Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ordinary World-- what I really meant

Best explain that, huh? Because it sort of sounds like I was calling for boring openings in boring places with boring people. No, really, I was suggesting opening with the main character in his/her ordinary world.

If you've read Chris Vogler's book, you're probably familiar with his 12 Heroic Steps. I think this journey tends to be more useful for certain types of books (quest novels, especially) than others, but some of the steps are very helpful in plotting. Here's my take on the first one--

Think about where your character is coming from.... literally. What is the world she lives in when the story opens? Can you show that in the first scene? That's her ordinary world, the one she is going to leave behind in this story.

This doesn't mean a boring scene of the heroine going through an ordinary day. (No scene should be boring-- but you know that. :) It doesn't mean the world of her childhood or her parents' home-- but where she is when your story opens. It means a "before picture" of this world and this character before the events of the plot change everything. But show this in a way that shows something about the character.

And it doesn't have to be a complete scene. In fact, usually the inciting incident happens during this first scene-- the change to the world and the character starts early. Sometimes it's just a paragraph or two, but it serves as an "establishing shot," as the filmmakers call it.

(And yes, this is not true with every type of book and every story. I know that, and you know that. But it is not "a matter of taste," commenters. It's a matter of what's right for this sub-genre and this story-- and most stories really will benefit from a little scene setting. I have seen openings where I don't understand what's going on or who these characters are-- and those stories could have benefited from a few paragraphs showing the main character in his ordinary world. We should discuss prologues! Often those prologues show a "before-before" picture-- some event long before the story opens. I'm not one of those who say you should never use a prologue, but I do believe they're overused lately, and they're not right for a lot of books because they take the focus of the "now" of the story and put it on the "back then".)

You can do a lot with this first scene. It can establish the current situation and set up the need for change. It should be intriguing, drawing the reader in and giving her reason to keep reading. It should give a hint of the coming conflicts, and maybe a starting point for the theme. It should introduce the main character and the setting in a way that both explains and entices-- that
is, you want to give just enough information that the reader is intrigued but not confused.

But too often, first scenes are either jammed full of so many details the reader gives up.... or generic, like a dozen other opening scenes she's read.

That's probably a good reason to write the first scene to get it over with, write the rest of the book, and then go back and rewrite that first scene. :) We're probably unlikely to get it right before we completely know the characters and situation.

So... there are lots of different ways to start a book. But I'm going to riff off a popular one, the Chris Vogler idea of the Ordinary World. Now I don't always agree with Vogler-- or rather, I don't assume that what works for film will automatically translate for a novel. But he's performed a useful service by "writer-izing" Joseph Campbell's work analyzing myths over the ages and finding the common elements. (The myths used are mostly quest myths with young men as heroes. I'm not going to get into this, because it's SO not my field, but some romance fiction analysts think that romance is based on the fairy tale model, not on myth, which is more masculine.)

Anyway.... The Ordinary World is a place to start, both for us as writers and our heroes and heroines. So let's look at how we can use the notion of the Ordinary World to help us craft a good first scene.

Vogler says, " Ordinary World: "The Hero's home, the safe haven upon which the Special World and the Journey's outcome must be compared."

Now that's quite a useful definition. Only of course I'm going to mess it up a bit. The Ordinary World might or might not be home, might or might not be a "safe haven". After all, if your heroine is an undercover cop imbedded in a gang of drug dealers, her ordinary world isn't very
safe at all. But it is the world that she's living in when the story opens. It's not necessarily safe, but it's probably what the character is used to... knows how to deal with. The same cop heroine who is able to deal with murderous drug cartel lords with aplomb might that evening find herself all cleaned up and attending the police chief's dinner party in a gated community, and here she is, surrounded by cops in dress uniform, in a wealthy and crime-free area... and she's terrified, because here comes the police chief's snooty wife....

The point is that the Ordinary World (OW) is the place where this character has been spending a lot of time... and she can handle it okay. Knows how to get around. It doesn't have to be ordinary in OUR estimation. But we probably need to show it's ordinary more or less for this character.

