Writing Story: 7 Questions to Start
Every man has three characters: that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has. ~ Alphonse Kerr
We start life as a tabula rasa. Then we transform ourselves as we mature.
Who we are . . .
is not who we want to be . . .
and not who we should be.
All of us struggle with a duality, positive in conflict with negativity and only rarely in balance. While we strive to improve, we are also tugged to wallow in a morass.
In the ancient monomyth, the Hero’s Journey did not just exhibit how an ordinary person became extraordinary. It also developed how a shallow community member became a strong individual, a leader who inspired others to change.
The first stage of the Hero’s Journey—the Ordinary World—presents who we are before the transforming journey occurs.
Start with Duality
Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit (my favorite Tolkien) is complacent, self-absorbed, content
but certainly not satisfied. He must be pushed and tempted into the journey There and Back Again. This trailer shows the strength of a well-written Ordinary World and Call to Adventure.
Frodo in Lord of the Rings certainly feels his dissatisfaction, but he lacks both the impetus and will to take the first brave steps alone. Thus, we have the necessity of his friends at the onset of the journey, each who have their own individual transformation to come.
A character’s dual nature can be two sides of the personality, can be two sides of the genetic inheritance (as it is for Bilbo), or can be two of the Tripartite Being in conflict.
Take care when presenting the primary characters during the Ordinary World. The primaries should not become so arrogant that the audience can’t stand them. Any bad trait should be counterbalanced with a good trait.
The Ordinary World (OW) stage of the Hero’s Journey—however brief—is necessary to show the unchanged primaries. Obviously, the protagonist is necessary to introduce. Presentation of the other primaries is necessary only if their transformation is key to the protagonist’s.
In The Hobbit film, Thorin Oakenshield’s OWie is presented in flashback, a story recounted in heroic fashion to Bilbo.
The problem with flashback and the reason it is kept for limited use are that it disrupts the story flow. In film, this disruption traps the audience—unless we control the remote and skip ahead. In a book we can skip it or skim it—although we rarely do. Flashback used to present OW information becomes info dump, which is always to be avoided.
How do we write an Ordinary World start to our story without turning it into info dump?
Marion Zimmer Bradley said often to start a story at the first onset of trouble.
However, we need a bit to set up how that onset came in as trouble.
So, find the moment right before the onset of trouble.
1st Story Stage: the Ordinary World
Build the OW with the Latin 7.
WHO is here?
The protagonist, of course. The actual question should be who else is here? Any primaries? Are these primaries allies? How will the antagonist enter this scene? Who else do we need?
WHAT is the sacrifice?
The What can be person, thing, object, place, and idea.
What thing needs destruction in order to start the protagonist on the journey? How is that thing cherished by the protagonist?
The destruction, which is the 2nd Story Stage, is an explosion, literal and figurative. Our job in the OW is to start rolling toward that destruction.
For example, if the destruction is the revelation of a lie, what dream will the lie destroy? That dream becomes the protagonist’s OW focus.
The cherished thing to be sacrificed should be so strong that the antagonist can’t just turn away.
WHY is the cherished thing so dear?
Know the reason. We may not write the reason into the 1st Stage. We should certainly state it by the end of the 3rd Stage. Yet we need to know it now, as we start.
HOW will the sacrifice occur?
Writers also need an early knowledge of the How, for we must set up for it.
BY WHOSE AID?
This is a two-sided question.
1st: The sacrifice needs to be important to the protagonist and another (one or more). This increases the need for the protagonist to embark on the difficult Hero’s Journey. Whether the genre is contemporary mainstream, historical romance, fantasy adventure, or another one, the destruction of the sacrifice should shock more than the protagonist.
2nd: The other side of “by whose aid” focuses on the participants in the destruction.
Know the reason that the antagonist is able to focus on the sacrifice. This may come out at any point in the story, especially if the antagonist has a moment to gloat over the destruction of the dear. The antagonist should also “know” the protagonist well enough to understand how the destruction will hurt the protagonist and other primaries.
Sidestep to a Side Character
A side element is the character who conveys information about the sacrifice to the antagonist. This character needs to be familiar with the protagonist: the degree of this side character’s perfidy is up to us writers. And the revelation of the perfidy—that is also up to us.
WHEN and WHERE
The last two of the Latin 7 seem simple.
WHEN is a moment when destruction is least expected. A moment of happiness is typical: wedding, family gathering, holiday celebration. Try to break the typical.
Pick an ordinary moment: driving home, going to a restaurant, Saturday errands.
WHERE should be a place of security for the protagonist. Then the sacrifice of the cherished thing becomes even greater, for security is sacrificed as well.
Just as with the WHEN, the destruction’s occurrence in an ordinary place destroys the semblance of security.
Start the Story
“Begin with the end in mind,” Stephen Covey said in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As it works in business, so it works in story.
Writers should start by knowing where the story is going, so we can lay traps for our protagonists. And our first traps start in the Ordinary World.
Here are the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey. We are working our way through them, two stages per month. Join us for the next stage on the 20th of May ~~ and a promo for one of my books on the 1st.
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meet the Mentor
- Crossing the 1st Threshold
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies
- Approach to the Inmost Cave
- Ordeal / Dark Moment
- A Reward
- The Road Back
- Return with the Elixir
~ M. A. Lee