by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland)
Yes, today I have a guest post. KM and I go way back. We did prison time together. By the way glue-guns CAN get you in legal trouble and our lawyers have advised we not say anything more. But, she knows her stuff about story structure, and that’s an area many of us struggle with…along with a compulsion to use a glue-gun, glitter and pipe-cleaners to “spruce up” the IRS satellite offices. Okay, shutting up now.
Take it away!
Writers sometime balk at the idea of beginning a story with the character’s “normal world.” Isn’t that kind of starting before the story? Won’t readers be bored if they have to wade through all that normalcy before the character’s adventure really starts? How in tarnation are we supposed to be able to open with a hook if we also have to show the character in his workaday life?
These are all legitimate concerns. In structuring a book’s beginning (which I discuss, in much more depth, in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story), the entire first quarter of the book will be focused on setup—or, in other words, establishing that normal world.
At first glance, you might think that seems like an insanely long length of time, and you’d be right. But . . . you’d also be wrong. Let’s take a closer look at some of the misconceptions surrounding the notion of the “normal world” at the beginning of a book.
Misconception #1: The normal world is boring.
Honestly, that one’s up to you. But with a little imagination, there is absolutely no reason your story’s normal world can’t be enthralling in its own right. Just because we call it the normal world, by way of contrast with what follows, doesn’t mean it has to be ordinary at all.
Your character’s normal world could be a cutthroat stock trading floor as in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, a hilariously neurotic morning routine as in Frank Oz’s What About Bob?, or an action-packed exotic land as in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia.
Misconception #2: The normal world forces the story to open too early.
What’s with this nonsense about using a full quarter of the story to set up the characters, settings, and stakes? What self-respecting reader is going to hang with you that long in order to reach that first game-changing plot point at the first quarter mark? If you do it right, every reader is going to hang with you.
Taking this time to appropriately set up your story is vital if readers are going to understand the conflict and invest themselves in your characters.
Consider how Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park uses its comparatively leisurely first quarter to introduce its characters, show their normal world, and guide readers to an understanding of their goals and what they have at stake. Had the movie opened with the first dinosaur attack—or even with the characters’ arriving at the park—readers wouldn’t have been properly prepared. They would have been missing out on the answer to the all-important “why should I care?” question.
Misconception #3: The normal world isn’t important.
The normal world is crucial for several important reasons. As we mentioned above, the biggest reason is simply giving readers enough time to care about your characters before you plunge them into the heart of the conflict. More than that, by the time the action heats up, you’re just plain not going to have time to explain important story elements.
Ridley Scott opens Gladiator with a gripping battle (hardly boring!) in order to show his soldier protagonist’s normal world, then slows down to discuss other important details, such as the state of Rome and the protagonist’s relationships with other key characters.
Misconception #4: The normal world has to do only with setting.
The word “world” tends to throw us a little bit. It can make us think the term is referring solely to setting. As a result, we might end up believing our protagonist’s normal world has to be his home, his bedroom, or maybe his business place. But these settings may have no role in the main story. So how does that work?
The truth is this: your character’s normal world is about way more than just setting. When you introduce his normal world, what you’re really doing is introducing key facets of his personality and, most importantly, the internal conflict he will be fighting throughout the story.
Charlotte Brontë opens her classic Jane Eyre by showing Jane’s normal world as an unloved orphan in her aunt’s home. But she also takes the opportunity to show us important aspects of Jane’s personality and, particularly, her inner struggle between her need for love and her need for freedom. That struggle will frame the entirety of the plot to come.
Misconception #5: The normal world precludes an action-oriented hook.
Once again, that emphasis on normal may make us think we have to open our stories in ho-hum, everyday mode. The character gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, walks to work. Yawn. Where’s the hook in that? But, as we’ve already seen from some of the previously mentioned stories, some characters’ normal worlds are anything but boring.
But what if they are?
What if your character isn’t a warrior or an archeologist, but just a construction worker? Sometimes we can work a little trickery to get around this. Sometimes we can open our stories with an action hook that is really just an intro, in its own right, to the character’s normal world.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim opens with an action scene that sets up his main character’s normal world as a washed-up pilot who is haunted by past tragedies. It works both because the opening sequence sets up character and setting, on its own merits, and because it leads into where the protagonist needs to be for the story proper to begin.
If we set it up correctly, our story’s normal world can provide one of our most useful and enjoyable opportunities to explore and develop our characters. This segment can—and should—be just as gripping as everything to follow, even as it lays the groundwork for more exciting scenes.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.
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