The OW might or might not seem safe and comfortable. It is, however, what this protagonist is used to having. Think of the opening of James Bond movies, you know, where he's surfboarding down the escalator of a high-fashioned Tokyo mall, being chased by laser-shooting robots? Hey, that IS his ordinary world-- a place of danger and action. If the film started with him, you know, standing in line at the BMV to get his driver's license renewed-- you know, MY ordinary world (or at least, my nightmare world :), it wouldn't be showing what he's used to having.

But no matter what, there's something lacking with this ordinary world. Got to be. The protagonist has to leave it, after all. There's something in the Special World (what happens in the plot) that is going to change the protagonist-- a challenge which doesn't exist in the OW. The protagonist HAS to change-- it's just what fiction is about, right? (Okay, James Bond doesn't have to change... until they get a new actor to play him. :) So it would not be good just to hang there in the OW. No matter how happy she is there, no matter how well he succeeds, the OW is lacking something, something that the protagonist needs for growth.

So let's come up with some openings that show the ordinary world, so we can get clear that it's not about being boring and inactive. Keep in mind what this world says about the character, and how it/she/he is going to change.

Gone With the Wind: Scarlett's OW is her hometown, where she is a pampered princess being adored by all the young men. If we don't have a sense of this world, then the huge change that is just about to happen (the Civil War and all the young men enlisting and leaving) won't have as much effect.

The Godfather: This gangster drama starts with a family wedding, and the godfather in his study, listening to supplicants. What's going to change? Events set up in this scene are like grenades which will explode later.

The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy is bored with her prairie home, and longing to escape. This is a very good example of how the Ordinary World can include action-- you know, the tornado. :)

Harry Potter: Harry is an orphan, ignored in his "Muggles" home, unaware of his powers or parentage.

Pride and Prejudice: The village and Bennett family are contemplating another routine spring in the countryside. Lizzie is surrounded by and oppressed by her family.

Niccolo Rising: Nicholas and his two friends are looking for action in their boring Belgian town when they're given a commission, to sail a bathtub through the familiar canals and locks.

Ulysses: Stephen Dedalus is with his best friend in their tower, looking out over their town of Dublin.

The Sound and the Fury: The mentally retarded Benjy wanders around his family home and the town where he has lived all his life.

Your turn-- novel or film-- what does that opening show? And how does it start to change?

The change can happen very quickly. The character can leave this place, or someone else can come. For example, in Atonement, Briony is in her pre-WWII home with her family, sharing a room with her sister just like always-- and then her cousins arrive from the city. That sets in motion the change, and it happens early.



Keri Ford said...

I'm thinking of Evanovich's ONE FOR THE MONEY.

Starts out with Stephanie on her way to her parents house for pot roast at 5 (or is it 6?). Her car's about to be repo'd and is the conflict to keep the reader interested, because hey, she wants her car, even if she can't pay for it because she lost her job.

That opening let's us get to know the character, how she can negotiate herself out of a swamp, and how's she's standing on her last limb (forgive the cliche).

And if I'm way off base, delete me so I don't look like a smuck!

Edittorrent said...

Keri, what's fun is that's a series (the Stephanie Plum books), and that scene doesn't just set up her ordinary world for the book, but for later books. I mean, talk about ordinary world-- The car is ALWAYS about to be repo'ed (or just got blown up) and she's always, no matter what, going to make it to dinner at Mom's. :)


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

The cold medicine must be kicking in; that made a ton of sense. Thanks for the explanation.

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on the protagonist entering a new ordinary world at the beginning of the story? My specific example is a member of a military organization arriving at her first posting after completing her officer training. Her ordinary world has just changed drastically, and she's discovering it herself as she's also beginning to deal with unexpected conflicts, including forbidden romance. In your opinion, would it be effective to show her ordinary world as the action develops?

Thanks for any feedback!

PatriciaW said...

I guess my question piggybacks off David's. Can a character enter a new Ordinary World (e.g. makes a move to get a fresh start) but then an inciting incident in this new Ordinary World throws her off kilter? To some extent, the character is going to be unfamiliar with the new OW and doesn't quite have a chance to establish "normalcy" before something else happens.

Edittorrent said...

Set up a contrast between what she's used to and this new world-- that is, the OW exists in her head. Like she could enter the new base and it's much busier than she's used to, and no one says hi-- people aren't friendly. That way we'll get some idea of what she values?