the hero’s journey – refusal of the call

Be not afraid of greatness:
Some are born great,
Some achieve greatness
And some have greatness thrust upon them.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


The third ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot: Refusal of the Call.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

The refusal of the call. The reluctant hero. The glance back. The lingering doubt that leaves a peculiar letter sitting on the kitchen counter.

This is an odd step in the list because it can be easily omitted. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, two chapters. Or it can last most of the story. (As said, Campbell’s ‘list’ is squishy.) The reason, though, that this is an important step and belongs in the list with the rest is that we expect people to be reluctant to pursue herculean tasks. It humanizes them, for one, and it puts the road ahead in better perspective. People who charge up mountains make the mountains look small.

Tolkien used the Refusal of the Call in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins wanted nothing to do with this mad ‘adventure’ that Gandalf had invaded his home with until the dwarves started wondering if Bilbo was too pathetic to do the job (and his regrets echoed for a long while after when things got hard). Later on, Frodo tried to make Gandalf take the ring from him– surely, such a great wizard would be able to handle such a quest better than he.

On the other hand, in George Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Jon Snow recruits himself for his quest, as part of the Night’s Watch. He even has to talk his family into letting him leave. Yet there is still a Refusal in his story line– first as he rides North with the watch, and wonders what the hell he’s doing. Then later his refusal is personified not as an escape home, but by clinging to the attitudes he was raised with through his training. Not all refusals directly counter the call to adventure.

Omitting the Refusal of the Call colors the tone of the story. Take ‘The Princess Bride’, for instance. The eagerness of Westley to rescue Buttercup would not be denied. He would not falter. He would not change his mind. Death itself can not stop him– all it can do is delay him for awhile.

Incidentally, The Princess Bride is a strange story that doesn’t follow the pattern exactly. No mentor, no refusal of the call, no First Threshold. The Call to Adventure is behind the scenes; there must be a call to adventure, because Westley is not with Buttercup. This in itself is a fundamental flaw in the universe, and there is no more to be said on the matter. It is as if the story begins halfway through the formula. This is a good example of a very good story that breaks and stretches out Campbell’s theory, yet still has identifiable parts to it.

After I visit each of the twelve points, I’m going to go through several stories to analyze how their plots are structured. So far this list includes The Princess Bride, A Game of Thrones, and The Hobbit– something that runs with the formula well (The Hobbit), something that breaks and stretches the formula (The Princess Bride), and something amazingly complicated (A Game of Thrones). If anyone has any suggestions about a good foil, feel free to make suggestions.

Next up: Meeting the Mentor.

three writing rules i loathe

Also known as: a brief list of the trends in prose that I refuse to take as my bible come hell or high water.

I should probably warn my readers that I despise hard-and-fast rules when it comes to creativity. These confines of art that are meant to guide beginners are a hindrance and put a false barrier between what is considered ‘good’ writing and writing that’s effective. The moment someone starts saying, ‘you should never do this’ I’m out the door and running. Or possibly beating them up, one of the two. Violence might not solve anything, but it sure makes me feel better. 😉

1. Show, Don’t Tell.
I don’t think you can get my hackles up faster than to quote this mantra at me. It is the speediest way to earn my undying hatred.

Showing involves imagery, in covering the things that are important by action and setting, in focusing the camera on some things and not others. Telling is information usually given in narration. Sometimes showing is better. And sometimes showing makes the most tedious, convoluted half-assed scenes that it’s been by displeasure to try to wade through. Please, just tell me, and get to the interesting parts. And who decided that narration was bad, anyway? Who said that showing and telling is inherently divorced from each other, that there is no showing in telling, or vice versa?

Try this instead. Put in the details that you need. Let the audience work a bit when you think that there’s enough in the scene to draw extra conclusions. Make your work interesting. Get test readers, and see if they have the right reactions to the right events.

2. Don’t use any narrative verbs but ‘said’.
This depends entirely on the style that you’re using and the tone of your story. There are times replied, answered, asked, repeated, and explained are perfectly valid, and more precise than ‘said’. Some people find these words obnoxious. It must be tough to be them.

3. Write for your genre, and don’t break the established conventions. It’ll make your book harder to sell.
Sometimes this is true, I suppose. I write fantasy, where the point of the genre is innovation. What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to write something new? I see this one as a cousin of the phrase ‘there are no new stories’. To those who are convinced that this is a good point, go read ‘House of Leaves’, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Go read ‘Bridge of Birds’, by Barry Hughart. Try ‘Grey’, by Jon Armstrong. I won’t read books that aren’t innovative in some way.


I think what I’m trying to get at is that these conventions are artificial. Think of writing as a craft that needs to be trained and honed, figure out what techniques work for what story. Write effectively, ignore what’s supposedly ‘good’.

Any other obnoxious ‘tips’ that I’ve missed?