Storytelling and the
Call to Adventure
James R. Harris
Our world is a paradox. It contains the most stunning beauty and the most nightmarish tragedies...
...the heights of virtue and the depths of depravity...
...all coexisting together.
How does such a weird, unstable system come into being? Why canâ€™t be people just be either good or bad; why does everything have to be so complicated? If you believe, as I do, that this world and its inhabitants were designed by an intelligent and good Creator... ...then why would anyone set things up this way?
Stories hold a clue.
Good stories don’t just happen, you know. The best stories are designed along a framework, carefully crafted to convey a specific message or explore a particular topic. The most popular and enduring framework is called the Three-Act Structure; it dates back to Aristotle and underlies countless stories around the world and throughout history. The diagram below is a simple illustration of how dramatic tension builds up over the course of a story, peaks at the climax, and then is released during the ending. This buildup and release of tension is called catharsis, and it’s the force that makes stories so engrossing. If you’ve ever found yourself staying up later than you intended because a novel won’t let you put it down, you know how strong the desire for catharsis can be. Climax
Call to Adventure
Stories are fundamentally important to our understanding of each other and the world around us. When a friend asks you “How was your day?”, your first reaction is to tell them a story. Even when you are alone, you are subconsciously writing a story in your head, with yourself as the protagonist, to make sense of all the little things happening around you. Everyone does this; it’s a vital part of how we understand our world. You can see why understanding stories can be advantageous. If you look for them, you’ll find that stories have elements called tropes that repeat from story to story. Once you recognize them, you can learn to see them coming. And familiarity with story tropes gives you a whole new level of appreciation for the stories that are crafted well. The Three-Act Structure is perhaps the biggest of the tropes; it is the skeleton upon which most stories are built. I believe the Three-Act Structure has important things to teach us about the nature of reality and what we can expect from the grand story we find ourselves born into. Let’s take it apart and see what we find.
Stories typically begin by introducing us to the main characters and the world they live in. We learn about the ordinary world and the everyday lives that they will be leaving behind to pursue their adventure. This sounds simple, but itâ€™s difficult to do well. In particular, works of high fantasy often struggle with exposition, as they frequently have large and complex worlds with centuries of backstory to establish, and laying that out in an entertaining way can be tricky.
Star Wars opens by skillfully introducing Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and the droids. The opening crawl establishes the
galactic backdrop, we learn of the Rebel Allianceâ€™s desperate plight, and we see the might of the Empire firsthand.
The Matrix introduces us to Thomas Anderson, alias Neo, who works in a world that bores him at a job that he hates.
Wall-E spends its first 15 minutes familiarizing us with the main character, his job, and his pet roach before we meet the second main character, Eve.
Plot point I:
CALL TO ADVENTURE d
At some point during Act I, something happens to disrupt the protagonistâ€™s everyday life. Also known as Inciting Incident, this moment sets up the central conflict driving the story and propels the protagonist onto the journey ahead of him. Often the protagonist will resist this call, and some great calamity (such as the destruction of his family and/or hometown) will be required before he will leave his old life behind. The Call to Adventure provides the reason for the rest of the story. The protagonistâ€™s life will not return to normal until he has dealt with whatever problem the Call representsâ€”and by the time that happens, he will never be the same.
Call to Adventure
Luke Skywalker receives Princess Leiaâ€™s call for help. Initially he wants to stay with his family, but when his home is destroyed by the Empire, he has no choice but to embark on the Millenium Falcon with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Neo begins to realize that the world around him is not as it seems. The Agents and the Resistance each make bids to capture his allegiance; Neo sides with Morpheus and is pulled out of the Matrix into the real world.
Wall-E falls in love with Eve. When she discovers a plant indicating hope for life on Earth, she travels to the Axiom via rocket, and Wall-E follows.
RISING ACTION d
The protagonist struggles against the antagonistâ€™s forces in a series of escalating conflicts that will earn him the knowledge and skill he will need for the final battle. This is usually where the bulk of the story takes place. These conflicts are meant to provide the protagonist with character development. They change him from who he was in Act I (a person forced out of his home by the Call to Adventure) to who he will be in Act III (a person capable of defeating the antagonist).
Luke and his friends discover that their destination, the planet of
Alderaan, has been annihilated by the Death Star. They struggle to rescue Princess Leia from the Empire and escape.
Neo learns the nature of the Matrix and undergoes training to help
him manipulate it. He learns of the One and meets with the Oracle, but the Agents find them on the way back, and Morpheus sacrifices himself to save Neo.
Wall-E continues to strive for Eveâ€™s attention, while Eve works to get the plant to the Axiomâ€™s captain so the ship can return to Earth. Auto works against them and eventually assumes control of the ship.
Plot point II:
This is the protagonist’s darkest hour. Near the end of Act II, he will suffer a great setback, and it will seem that all is lost. The protagonist must look deep within himself and decide whether going on is worth the sacrifice. After this point the protagonist is committed. This is his last chance to throw in the towel and abandon his cause. But because of the lessons he’s learned and the character growth he’s experienced during Act II, he realizes he can’t do that. The person he’s become must commit to one final effort and face the antagonist in the Climax.
Just as the group is ready to escape, Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a
duel with Darth Vader. As the Millenium Falcon flees the Death Star, Luke grieves for his mentor.
Cipher kills three members of the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew and delivers Morpheus into the hands of the Agents. As the crew is preparing to end Morpheus’ life, Neo says, “I believe that I can save him.”
