One of my favorite moments in movies and television is when the hero of your story accepts "the call." We see them step into a new world, even if it looks a lot like ours, and try to combat everything coming at them. It's that moment of exhilaration. The moment you know you cannot predict what's coming next, but you ease back in your chair, ready for it to entertain you.
But so many movies and TV shows I've seen shy away from truly embracing these moments. Maybe they forget they're supposed to entertain, or maybe they just don't have a character clearly defined enough to carry this moment. Whatever the case may be, your screenplay lives and dies by the "call to adventure" moment.
So today, we're going to go over it, define it, and make sure you're crushing those pages as the story turns.
Let's get started.
What Is the Call to Adventure in Storytelling? (Definition and Examples)
I love writing this screenwriting blog here because I get to talk about movies and TV shows that I adore, day in and out.
Like many of my other posts, this includes terms and ideas that are not rules. You can make a case that lots of different movies and TV shows don't have a call to adventure. But we are going to focus on the ones who need that moment to succeed in their stories.
The Hero's Journey
If you've hung around enough writing chat rooms, aisles inside Barnes & Noble, or on Twitter, you know that at some point during the day, someone is going to talk about the hero's journey. (That someone is Joseph Campbell. Just kidding.)
It's become this ubiquitous guide that people use to talk about what needs to happen to make their character arc in the story.
One of the key steps on this journey is "The Call to Adventure."
Joseph Campbell's Hero's JourneyCredit: The Writer's Journey
Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, says, “The Hero’s Journey is a skeleton framework that should be fleshed out with the details of and surprises of the individual story. The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed too precisely. The order of the stages is only one of many possible variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power.”
The Call to Adventure Definition
The call to adventure is a moment during the hero's journey where the protagonist is faced with a dilemma, one which they choose to confront, which sets them off on the adventure at the center of the story.
Now, the hero can take the challenge, or they can refuse the adventure because of fears or other factors, but to have a story, they usually wind up on the adventure one way or another. We'll look at that in the examples section.
Why We Need a Call to Adventure
The call to adventure is the first step out the door. Without it, there would be no story.
Do you remember those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books? There was always an option not to go in the scary room or not to sneak out after dark. Then the adventure would never happen. I used to have one that was Jurassic Park-themed. I remember one of the options was not to take the tour. So all you do is eat ice cream and then take the boat back to the mainland. It was lame.
You need the call to adventure because the best storytelling is about people in trouble, people in way over their heads, and people who have to move forward to resolve their problems.
The Call to Adventure Examples in Movies
To extrapolate the term, I want to look at a few examples in different genres. First, let's start with an almost literal call to adventure.
When Gandalf shows up to the Shire with a bunch of Dwarves needing a burglar, he visits Bilbo Baggins to convince him to come with them. Bilbo initially rejects the call to adventure but realizes that his life is small, and there might be a bigger world out there to enjoy.
So he finds himself off with the Dwarves, on an actual adventure, after heeding the call.
While that moment may be obvious in some similar adventure movies, let's look at another genre.
No one would call Manchester by the Sea an adventure, yet the movie actually builds around the call. When Lee's brother passes away, he has to choose whether or not he wants to take custody of his nephew. This call actually becomes the central plot of the movie. As Lee deals with his past transgressions, we see society demanding he take this call, over and over.
This subverts audience expectations. We are used to the movie about an uncle trying to be a dad, not one actively rejecting the call over and over, but it was a smart way to tell this story and play on what we know about the hero's journey.
Lastly, I wanted to look at a movie like Jumanji, where the heroes are accidentally called together. This is an example where they are forced to complete the call after being sucked into the game. They have no choice but to move into the conflicts, even though they probably never would have chosen to have to deal with this stuff moving forward.
The Call to Adventure Examples in Television
A lot of times, the call to adventure in television happens in TV pilots. It's the reason characters have a show we follow. I wanted to touch on these briefly, to show you how the concept works in TV.
Think about Breaking Bad, where the call is to make meth to pay for cancer treatments. Once Walt answers that call, we follow what happens for the rest of the series as he grows into a local drug kingpin.
In The Sopranos, it's Tony going to get therapy after he begins to experience panic attacks. Without that call to therapy, we don't get much of a unique show.
In a show like Cheers, Diane answers the call and stays to work at the bar after being dumped. While she is part of an ensemble, the show shifts into being how the bar changes with her presence there.
You don't have to have a call in a TV pilot. We see shows like The Office and even Law and Order take place in worlds where we join them in their daily routines. But many genre TV shows have these calls.
Do you have any examples you love? Let us know what you think about all this in the comments.
What's next? Get our free screenwriting eBook!
So much of what we're talking about on No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is summarized in our new eBook. It also helps guide you through a 10-week writing plan that will get your script actually finished.