Low-stakes story beginnings

HareBrain

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It struck me the other day that The Hobbit is possibly unique among fantasy books (that I'm familiar with, anyway), because Bilbo and his companions go on their adventure purely voluntarily. They are not being forced to because of an invasion of enemy soldiers, or having stumbled upon a conspiracy, or learned of a threat from a demonic dimension. They could just as easily not do it. (True, the dwarves feel they need to because of honour, but if they wanted to, they could argue their way out of it, and nothing's forcing them to do it right now. And this doesn't apply to Bilbo, the main character.)

You could say that in terms of Campbell's "hero's journey", the "call to adventure" is pretty weak. But I like it. Old folk stories and fairy tales often feature a character, often a third son or suchlike, who goes off into the world to "seek his fortune" without any other "call to adventure" at all.

Why do no fantasy stories seem to start that way now? (Or, if people have examples of those that do, let's have them.) Is it because readers need (or are perceived to need) high stakes right from the off?
 

Star-child

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Bilbo is a volunteer, but is that really true of the refugee dwarves?

Both Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fail to match the Campbell model. Frodo is also a volunteer - though he sees the problem and feels a duty, he must recognize that he could have placed the ring on a table in Rivendell and let the more involved races figure it out. The unique qualities you correctly raise may be more endemic to all of Tolkien's tales. They really don't match up with the usual quest stories, mainly because of the square-peg hobbits disruption of traditional roles.
 

tinkerdan

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My favorite oldie is The Three Musketeers since d'Artagnan is not pressed into adventure except by his own inner conflict or drive.
You might say that the Hobbits were likely pushed by some inner drive.
 

thaddeus6th

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It's certainly uncommon.

Hmm.

Now I'm wondering if the next comedy I write should be 100% frivolous, without any mission except larking about...
 

HareBrain

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Bilbo is a volunteer, but is that really true of the refugee dwarves?
I think so -- there's no sudden external factor that persuades them on their quest at that particular time (except, possibly, Gandalf). It's this external factor that's present in every other fantasy I can think of (not so much a call to adventure as a shove).

Both Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fail to match the Campbell model.
I think The Hobbit matches it fairly well, with a bit of bending, except perhaps for the "threshold guardians" element. You're possibly right about LOTR.

BTW in reminding myself about the hero's journey, Google came up with this little gem:

journey google.jpg
 

Brian G Turner

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Did Bilbo really volunteer in The Hobbit? The impression I got is that he was coerced, threatened, and made to feel obligated to go.

In the LOTR, Bilbo feels compelled because of the growing weight of the ring, and Frodo feels obligated by familial bond to help. Samwise, Merry, and Pippin, however, are another matter. :)
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I wouldn't say that Bilbo felt coerced, threatened, or obligated to go with the dwarves. But he was offered an opportunity that he was not at all interested in taking up, and then suddenly was, on impulse, perhaps realizing that if he didn't go he would miss the chance of a lifetime. He had what we would now call a bit of a midlife crisis.

*****

In the fairy tales where a younger son goes off to seek his fortune, I think it reflects a real aspect of everyday life, at a time when third, fourth (etc.) sons inherited nothing, or just about nothing, from their parents, and such stories are a kind of object lesson: go out and make something of yourself, and don't be a lazy lout living off your more fortunate siblings. These days, people are expected to be prepared for life, trained, educated, or at least expected to go out and get a job of some sort as soon as they are adults, as a matter of course. Everyone but the very rich is already seeking their fortune (and the rich are seeking to expand their fortunes). So, for instance, in Urban Fantasy the main character is simply doing a job (remarkably often that job is detecting) and all the amazing things they encounter and interact with are simply woven into everyday life in the reality they inhabit. Nothing sweeps them away. They are already there among the creatures and situations which earlier heroes and heroines had to leave home and go on a quest before they encountered them.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I think that setting a small scene can give small stakes that then build. I’m thinking of something like Inish Carraig where it started with surviving that night and only later became about big stakes. There’s something very personal and honest about not having to save the world in the first scene
 

The Big Peat

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It struck me the other day that The Hobbit is possibly unique among fantasy books (that I'm familiar with, anyway), because Bilbo and his companions go on their adventure purely voluntarily. They are not being forced to because of an invasion of enemy soldiers, or having stumbled upon a conspiracy, or learned of a threat from a demonic dimension. They could just as easily not do it. (True, the dwarves feel they need to because of honour, but if they wanted to, they could argue their way out of it, and nothing's forcing them to do it right now. And this doesn't apply to Bilbo, the main character.)

