I’m 10K words into the writing of my fantasy novel, and I’m at the “refusal of the call” scene; the scene in which the hero is presented with the quest and refuses it. Or, as Blake Snyder calls it in Save The Cat!, it’s the debate beat, where the hero questions if he should set out to seek his goal or not.

Of course, not every story needs this, especially sequels, but I’d argue that most stories do. It helps frame the conflict of the story, and it makes it quite apparent that the character is struggling with something. If the main character just got what he wanted all the time, audiences wouldn’t be very interested in his plight. Because there’d be no plight, and thus no story. In fact, I’d say everything before the debate is the “set-up” and the debate is the true beginning of the story. In some stories, especially in movies, the debate can be very small and subtle; just a glance backwards or a hesitation. But it’s still an important moment, and tells us, the audience, that the character really does not want to have to do this, even if we, the audience, would, and even if we know what he’ll end up choosing. Just think about any movie and you’ll find that there’s almost always at least a small hesitation before the hero takes his journey.

Of course, it’s not like you have to know all this consciously to understand it or find it showing up naturally in your daydreams or stories. I think most writers will do it without thinking about it, just as most musicians use rhythm without thinking about it; it’s just natural.

That said, I don’t think it hurts to be conscious of it either, just as it doesn’t hurt a musician to be conscious of rhythm.

Anyway, for better or worse, the debate scene in my novel is more than just a glance backwards. And it’s not really an action scene; it’s an inward debate. It’s probably the hardest scene to write, equalled in difficulty only by the “dark night of the soul” scene which comes before the climax, and of course the climax itself. These are moments in which the audience knows what’s going to happen, but you still have to make it believable and relatable.

In Star Wars, Luke first refuses the call, to which Obi-Wan replies something like: “You must do what you think is right, of course.” And then Luke goes home to find it destroyed and his aunt and uncle murdered, forcing Luke to have no choice but to accept the call. That seems like a bit of a cheat to me, to force Luke into the journey like that, but I think that sort of thing is much easier to get away with in movies, where pacing and visuals are more important, and an inward debate is much harder to communicate.


Luke · August 10, 2011 at 8:50 AM

True, I think the phenomenon is more widespread than is consciously represented in our idea of story.

I think the Star Wars one is a bit more creative, actually, than the normal, just because so many stories have that “conflicted internal dialogue” style (Hamlet, anyone?!); to have the character say no and then have to do it is almost to up the ante. We don’t know simply that he doubts whether he wants to do it; we know that he doesn’t want to do it.

S P Hannifin · August 10, 2011 at 2:09 PM

I think he still wanted to, he was just too afraid, not mentally ready. Even before he met the droids, he was talking to his aunt and uncle about leaving the farm (if I recall correctly; I haven’t watched it in a long while; I’ll have to rewatch them when they come out on blu-ray). But I think you’re right that it ups the ante a bit, because he actually goes through with his refusal of the call; he doesn’t just sigh and say “ok, fine.” But I feel his character would’ve been stronger if he wasn’t just going on the journey because there was nothing else to do, though I’m not sure how you’d show that in a movie… maybe just give him some reminder of why he wanted to leave the farm before his aunt and uncle died.

I also agree that it’s more creative than in most stories, especially most movies, which just sort of make it apparent that the main character “wants adventure!” or “wants to live a story!” or “wants to live a fairy tale!” or “wants to be somebody!” Boring! I hate that.

S P Hannifin · August 10, 2011 at 2:11 PM

(Well, maybe not most movies, but quite a few of them.)

Luke · August 10, 2011 at 10:52 PM

Fair enough, good sir!

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