Refusing the Call, or Devices of Potentially Limited Use
I don’t believe in observing all the "rules" of storytelling all the time, but when I become aware I’m breaking one, or decide to break one, I do like to acknowledge it and think over why I’m making the choice and whether there’s a trade-off and if it’s the right choice/trade-off for the story. I want to throw out something I’m thinking about, but not have the discussion really be about rules and conventions, per se; I want to talk about this specific one.
One of my very least favorite things in a quest narrative (or, if you want to be all prissy and Campbellian about it A Hero’s Journey) or any sort of story where the protag has to take up a torch of some kind is the initial "refusal of the call." So often, it strikes me as story water-treading. I, as a reader and audience member, know the call will be accepted. If the call’s not accepted, then there’s no story. The reasoning for the refusal often becomes perfunctory for just this very reason.
Romantic comedies are the worst offenders, or one of the worst anyway, in that the resistance is sometimes silly and sustained for wayyyyy too long. But that’s not really a quest narrative in the way I’m talking about it here, unless you view the romance as the quest, which would really make it an incredibly lame quest. I think of quest, I think Big Stakes and Personal Stakes, not just one or the other. I’m pretty sure you’ll instantly know the kind of story I’m talking about.
I’ll say again. I hate that refusal to the call business, at least when it’s given more than an inch of space. I’m thinking about this because Aztec Dance Tunes is a quest story. I don’t want to get too far into the details, because I’m not ready to talk about them yet, but for the sake of clarity there is a girl and she is given a huge, impossible task with huge, impossible stakes if she screws it up. And I think she can skip this step, the refusing the call step.
Because I think a character can be reasonably expected to know when something like this falls on top of them that there’s no easy way to get out from under it. I think it’s believable emotionally for a character to think, "Yeah, got hit by that. Even I know I have to do this now." And there can still be all the rational fear and doubt and why me? of it, but the story doesn’t stop for this step. I might also say that this particular character has been around some pretty weird things and is a reader (in other words, she knows how stories go) and whip-smart.
Why I bring this up is that you are a pretty savvy lot of readers and I want to see: Do you feel like you do need this step to buy into a character taking on a quest in a narrative like this? (And yes, I realize that execution is everything and there are no details here; it’s not something I’ll hold you to!) Or are you impatient with this dithering step too? Discuss.
p.s. I promise, swear, cross my heart and stick pins and needles in something nearby, that I’ll catch up on email before I leave for BEA. Because after that, comes Wiscon, and after that, sleep. So if I don’t answer now, there will be no answering!