The Hero’s Journey is the cornerstone of any great story, movie, video game, myth, or legend. It’s woven into our DNA at an ancestral level. According to Joseph Campbell, author of the Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Hero’s Journey is a story mechanic of the protagonist’s journey. This campaign weaves through four acts for each journey. Below, the first act is examined in detail.
Act I is the beginning of the tale. Here’s where the audience meets the protagonist and the inherent world. As shown above, Act I consists of three parts: the Ordinary World, the Call, and the Refusal. Many stories succeed or fail based on this first Act. This is the author’s chance to grip readers and reel them in.
The Ordinary World
The Ordinary World is anything but ordinary to the audience, but it should be for the protagonist. Even if it’s realistic fiction, the author’s universe has—or could have—some unique quirks that set it apart from real life. Here’s where the world’s laws, any magical systems, creature bestiaries, political intrigue, and other vital worldbuilding elements appear.
The audience meets the protagonist and learns about their character hubris, fears, weaknesses, strengths, hobbies, and quirks. This helps the audience bond and relate to the hero.
The genre of the story should be obvious. But it helps to bring that promise to life in Act I. It’s one thing to tell a reader that a book or film is an action fantasy story. To show it in the first scene sends a stronger message. This reinforces any promises made to the audience on the cover and reels them in.
The Call to Adventure
The Call is a disruption in the Ordinary World. It shakes the hero from their routine and offers adventure—a chance at growth, treasure, and other rewards. The Call can be subtle like the theft of a precious item, the loss of a job, or something brutal like a massacre in town. The hero can pursue the source of the conflict and resolve the issue, or ignore it, Whether the protagonist refuses or follows the Call is up to character personality and the author’s scheme.
Accepting the Call
If the Call is accepted, the adventure begins. Act II commences with the introduction of the Mentor. Some readers find Accepting the Call too easy or boring. Most protagonists balk at the Call and hesitate out of fear—and for good reason. Others recklessly Accept, then later regret it. If the Call isn’t strong enough to propel the protagonist, then Refusal ensues.
Refusing the Call
If Refusing the Call, the hero is hesitant to leave the safety of the Ordinary World. They see the risks involved and walk away. The Mentor then appears and coaxes the hero on the quest. There are changes that occur to the Ordinary World after the Call. These changes, like the destruction of one’s home or family, further convince the protagonist to embark on the adventure.
Transitioning to Act II
The Ordinary World has changed forever. The hero has difficulty accepting it and the new responsibilities thrusted upon them. It’s the Mentor’s job to guide the hero through the initial stages of uncertainty as the story shifts to Act II. By the end of Act I, the audience should have a grasp on:
- Who the hero is: strengths, flaws, fears, quirks, hobbies, dreams
- What the conflicting force Calling the hero is
- The challenges, stakes, and rewards involved
- What makes the hero’s world unique: worldbuilding, lore, magic, economy, political system
- Other promises to deepen the plot
Mastering Act I is crucial in storytelling. Most readers will either commit or put the book down by the end of this Act. This is why the beginning of a story—especially the first scene—is rewritten more than any other part. It introduces the audience to the story, characters, and worldbuilding on an intimate level, offering promises that lure readers in. Without a good Act I, the framework for a story is questionable at best.