.
In the last installment of this series, you created your protagonist and set them in their Ordinary World. Now, it’s time to disrupt that and call them to adventure.
Start by drafting the Call to Adventure, the moment when your hero is called to some action (Step #2). Make it clear whether the conflict is coming from within (inside the hero’s Ordinary World) or without.
Then, make the character fail somehow (Step #3). Does he completely reject the call? Accept it with qualifications? Or believe he is ready, only to screw up somehow?