December 3, 2010

the hero's journey - ordinary world

Well, because I want to, I’m going to continue my discussion on the Hero’s Journey. I’ve got it mapped out to where I’ll finish the day before Christmas Eve, so most of December will be devoted to the Hero’s Journey. I’ll keep my Wednesday Wisdom going, as well as a contest at the end of the month, so you have that to look forward to!

Yesterday, I posted an introduction to the Hero’s Journey, quickly summarizing each step. Starting today, and running nearly until the end of the month, I’m going to go in detail with each stage – twelve in all – and share what the book says as well as my own opinions on the matter. You’ll notice that this deals a lot more with the writing craft than the archetypes series. As always, feel free to ask questions, and I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my ability.

The opening of any story is detrimental to the success of the book as a whole. The beginning has to hook the reader, set the tone of the story, suggest where it’s headed, and provide a massive amount of information without slowing the pace. Without managing these things, the book is less likely to be read by each individual reader. I have picked up several books, where, on the first page, I had a general feeling of meh, so the book went back to the shelf. Readers have to care what happens to your characters or world right off the bat, and should you fail to give them a reason to care, agents won’t want it, publishers won’t want it, readers won’t want it.

Even before you sit down to write, you have to figure out where your story will begin. What will the audience first experience? What will hook your reader into the story? The title, the first line of dialogue, or the first image? Where in the lives of your characters will the story actually begin?

A carefully selected title can grab the reader’s attention. The title is an important clue to the nature of the story and the writer’s attitude. A good title can become a multi-leveled metaphor for the condition of the hero or his world. Now, I know that most of the time, titles are changed at some point between querying agents and stocking a bookshelf, but a good title can get your foot in the door.

More important than the title, and more important than anything else in the beginning of a story, is the opening image. If used correctly, the opening image evokes a mood within the reader, momentarily syncing with the reader’s curiosity and providing a window into the story that the reader can identify with. The opening can suggest where the story will go, introducing the problems of the Ordinary World and introducing the prospect of change in the Special World. It can suggest the theme of the story, what the main characters will face throughout the story.

Sometimes the beginning of a story is devoted to prologue, what happens before the actual story takes place. I advise against using prologues, but in some situations, they work. For me prologues tend to slow the story, and most of the time, I skip them. Honest. The idea behind a prologue is to share an important tidbit of backstory. When used successfully, prologues don’t slow the story down. In fact, they become a part of the story.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling’s first chapter is dedicated to a day in Vernon Dursley’s life, ten years before Harry’s story even begins. This “prologue” shows the Ordinary World, the normal life that will soon change. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, there is a sort of prologue showing Darth Vader kidnapping Princess Leia, even before the hero, Luke Skywalker, is introduced. In this case, it shows the event that sets the Ordinary World on edge, the event that sets the world off balance.

As I said, I highly advise against prologues. Sometimes they work, but more often than not, they are sluggish and unimportant to the story as a whole. The needs of the story will dictate the best structure. Some stories need prologues, others don’t. It’s all dependent on the story itself.

Now I’ve tossed the idea of the Ordinary World around for a bit, dangling it in front of your face like a cupcake in front of a treadmill. Why is the Ordinary World so important? The opening moments of a story are there to set the tone and create some sort of impression on the reader. Whatever, whenever, or whoever you choose to begin your story with is what the audience will use as a frame of reference for the rest of the book. That’s where the idea of the Ordinary World comes in, Stage One of the Hero’s Journey.

The Ordinary World exists as a baseline for comparison. Many stories take heroes into a Special World. In order to convey its specialness, the writer creates the normal world. The audience first sees the Ordinary World, and they immediately recognize it as what is normal for the characters. That way, when the characters venture forth, the Special World contrasts to what the readers have seen, and so they understand it to be abnormal, off-balance, or extraordinary. The Special World is only special if the reader can see it in contrast to the mundane world. The Ordinary World is the context, home base, and background of the hero.

It’s a good idea to make the Ordinary World as different as possible from the Special World, so that both the reader and the hero of the story experience a dramatic change when the hero first crosses the threshold. Compared to the Special World, the Ordinary World may seem boring and calm, but the challenges and problems that catapult the hero into action, exist in the Ordinary World.

Introducing the Ordinary World is the first stage of the Hero’s Journey. It is the backdrop for the rest of the story and offers a mundane setting that contrasts against the unusualness of the Special World.

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