Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Ordinary World

Last night in ballet, I managed to get my bad arm into the one position I haven't been able to do at all since my shoulder went wonky. It's not quite entirely back to normal -- the physical therapist can tell a difference, and I can feel the difference -- but it essentially looks normal. The therapist responded by really upping the amount of weight I have to lift. As a result, today's session was hard. I was glad I'd run all my errands on the way because I was ready to collapse by the time I got home.

Meanwhile, my subconscious has once more proved that it really is smarter than I am. I suspect my lack of productivity Monday had something to do with the fact that I was focusing on the wrong problem. I went to work yesterday and realized that the tone of the opening is all wrong. I must have been in a bad mood when I wrote it because it was rather gloomy, and that's not what I want at all. I had to really get into the narrator's head, so to do that, I got out some notebook paper and did some stream-of-consciousness writing to go through what her life has been like lately and what had happened to her already that day so I could see what her mindset would be at the moment the book opened. Doing that somewhat changed my perspective on this character, and now I think I've got the archetype wrong. I need to capture a sense of pure adventure and excitement. Hmm, I wonder if I've got something in my DVD library that might capture what I want to get me in the mood. Normally, this isn't a problem for me. I'm always on board the less angst, more fun train, so I'm not sure where the gloomy angst is coming from. Oh wait, I've been rewatching the series Angel. That would certainly do it. Note to self: avoid Whedon when you don't want to get too angsty.

So, now for the regularly scheduled writing post. In talking about revision, I mentioned that checking your plot against one of the standard outlines was a good way to look at your book from a big-picture perspective. One of the more popular plot structures these days (at least, one you'll hear a lot about at writing conferences) is the Hero's Journey -- the universal mythic structure as identified by Joseph Campbell, and then distilled for modern storytelling in the book The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. Plot has always been something I've struggled with. I'm great at coming up with characters and situations, but then coming up with things to happen can be difficult for me. It was through this book that I learned how to plot. For the next few months, I'll tackle the various steps of the heroic journey as described in the book, mostly getting into my own thoughts about how these steps work in novels. I would certainly recommend reading the book for yourself and going beyond what I say here. I need to get the more recent edition that's got more material in it, since I have the initial edition, and I understand it's gone through some significant changes.

The first stage in the journey is the Ordinary World. This stage establishes the baseline for the hero and for his world. You can't really show how a person or a place/society has changed without showing where it is at the beginning. Usually, this stage occurs before the hero even knows that a story is about to hit him. He's going about his business, living his life and interacting with his world. In this section, you can give hints about what's missing in the hero's life -- his job is dead-end, he's lacking in love, he's lacking in courage, he longs for adventure, etc. If the world is the problem, this is also where that shows up -- are criminals or evil vampires running amok, is there injustice, is there war? Or if the world is good, we can see what's at stake if something bad does happen -- this happy place might be destroyed, the hero could lose his family, his job, his home. Sometimes, the seeds of the plot are planted here because we get hints of what's wrong with the hero that he's going to have to fix somehow -- is he a jerk who treats people badly or is he a doormat? We may see signs of the hero's fatal flaws that will trip him up once the story gets going, or of hidden strengths that may come in handy later.

The challenge with the Ordinary World segment is that ordinary isn't that exciting, and this is the start of the book, where you want to hook readers. Screenwriters have a little more leeway to spend more time in the Ordinary World because they've got more sensory input to work with. There are images, there can be music, and the audience can be engaged by looking at the actors and remembering their other roles or playing the "What was he in?" game. Sometimes, the opening credits sequence is used to show the Ordinary World -- the theme song plays and the credits roll as we see the hero or heroine going about his/her everyday life, sometimes starting the day or with a montage of regular life events. Novelists today generally need to get into the story more quickly. Usually, the first major turning point that changes things for the hero and moves him into the story world needs to happen within the first chapter, and we don't have the luxury of theme songs to keep the audience entertained while we set the stage.

You're in luck if your hero's Ordinary World is already pretty exciting. Think of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- that sequence of Indiana Jones getting past the booby traps to get to the idol, only to run into his nemesis and then make a narrow escape is his ordinary world, or at least one facet of it. Then we cut to the other side of his ordinary world, where he's a mild-mannered professor. I suspect that if he'd merely been a mild-mannered professor who had to be recruited into this crazy mission because he was the expert on the subject and was not already an adventurer, the main plot would have started much sooner because we wouldn't have spent a lot of time on him teaching classes and doing research.

One way to show the Ordinary World while still getting the story going is to show what's happening beyond the hero's scope while he's living his ordinary life. The original Star Wars movie starts with that now-iconic image of the two spaceships passing over the planet, one in pursuit of and firing on the other. Then there's the sequence in which Princess Leia sends the droids on their mission before being captured. Only later do we meet Luke, going about his boring farm chores and whining about it. But that space battle is part of his ordinary world, even if he doesn't know about it yet. It shows the greater context of his world, the fact that there's something terribly wrong with the galaxy that needs to be fixed. There's a war on, so there's a reason for a young man to feel like something's wrong if he's stuck in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing of any importance. Many of the Harry Potter books do a similar thing. The books are in a very tight third-person point of view, where we're only in Harry's head, but they open with a kind of prologue chapter in which we see what the bad guys are up to, and that hints at what Harry's big problem in the books is going to be. Then we cut to Harry being bored at his aunt and uncle's house.

You can also drop in hints about what might be to come even as you're showing the ordinary world. That was how I opened Enchanted, Inc., the first book in my series. The ordinary world for my heroine was a daily routine of commuting to work, then dealing with a crazy boss in a soul-sucking job, but on her way to work on the day the story starts, she notices strange things happening. She's not sure what's going on, but the reader suspects things are about to get wacky for her.

"Ordinary" doesn't have to mean "boring" or "conflict-free." I would guess that most of us lead lives that look like the ordinary world parts of stories, but we still face conflict and challenges. We may clash with our surroundings or with the people around us. We have problems, fears and worries. That gives enough material to make the ordinary world compelling, but only include those details that may be relevant to the plot -- the things the hero needs to change or change his attitude about. Finding that someone put a red sock in her load of whites and turned everything pink may be a conflict in the heroine's life in the ordinary world, but it's probably not going to be a factor in the story (though now watch me come up with a plot where it is).

Next, we kick off the story with the Call to Adventure.

1 comment:

Carradee said...

Have you read the Morganville vampire books? (Yes, it's another YA vampire series, but I find it entertaining without being hopelessly melodramatic.) The red sock incident you mention happened at the start of Kiss of Death.