Severely injured, Wall-E insists that Eve fulfill her directive to care for the plant. Eve realizes that she cares about Wall-E’s safety more than the
fulfillment of her duties, but that victory over Auto will achieve both goals.
The Resolution is defined by the Climax, the highest period of dramatic tension in the story. This is the final battle that determines how the storyâ€™s central conflict will be resolved. Will the protagonists succeed in their struggle, and at what cost? This is the shortest of the three acts. It can be an epic battle against evil, a moment where a character triumphs over his own shortcomings, or the last-minute rally that propels a team to victory. Regardless of the format, this is where the protagonists show how and why they are meant to triumph over the forces opposing them. Climax
Luke and the other pilots of the Rebellion mount a desperate assault on the Death Star. Hitting its weak spot is the only chance for the Rebellion to escape being crushed by the Empire.
Neo proves he is the One by slaughtering a platoon of soldiers,
rescuing Morpheus, winning a duel with Agent Smith, and coming back from the dead.
Eve, Wall-E, and the Axiomâ€™s captain prevail over Auto and his legion of security bots, but Wall-E is nearly killed in the process. Eve repairs Wall-Eâ€™s injuries, but his consciousness is nearly lost.
THE DÉNOUEMENT d
With its primary conflict resolved, the story now needs to ease the tension back down, tie up loose plot threads, and provide the audience with a cathartic, satisfying ending. All the minor conflicts that were reinforcing the main one get resolved... or nearly all of them. If there is room for another story to be told after this one, it may be hinted at just before (or after) the closing credits. The ending will be foremost in the audience’s mind when they leave the theater, so it’s essential to get it right. Skilled storytellers decide what their ending will be before the first line of dialogue is written.
With the Death Star destroyed and the day saved, an award ceremony is held for the victorious heroes.
His full power unlocked, Neo issues an ultimatum to the
Machines over the phone and sets out to create â€œa world where anything is possible.â€?
The power of love brings Wall-E back to his lovable former self. He and Eve help the humans as they begin to rebuild their civilization.
The Three-Act Structure has been a backbone of high-grade storytelling for thousands of years. It transcends cultural boundaries. It is as built into humans as our blood.
But why does it have to be the way it is? What happens if we change or remove one of these components?
...the hero fails the Crisis?
If the hero hits the Crisis and baulks, the storyâ€™s ending will be unsatisfying. If the Protagonist chickens out at the moment of greatest need, then he becomes unworthy of his title, and all the storytelling up to this point has been a frustrating waste of time. Either someone else will have to take up the mantle, or the cause will be lost and the forces of darkness will prevail.
...there is no Call to Adventure?
Without the Call to Adventure, conflict never enters the story.
There is nothing for the story to be about. Without an antagonist or a central driving conflict, the story simply ceases to exist.
The passengers from Wall-E are a perfect example of this. They live their entire lives safely in the care of the shipâ€™s computers. Theirs is a life entirely free of conflict adventure purpose or meaning.
Would you want to live
a life without conflict?
Are you sure?
This is the basic formula for a good story. The world is imperiled, and a hero arises to save the day. If the world were not dangerous, it would be unable to produce heroes.
Our world is riven by conflicts of every kind. But conflict is storytellingâ€™s essential ingredient. Every conflict, every tragedy, every problem is a story waiting to begin.
And our world has so much conflict.
The world is full of problems that need solving.
The one I’ve decided to take on is human trafficking. Human trafficking is the world’s largest criminal industry after drugs. It’s the process of acquiring workers, usually for prostitution or forced labor,
through coercion or deception. The usual tactic is
to find someone in a horrible situation and promise them a better job in America or another foreign
country. When they get to the job site, they find out the job is actually prostitution or sweatshop labor, and that they’re not allowed to leave.
A variety of techniques are used to retain workers. One is bonded labor, where the employer charges the victim a high price for their documents and
transportation and then issues them a high-interest loan to cover that charge. The employee’s work is then valued at such a low rate that they cannot
stay ahead of the interest, keeping them under the
control of the employer indefinitely. If that doesn’t
work, beatings or threats against the victim’s family usually ensure compliance. Subjects are dissuaded
from contacting law enforcement by forcing them to commit crimes themselves.
I think this is the biggest evil in our world today,
and I’m going to try to stop it using graphic design.
See, human trafficking is ridiculously profitable. It’s the world’s fastest-growing criminal industry. The
only way to stop it is to make it unprofitable. That means finding and rescuing victims, making them
harder to acquire, and toughening law enforcement against the traffickers. All of these become much easier with an informed public, which means we need mass media outreach, and if that outreach
is to be respectable it needs to be designed well.
That’s why I obtained my degree in graphic design.
My name is James Robert Harris.
I believe that the stories we tell reflect the reality we live in. The themes of those storiesâ€”adventure, romance, discovery, and most importantly the eternal war between good and evilâ€” are threads of the grand story God is telling through us. I, for one, am determined not to be a background character.
The world is a story with a cast of billions a length measured in millennia and an unlimited special effects budget.
If Iâ€™m going to make a difference, Iâ€™m going to need allies. Join me.
Photo credits Earth photography © NASA Star Wars © Lucasfilm The Matrix © Warner Bros. Wall-E © Disney + Pixar “Self-portrait, walking away” © Stuart Heath http://flickr.com/people/misteraitch/ used under a Creative Commons license On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness © Penny Arcade “Human Trafficking Show” © SabrinaDan http://flickr.com/people/yermom/ used under a Creative Commons license
If you enjoyed this foray into storytelling analysis, there is much more at
© James Harris, 2013. All Rights Reserved.