“Every story involves a problem or Central Dramatic Question that disrupts the Ordinary World. The Hero must enter the Special World to solve the problem, answer the dramatic question, and return balance. The Ordinary World allows the storyteller to contrast the Ordinary and Special worlds. The ordinary World is the Hero’s home, the safe haven upon which the Special World and the Journey’s outcome must be compared. Areas of contrast may include the Special World’s physical and emotional Version of characteristics, its rules and inhabitants, as well as the Hero’s actions and growth while traveling through this Special World.” – Stuart Voytilla in Myth and the Movies
“It is a very strong rule in drama, and in life, that people remain true to their basic natures. They change, and their change is essential for drama, but typically they only change a little, taking a single step towards integrating a forgotten or rejected quality into their natures.” – Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
“When a great adventure is offered, you don’t refuse it.” – Amelia Earhart.
In Hero’s Journey stories, the dynamic question that stirs up the everyday life of the protagonist is referred to as “The Call to Adventure.” The event that gets the hero’s attention also gets the reader’s attention. Sometimes the reader knows about the event before the protagonist. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, for example, a body falls off a balcony in the first sentence of the book. Cormoran Strike, a private investigator, reads about the event in the newspaper but doesn’t know he will be involved until he’s hired to investigate the crime. If the Call to Adventure is delayed in the story, authors must decide how to keep readers engaged until the dynamic event occurs. Sometimes the would-be hero will need a series of calls before s/he reacts.
Here are some events from popular movies that disrupted the day-to-day life of the main character and created the circumstances that pulled him or her into a journey:
- Star Wars: Luke’s life is turned upside down when a droid with a message from Princes Leia arrives on his planet.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Owls bring letters from Hogwarts inviting Harry to enroll. Each of the subsequent films/books in the series introduced the action through a new call to adventure. Each film/book was a journey, and the series was an overarching odyssey of journeys.
- High Noon: A villain arrives at the small town’s train station. Like Notorious, this movie followed a mythic structure long before the format became widely known through the works of Joseph Campbell. The general public became more aware of Joseph Campbell after his interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS in the 1980s. Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler adapted Campbell’s work for authors and scriptwriters in his The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters released in 1992.
- Notorious: The Cary Grant character, T.R. Devlin, asks the Ingrig Bergman character, Alicia Huberman, to infiltrate a spy ring.
- The Matrix: A message on Neo’s computer screen tells him to follow the white rabbitt
- You’ve Got Mail: A mega-book store opens around the corner from Kathleen’s small store forcing her to fight for her business
- The Lion King: Mufasa tells Simba that one day the kingdom will be his.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind: After a UFO burns electrical lineman Roy Neary’s face and vehicle, he receives psychic images of Devil’s Tower. On the conscious level, a man wants to know more about a UFO; on the subconscious level, the story not only affects Roy, but has ramifications for all of human kind.
- The Wizard of Oz: Toto runs away after being grabbed by Miss Gulch. The musical numbers an animated scenes in this movie often obscure the fact that it’s a journey film. Like Mary Poppins, this film shows that journey films and books need not be overtly dark, deep and inaccessible, and often attract wide audiences who are looking for “pure entertainment.”
- Field of Dreams: Ray hears a voice say “If you build it, he will come.” Like many journey films, this one is a very personal story about a man and his father. Yet, the results of Ray’s baseball field impact a lot of other people as well.
- The Hunger Games: Katniss Everdeen’s destiny is changed when her sister is randomly selected as a Hunger Games contestant. The resonance of this film with large audiences shows, I think, the inherent power of a mythic story even though most of those in the theater are viewing the story quite simply as an adventure.
The Call to Adventure may look random, but in a mythic sense–as Joseph Campbell saw it–the call was, in fact, the hero’s destiny. While that destiny may be personal, if often has ramifications for the protagonist’s family, town or nation.
Great myths–those many of us grew up hearing in school–tended to be about gods, national heroes and the destinies of peoples and nations. Fairytales, on the other hand, made similar things more personal and practical for everyday people. Both myths and fairytales have a lot to teach us about the human condition and its great themes as well as about how page-turning stories should be told.
Stories demand a certain amount of plausibility, so most protagonists–no matter how complacent they may seems–are more or less ready for the adventure. They live under dysfunctional, dissatisfying, static or dangerous conditions. The Call to Adventure is the spark that ignites the waiting combustible material. As authors, we start our stories by upsetting the status quo: that is what the Call to Adventure does in fiction.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Garden of Heaven Trilogy, a series of contemporary fantasy novels with many hero’s journey themes. They include “The Seeker,” “The Sailor” and “The Betrayed.” All three novels are available on Kindle, Nook, OmniLit, Smashwords and iTunes.