The Call to Action (or Adventure, if you’re Joseph Campbell) refers to the exact moment when the character first learns everything they know of their world is about to change. The Call to Action is not, therefore, the moment a character learns of their specific quest and the obstacles to its achievement. It’s a journey, an exposition: the Call may involve initiation into a new world, or the emergence of a new threat in an old one.
The Call is a key, inciting incident (as it is also known) in both genre and literary fiction. For Clay Jensen, it’s the package on his doorstep; for Rose Hathaway, it’s being yanked back to the vamp world she thought she’d left behind. Either way, the Call is life changing. Regardless of whether they (initially) take the offer up or not, the character will never be the same after the Call is made.
The Call comes early: Tracy Marchini argues the Call should be evident within the first chapter. Not all stories adhere to this, and with mixed results. We can explore the effectiveness of an early Call to Action by comparing the recent dystopian efforts THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, and MATCHED by Ally Condie.
THE HUNGER GAMES
- Call to Action: “It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
- When? Last line, first chapter. Textbook.
- Is the Call Refused? No way – Katniss knows at once she’ll be taking her sister’s place.
- Effective? Very. After a (fairly boring) first chapter, we’re in. Katniss’ world is changed, and she’s signed up for slaughter. (Also, the swiftness of the Call makes up for some of the boring.)
- Call to Action: (is there one? I’m not so sure. For argument’s sake, let’s say it is when) Cassia sees Ky’s face flash on her screen – and she begins to question her perfect Society.
- When? MATCHED takes forever to get to anywhere vaguely exciting, let alone this first Call. The bit with Ky’s face comes in at the end of chapter three (when I’m ready to gnaw my own arm off, or at least quit reading).
- Is the Call refused? Big time. For the most part, Cassia wants to believe the Society’s excuses, and that Xander’s her real match. Her doubts creep in somewhere around the fifth and sixth chapters.
- Effective? No.
The extent to which a character is already ingrained within the story’s dominant world will also influence the type and timing of the Call. If a character knows nothing of the world in which their quest will take shape, their Call to Action will also form their introduction to this new world (and require more information, sometimes leading to its delay). If a character is already fully ingrained in this world at the story’s exposition, their Call will come in the form of a new threat or complication to this established way of life.
We’ll illustrate this dichotomy by examining the Calls within two fantasy texts: HARRY POTTER & THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE by JK Rowling, and Sarah Rees Brennan’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON.
THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE
- Initiate or immersed? The Boy Who Lived is pretty much clueless as to the magical world existing around him.
- Call to Action: Built up to by several (hundred) persistent and creepily addressed letters, Harry’s initiation comes via a half-giant knocking down his door.
- When? Hagrid rocks up at the end of the third chapter, and spells it all out (yeah, I did) in the fourth.
- Is the Call refused? There’s a bit of dithering over funds and dubious magical abilities, but overall, Harry’s pretty happy to get the hell out of Dursleyville.
- Effective? Given the amount of backstory to be dealt with, as well as a first chapter that should really be a prologue, I’d say yes. It comes as late (if not later) as in MATCHED, but it’s the plot points dotted through these early chapters of THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE – You-Know-Who’s departure, chats with snakes and especially those letters – that keep readers interested until the Call is made. (But then again, we all know I’m biased.)
THE DEMON’S LEXICON
- Initiate or immersed? Nick’s old hat – been there, stabbed that.
- Call to Action: Mae and her demonically doomed brother, Jamie, arrive at Nick and Alan’s place to request some magical assistance.
- When? At the second chapter’s end.
- Is the Call refused? Nick can’t tell Mae and Jamie to get lost fast enough. Definite yes.
- Can be confused with: the First Plot Point – which, here, is not the revelation of Jamie’s demon marking but Alan’s. The FPP introduces the character to their quest, often through the removal of choice (a key factor in the Call to Action, below). The character becomes aware of the goal they must achieve, and at least some of the difficulties that stand in their way. For Nick, it’s when his brother – the one person he can’t stand to lose – is threatened, and Nick knows he’ll do anything to keep Alan safe.
- Effective: yes, though less impactive.
Another thing to consider is the relation between the Call and choice. As noted above, the character has the ability to choose between accepting the Call and refusing it. Refusal can indicate anything from selfishness or immaturity to denial or self-preservation. Often, the First Plot Point will remove this choice from the equation, by making the odds life threatening instead of life changing (as with Nick, Alan, Jamie and Mae). The Call to Action represents not obligation but opportunity – for both character and reader.