Friday, October 9, 2009

Story Structure Part III: Refusal of the Call

Blue Hawaii Heli This is the third in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.


Refusal of the Call

There’s one thing I want to point out before I talk about Part Three. Even though I describe these parts of the Hero’s Journey in a certain order, I don’t want to imply that either A) This is the exact order they must appear in, or B) Every part is required. Even though I will try to make a case that they are all required, I’m sure there are many successful counter-examples out there.

Refusal of the Call can be summarized in one word: Fear.

From the “Litany of Fear” by the Immortal Frank Herbert via Lady Jessica: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
(BTW does anyone know if by “little death” he’s referring to La Petite Mort? ‘Cause that would be weird.)

On the other hand, Fear is probably the #1 motivator in people’s lives. If your character is not living in a state of anxious excitement (the happy side of fear) or mortal dread (the fearful side of fear) then your character is not in a state of conflict and the stakes are not high enough. It’s been said that to truly achieve transformation and resurrection, a character must face his worst fears. The initial Refusal of the Call is a character’s first encounter with fear, the first challenge to his world view, the first time he considers the risks involved with the adventure.

We hear the Call to Adventure every day. Consider a Helicopter Ride.* Go ahead. Why aren’t you booking it? It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous. You might have an experience that lasts a lifetime. Now what were your “excuses” for saying no?

“It’s too expensive.”
“I’m scared of heights.”
“Who has the time?”
“Those things crash all the time.”
“I don’t want to have to travel to Hawaii just for a helicopter ride.”
“I don’t have anyone to go with me :(.”

All those excuses are the Refusal of the Call. I just now issued you a Call to Adventure, but you refused. In your own writing you’re going to issue your character a Call to Adventure, and he might have a thousand reasons to refuse. And not just the Call. He may refuse to Cross the Threshold, to Approach the Inmost Cave, or even begin The Road Home. Or, he might hear the Call, and immediately Cross the Threshold with guns a’blazin. No matter where your character is in the Hero’s Journey, he will eventually have to face his fear, and at some point he may resist continuing upon this journey.

football lightning Let’s turn to our benchwarming quarterback. His refusal is fairly straightforward. When he sees how nasty conditions are becoming on the field, with the starting quarterback limping, another player out with a leg fracture, a storm approaching, his parents absent, and a cheerleader pleading for attention, it’s all he can do to not turn and run for the busses. Coach comes over and tells him to start warming up, and he does it half-heartedly, as if dragging his heels will prevent this adventure from occurring. He continues to blow off the cheerleader. He doesn’t want to hear it, whatever “it” is.

Underlying all these events is a strong undercurrent of fear. His primary fear is the Fear of Failure. Riding the bench has been safe. He can’t fail if he doesn’t try. He’s on the team but he doesn’t determine wins and losses. A secondary fear he’s experiencing is with the Cheerleader. Obviously they have a history. There might be events in this history that evoke fear. So right now, what are his Worst Fears? And as a writer, what do you think should happen?

Refusal of the Call Goals:

  • Raise the stakes. The Inciting Incident speaks to a character’s needs and desires. The Refusal speaks to his fears.
  • Illustrate character flaws. If our quarterback ran onto the field and saved the day, that would be nice but it wouldn’t be a story. If he was that kind of guy he’d already be starting.
  • Get down and dirty. Stick out that foot and start tripping your character. Don’t hold back.
  • Help the reader identify with the character. Make him more human.

Non Goals:

  • Don’t expose everything. Keep to the point. Don’t give your character a fear of snakes if he never encounters them again. This isn’t a character essay.
  • The temptation to Adventure will win out. Don’t paralyze your character or you’ll paralyze your reader. Keep it moving along.
  • Don’t make him face his fears, or even clearly identify them at this point. His refusal may sound logical and rational at this point. But as the writer…you know better. Keep the reader guessing.

How do you use fear in your writing? Do your characters jump into adventure or are they dragged in kicking and screaming?

* I actually rode this helicopter service during my Honeymoon in 1999 on Maui. Freakin’ awesome, highly recommend.


  1. Great post... It is very important to keep your characters on track. I read somewhere a great of of putting character traits or scene setup: "If you show at shotgun in act one, by act three, somebody better be getting shot." I try to revise my MS with that kind of mentality.

    Great post..

  2. Thanks for the reminders, because I don't think my MC is in enough peril.

  3. I've heard the term "little death" as a slang for orgasm.

  4. Thanks for reminding me there is yet another reason I should go back to school :o>

  5. Thanks for reminding me to trip my character. :)

  6. JM: Always stick to the point :)

    MG: KAFFEE: Grave danger? JESSEP: Is there another kind?

    FWG: Follow the link. It's more about the refractory period after orgasm.

    TL: :)

    LE: The threats don't have to even be real. The character just has to believe they're real.

  7. I actually think that the "little death" the litany is referring to is that of hesitation. If you hesitate in most of the situations that she was referencing than you die.

    This also comes into play later on in the series doesn't it, the point when the character must face their fears or die of to speak.


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