Your phone rings. You check the screen. You don’t recognize the number. Do you answer it?
The cars in front of you on the highway slow down, their brake lights glowing. The traffic is gridlocked up ahead, but there’s an exit just before. Do you take it?
Life is full of decisions, apparently simple choices that could take you in a whole different direction. Fiction, as a reflection of life, is the same. In the hero’s journey – a template for stories found all over the world – there is what Joseph Campbell called the refusal of the call. This is the moment, early in the story, when the hero knows he has to do something to change his ordinary life, but doesn’t yet feel able to take that step. He refuses, and those around him try to convince him that he has to take that journey. Eventually, of course, he will because otherwise there would be no story.
In The Sound of Music, Maria doesn’t want to leave the convent, but Mother Abbess sends her to the von Trapp house anyway, believing it would be a more appropriate environment for Maria. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is different, she wants to leave, and Professor Marvel, the charlatan fortune teller, has to convince her to go back home.
These are big moments of decision in a story, when the main character has to decide whether or not to go on that journey, to cross the ‘first threshold’ into the second act. But the hero makes many more decisions throughout the journey, as do most other characters, and each one of those choices could have a profound effect on the course of the narrative.
In psychology, this moment of decision is called a choice point. Therapists can try to make their patients aware of these moments to recognize the impact of certain choices. The technique can be used for anything from addiction to stress reduction. In anger management, for example, a subject could be aware of the moment where they could choose between flying off the handle or reacting differently, in a way that would ultimately have a better outcome on their life, in a way that they, perhaps later, would have preferred to have reacted. The idea is to encourage flexibility in their response to certain triggers.
The technique is also useful in stories. [Read more…]