February 27, 2012

back to basics: hero's journey, stage one

Continuing our discussion of the Hero’s Journey, brings us to the first stage, the Ordinary World. This first stage of the Hero’s Journey is the backdrop for the rest of the story and offers a mundane setting that contrasts against the unusualness of the Special World.

The opening of any story—whether it be a short, novel, film, or play—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 the story headed, and provide a massive amount of information without slowing the pace. Without managing these things, the book is less likely to reach a large number of readers. 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 (or removed from my Nook, in the case of samples). 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.

If used correctly, the opening 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. We might see a hint of villainy, and some semblance of a theme will probably be present.

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. Once Harry’s story starts, we see another Ordinary World—Harry’s world. He’s taken advantage of, mistreated, and altogether unwanted and unimportant in the Dursley household. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, we see Luke tending to his aunt and uncle’s farm, living an ordinary life, even though it’s set in a different time and galaxy. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the Ordinary World is represented by Bilbo’s birthday party. In Stardust (film version, never read the book), Tristan's Ordinary World is shown in his sad attempts to gain Victoria's love. In my own book, The Clockwork Giant, Petra’s Ordinary World is her job at the pawn shop, her friendship with Tolly, and her desire to leave that life and become something more than an orphaned shop girl. If you notice, the representation of the Ordinary World doesn't always come at the ultimate beginning of the story. Sometimes, it is after the prologue or first scene from a different perspective than the main character.

So, why is the Ordinary World so important? This part of the book, the opening moment of the story, sets the tone for the story to come. 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.

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 is much different than what the readers have already 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.

If you plan on using the Hero’s Journey as a framework for your story, you must introduce the Ordinary World near the beginning of the story. As I've said before, some stories require prologues, or scenes before the story actually begins, and the Ordinary World can exist in these opening scenes, but the important thing you must remember is that the Ordinary World is representative of the main character’s normal life. If you have a multi-perspective story, then the Ordinary World will represent a much larger scope of the world as all the characters see it.

And while I suggest making the divide between the Ordinary World and the Special World as contrasting as possible, it isn’t wholly necessary. The change can be very subtle. But we’ll discuss that further in the next post.

If you have any questions about the Hero’s Journey, don’t hesitate to ask. I know a lot more about it than I’ve said here, and I would be happy to clear anything up, if you need me to. This is a rather general overview, since I don’t want you guys to have to read insanely long posts, but if you would like a more in depth analysis as it pertains to writing, check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. If you are just interested in the Hero’s Journey in itself, check out A Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

As always, happy writing!


  1. I love the Hero's Journey as framework! It certainly influenced my current MS. Although my Ordinary World is deceptive. In a way, my MC crosses the border from the Special World back into the Ordinary World at the start of this story, isntead of the other way around. But then again, the ordinary is pretty special too...

    And I like to make things complicated for myself :P

  2. I'm interested in the Hero's Journey as a writing/structuring tool. I read A Hero With A Thousand Faces for a college class and remember that it made sense to me. It really helped me to understand a hero's journey and why a certain structure works so well.

    On the other hand, using it as a structuring tool can feel a little prescriptive and formulaic (but I don't want to go down the "every story is the same plot simply dressed in something fancy and new!", because I don't think that's really true, either). I guess I'm curious to see if others have that problem/how they handle it.

    1. the great thing about the Hero's Journey and any other structure is that it doesn't have to be formulaic. In his book, Vogler encourages writers to change the Journey as it suits the story--omitting stages, adding stages, or altering the order of the stages. Personally, I think it's a good starting point for people who have problems with structure. But I think you'll find that a lot of stories follow the Hero's Journey in some way, even if that was not the intention. It's just the natural way of telling stories, but it's certainly not perfect, nor is it the only way.

  3. Nice introduction!

    Looking at it from that perspective, two of my works fit at least the initial mold. Of the two, Accidental Sorcerers spends very little time in the Ordinary World of cannon fire and snowdrifts, long enough for the MC to awaken an ice dragon. The other, White Pickups, starts in a very familiar world of commuting and offices and subdivisions… and then, everything changes.