You could say that in terms of Campbell's "hero's journey", the "call to adventure" is pretty weak. But I like it. Old folk stories and fairy tales often feature a character, often a third son or suchlike, who goes off into the world to "seek his fortune" without any other "call to adventure" at all.

Why do no fantasy stories seem to start that way now? (Or, if people have examples of those that do, let's have them.) Is it because readers need (or are perceived to need) high stakes right from the off?
This will be a rather rambling answer. And possibly rather incorrect.

A lot of older fantasies seem to have that "Because we can" approach to the Call to Adventure - or at least the ones whose reputations have survived - The Worm Ouroboros starts in a spirit of adventure, obviously Conan was Conan, etc.etc.

But when you get to the late 70s/80s - when you get Brooks and Eddings and a generation of writers writing Epic Fantasy in the framework of LotR - because LotR was the hit publishers wanted to repeat - I think that's maybe when you start to see the change. LotR does have a certain "We have to go because they know we're here to save Frodo" moment. Both Brooks and Eddings (and Jordan later) used the Ringwraiths in the Shire moment as their instigating moment rather than having a gentle build up; I suspect it was to create more immediacy as much as anything. It's not a "We must save the world" moment, obvs, but it is "We must save ourselves". There are series from around that time when the MCs don't have to go along with the plot - most of GGK's early works - but because people are emulating LotR, that's the way it goes.

And of course guys like Brooks and Eddings and Jordan sold huge amounts, so I'm guessing authors and publishers decided to keep going with that model. Put the "Do or Die" moment early, drag them in.

And while the nature of the "Do or Die" moment has grown less dramatic imo, it still remains strong. It is still the dominant force. And I think the next biggest model, the Inexorable Command - Ned Stark can't disobey Robert, Harry Potter can't choose not to go Hogwarts, the Detective can't ignore the mystery - is lower stakes as a story beginning, but it still strips away agency. And I think to a certain extent you're conflating "High Stakes" and "Character has to do it". They're not the same. But in this respect, they're both dominant.

Writers who don't do it... Jen Williams doesn't. Her books start with voluntary adventures. I think Julia Knight's Swordsman and Scoundrels thingamejig is kinda voluntary. And I think Marie Brennan's latest book has a scholar choosing to undertake her task (although it's hardly an adventure).

It is rare these days for fantasy MCs to be out there because they want to. And that's an opportunity I think.
 

Culhwch

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Gaiman's Stardust might be a recent example. Tristran voluntary throws himself into the adventure beyond the Wall seeking the fallen star. Not many others come to mind, though...
 

Mouse

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The Hobbit is a children's book. Compare it to other children's books... I dunno, the one I've got closest to me at the mo is Phillip Pullman's "I was a rat". Low stakes. Boy was a rat and is now a boy. No invasions, conspiracies or demons.
 

Dave

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Luke Skywalker
"There is another" :giggle:

I agree that there aren't many examples, and generally those (that I can think of myself) were YA stories. Maybe it is an adult 'thing'? Maybe adults, being very serious and busy, need some compelling reasons and have no time for frivolous exploits.
 

Brian G Turner

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Actually, going back to the question of low-stakes openings, Lee Child's Worth Dying For starts with very low stakes - while in a lonely motel, he overhears a phone call that suggests domestic abuse. He gets involved, aiming to sort it out - everything gradually snowballs from there into something much bigger.
 

Stephen Palmer

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Gandalf, in one of Tolkien's many recently published laundry lists, describes how he felt certain that Bilbo must go on the venture - though he didn't at the time know why. Later, he tells Frodo how Bilbo was "meant to have the Ring," and therefore that Frodo "was meant to have it."
In other words, "supernatural" beings were telling Gandalf what to do.
Old fashioned plotting! :/
 

Brian G Turner

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Re-watching The Empire Strikes Back last night, and the opening stakes were about Luke lost in the cold on Hoth. While still potentially a life-or-death situation, it's nothing compared to the larger themes the rest of the film builds up to.
 
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