The call to action

UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone, for the sake of a good story (J.F. Flagg's 1917 poster).
UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone (J.F. Flagg’s 1917 poster).

THERE’S a nifty three-act dramatic structure, generally used by screenwriters (but drawn from the older five-act dramatic arc), which gets a plot moving a bit faster than a novel and contains a great plotting tool – the Call to Action.

One of the reasons we go to the movies, or distract ourselves by reading, is because we want to step outside our lives, temporarily, for entertainment.

It might sound incredibly obvious, but this distraction requires writers to create work so deliciously escapist that the reader/viewer is taken beyond the sphere of their own lives for a short time.

Writers don’t have to create an alternate universe (although some do, to great effect), we just need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Even getting them a centimetre off the ground can be enough.

To achieve this disbelief, writers need to have their main character – the protagonist – step outside their world. The protagonist’s ‘call to action’ is the trigger for this step.

Situated at the heart of a plot’s exposition, the protagonist is going about the business of what seems like an average day, when something happens (an old friend calls with some unusual news; a car crashes into their front room; a stranger turns up at their door … it can be anything).

Those of us who live the average Western life, where most of our needs are taken care of, do not get wake-up calls like this, but we love to imagine what we would do if we did.

It’s this attractive energy that publishers, agents and eventually audiences crave, and it’s even become a marketing tool. It’s why we buy the book, or the movie ticket.

Now, I hear a bunch of literary fiction writers screaming: “Nooo, it’s all about the Art!”. Well, as a fan of literary fiction myself, I say let ’em scream: literary fiction writers need a call to action for their protagonist every bit as much as Agatha Christie did.

Would Nick Guest, the protagonist in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, have gone on such a compelling emotional journey had he simply moved out of the Fedden family’s house the minute their daughter Cat started cutting herself? (he wanted to).

Would Stevens, the Butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, have decided to take a car trip to visit Miss Kenton, the former Housemaid, had his new boss Mr Farraday not ordered him to take some time off ? (he didn’t want to).

Of course they wouldn’t. Had Nick moved out, and Stevens never gone away, both storylines would simply peter out. Neither piece of ‘Art’ would have garnered the critical and financial successes of their Booker Prize wins.

The protagonist’s call to action is linked to a plotting device covered in my posts on the dramatic structures of two films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Sum of Us. This is the compelling question needed in every plot’s exposition, in fact, they are almost one and the same: if you get the protagonist’s call to action right, a compelling question will naturally be posed.

CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the television adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty (Photo: Nick Briggs).

By keeping Nick Guest in the Fedden’s home, exposing him to family secrets, and relying on his character’s already-established empathy, Hollinghurst poses the compelling question of his plot: When will the Feddens and their British upper class friends discover the reason for Nick’s empathy is his homosexuality?

By sending Stevens (who we already know is staid and a little unreliable in his recollections of his employment history) out into the world, Ishiguro poses his: Is Stevens so deluded he actually believes he can revive a stunted love affair that barely even began twenty years before?

Some authors, particularly crime writers, bury their protagonist’s call to action in mystery – a murder in the exposition is a particularly effective trigger for the most common of all plot questions – Whodunnit?

It’s for this reason that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are Christie’s great antagonists – they foil her murderers (read: protagonists) at each and every turn, showing how antagonists are also locked into the plot by the protagonist’s call to action.

WRITE REGARDLESSHead spinning? Just remember that plotting isn’t meant to be a formulaic set of rules. Stretching and manipulating these conventions, in interesting ways, is the real ‘Art’ of writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

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