Writing Tips – The Coming Crisis

WritingHintsPhotoThis is part five of a series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
  2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered
  3. Provide a goal for the protagonist
  4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
  5. Set the physical scene with only essential details
  6. Begin building a bridge to the back story
  7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
  8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure

To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See first post), and we are now on #7.

7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming: The hero’s journey cannot begin unless he or she leaves the ordinary world. Usually a crisis takes place that creates a goal that will serve as motivation for the hero to complete the journey. Since the hero’s ordinary world can be boring, both to the hero and the reader, the author needs to foreshadow that something is coming (a crisis) to change everything.

Some writing teachers call this crisis the inciting incident, an event that alters the hero’s normal existence. Readers love to see these. They are exciting and intriguing, so it’s helpful to provide clues that such an event is on the horizon so the reader will anticipate it while the author guides the reader through the character-building necessities of the ordinary world.

A Promise of Action: In the Reapers excerpt I provided, I ended with “I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die.” This tells the reader a simple fact: the hero is going to do something important very soon, so the reader expects this action and looks forward to it. Experienced readers realize that this early goal will likely alter the hero’s present course.

Potential Dangers Along the Way: As the hero prepares to try to achieve the early goal (one that is within his ordinary world), it helps to portray the dangers that the hero might face. This builds tension that something dangerous, indeed, will happen. Notice three potential dangers mentioned in this excerpt from Reapers.

“Right. Your first cycle.” I glanced along the trash-cluttered alleyway below. Still no messenger. With bandits abundant lately, a messenger likely wouldn’t venture out until the last minute. “How many souls do you have?”

“Not enough.” She leaned into the light, revealing the whites of her eyes, a stark contrast against her skin’s lovely dark tone, a hue resembling coffee with a shot of cream, quite different from my cream-only complexion, though her hair color matched mine—darker brown than her skin. “If I meet quota by morning,” she said, “will you take me with you?”

“If you knew what the Gateway extraction feels like, you wouldn’t be so anxious to go.”

“A Reaper has to learn sometime, and I’d rather go with someone who knows the ropes.”

“Fair enough.” I wrinkled my brow. “Are you going to the executions to make quota? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is?”

“You go reap Molly. I can handle a little danger.”

The three dangers are bandits, a foreboding extraction, and the happenings at executions. Tension mounts as readers wonder if the hero will face these dangers as he goes to “figure out who was about to die.”

New Questions: Ordinary world actions should raise new questions paragraph after paragraph, and the hero can contemplate them with regard to how the answers might affect his ability to meet his first challenge.

Real Dangers Activate: The hero sees a threat of real danger, not just a potential one. He might not have to confront it yet, but it is clear that it is near and could soon be upon him.

Notice the new questions and active danger as Reapers continues:

She thrust herself off the rail and dropped, plunging through the brighter light. With her shimmering black cloak fanned out, she looked like a glowing raven sailing toward the pavement, though sepia curls lifting above her head spoiled the image.

She landed, bending her knees to absorb the impact, and ran toward the alley opening. The ghost at the corner stood nearby, but Sing paid no attention as she breezed past and slinked into the shadows—a sable cat, stealthy and sleek.

I leaned out again. Why didn’t she try to collect the ghost? As a rookie, maybe she thought she wasn’t experienced enough to handle such a difficult reaping.

A motorcycle rumbled to life in the direction Sing had run, and the sound slowly drifted away. That could mean trouble—a Death Enforcement Officer had probably spotted Sing and was now tailing her. These DEOs couldn’t stand to let a death go by without harassing a Reaper and tracking every soul’s progress through the Gateway.

I didn’t have time to worry about Sing. She would have to handle her own troubles.

The new question: Phoenix (the hero) wonders about his new acquaintance, Sing. What is she all about? Why didn’t she act in an expected manner? When the hero contemplates these questions, the reader will do so as well, and the mystery will add to the feeling that something big is about to occur.

The real danger: The motorcycle following Sing is a real threat, not just a worry. Such a danger is a promise to the reader that someone will soon be in trouble.

In summary, a hero’s ordinary world might be boring, so you need to spice it up with foreshadowing that something big is about to occur. You do this by adding A Promise of Action, Potential Dangers, New Questions, and Real Dangers. These elements will keep readers turning the pages.

Next Monday I will cover #8 in the list above – Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.


This is #5 in a series of posts about the protagonist’s ordinary world. Here are all of the posts in the series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


Categories: Writing Tips

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12 replies

  1. In some cases this might be the toughest step to accomplish. The protagonist in a story I’m working on has absolutely no connection to the weird world that’s lurking beneath everyone’s notice (purely intentional), so it’s very tough to establish a coming crisis. The first few scenes establish a personal problem – she’s a bit socially awkward around non-friends and family, so she’s talked into attending a high school pep rally to socialize and stumbles upon the crisis there. (Her personal arc matters in that she learns to become a leader and protector over others, even those she had only recently met)

    On at least three occasions, I actually wrote a first scene from the villains’ point of view and used that to goose interest for what’s to come, but those were all sequels, after the universe has already been established. It’s probably not a great tool for the first story where you’re just getting introduced to things, so I intend to avoid that.

  2. I remember an author saying that writing Dreadful Promises, as he put them, would put your readers in suspense that something is lurking around the corner, but we aren’t there yet. Thus the suspense. 🙂

    Thanks for the tip concerning keeping the hero in his/her ordinary world, but, arising questions that point out that something’s about to happen, keeps the reader curious to read on. I hadn’t thought about that.

  3. So I struggle with introducing the MC to new characters. Often times the characters are meeting under extreme or odd circumstances where it is kind of hard to strike up conversation and get the characters to know one another. Any ideas?

  4. Yeah but my characters are always flinging themselves into each others lives during the conflicts

  5. Yeah. I try. Thank you



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