“A beginning is a very delicate time indeed.” – From Dune, screenplay by David Lynch, based on the novel by Frank Herbert
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the beginning of the typical hero’s journey. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder…” In this chapter, we’ll explore that “world of common day,” the Ordinary World and see how it frames the hero and sets modern-day stories in motion.
The opening of any story, be it myth, fairy tale, screenplay, novel, short story, or comic book, has some special burdens to bear. It must hook the reader or viewer, set the tone of the story, suggest where it’s going, and get across a mass of information without slowing the pace. A beginning is, indeed, a delicate time.
A GUIDE TO THE JOURNEY
As a guide through the labyrinth of story, let’s imagine ourselves as a tribe of people who live by hunting and gathering, as our ancestor did a hundred thousand years ago, or as people still do in remote parts of the world today. We’ll check in with these Seekers at each stage of the hero’s journey, and try to put ourselves in their skins.
Look around, sister, brother of the Home Tribe. You can see the people are barely getting by, surviving on a dwindling supply of last season’s food. Times are bad and the country all around seems lifeless. The people grow weak before our eyes, but a few of us are filled with restless energy.
Like you. You’re uncomfortable, feeling you no longer fit in with this drab, exhausted place. You may not know it, but you’re soon to be selected as a hero, to join the select company of the Seekers, those who have always gone out to face the unknown. You’ll undertake a journey to restore life and health to the entire Home Tribe, and an adventure in which the only sure thing is that you’ll be changed. You’re uneasy, but there’s a thrill running through you. You’re poised to break free from this world, ready to enter the world of adventure.
BEFORE THE BEGINNING
Before a story even begins, a storyteller faces creative choices. What’s the first thing your audience will experience? The title? The first line of dialogue? The first image? Where in the lives of your characters will the story actually begin? Do you need a prologue or introduction, or should you jump right into the middle of the action? The opening moments are a powerful opportunity to set the tone and create an impression. You can conjure up a mood, an image, or a metaphor that will give the audience a frame of reference to better experience your work. The mythological approach to story boils down to using metaphors or comparisons to get across your feelings about life.
The great German stage and film director Max Reinhardt believed that you can create an atmosphere in a theatre well before an audience sits down or the curtain goes up. A carefully selected title can strike a metaphor that intrigues the audience and attunes them to the coming experience. Good promotion can engage them with images and slogans that are metaphors for the world of your story. By controlling music and lighting as the audience enters the space, and consciously directing such details as the attitudes and costumes of the ushers, a specific mood can be created. The audience can be put in the ideal frame of mind for the experience they will share prepared for comedy, romance, horror, drama, or whatever effect you wish to create.
Oral storytellers begin their tales with ritualized phrases (“Once upon a time”) and personalized gestures to get the attention of the audience. These signals can cue the listeners to the funny, sad, or ironic mood of the story they will hear.
Today many elements go into making those first impressions before the book or the movie ticket is bought; the title, the book cover art, publicity and advertising, posters and trailers, and so forth. The story is cooked down to a few symbols or metaphors that begin to put the audience in the right mood for the journey.
A title is an important clue to the nature of the story and the writer’s attitude. A good title can become a multi-leveled metaphor for the condition of the hero or his world. The title of The Godfather, for example, suggests that Don Corleone is both god and father to his people. The graphic design of the logo for the novel and movie lays out another metaphor, the hand of a puppeteer working the strings of an unseen marionette. Is Don Corleone the puppeteer, or is he the puppet of a higher force? Are we all puppets of God, or do we have free will? The metaphoric title and imagery allow many interpretations and help to make the story a coherent design.
The opening image can be a powerful tool to create mood and suggest where the story will go. It can be a visual metaphor that, in a single shot or scene, conjures up the Special world of Act Two and the conflicts and dualities that will be confronted there. It can suggest the theme, alerting the audience to the issues your characters will face. The opening shot of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven shows a man outside a farmhouse, digging a grave for his wife who has just died. His relationship with his wife and the way she changed him are major themes in the story. The image of a man digging a grave outside his house can be read as an apt metaphor for the plot: The hero leaves home and journeys to the land of death, where he witnesses death, causes death, and almost dies himself. Eastwood the direct returns to the same setup at the end of the film, using the image to give a sense of closure as we see the man leave the grave and return to his home.
Some stories begin with a prologue section that precedes the main body of the story, perhaps before the introduction of the main characters and their world. The fairy tale of “Rapunzel” begins with a scene before the birth of the hero, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast begins with a prologue illustrated in stained glass, giving the backstory of the Beast’s enchantment. Myths take place within a context of mythical history that goes back to the Creation, and events leading up to the entrance of the main character may have to be portrayed first. Shakespeare and the Greeks often gave their plays a prologue, spoken by a narrator or a chorus, to set the tone and give the context of the drama. Shakespear’s Henry V begins with an eloquent passage, intoned by a Chorus character who invites us to use our “imaginary forces” to create the kings, horses, and armies of his story. Admit me Chorus to this history,” He requests, “Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray/Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.”
A prologue can serve several useful functions. It may give an essential piece of backstory, cue the audience to what kind of movie or story this is going to be, or start the story with a bang and let the audience settle into their seats. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a prologue shows the discovery of a mysterious squadron of World War II airplanes, perfectly preserved in the desert. This precedes the introduction of the hero, Roy Neary, and his world. It serves to intrigue the audience with a host of riddles, and gives a foretaste of the thrills and wonder ahead.
In The Last Boy Scout a prologue shows a pro football player going berserk and shooting his teammates under the pressure of drugs and gambling. The sequence precedes the first appearance of the hero and intrigues or “hooks” the audience. It signals that this is going to be an exciting action story involving life-and-death matters.
This prologue and the one in Close Encounters are a little disorienting. They hint that these movies are going to be about extraordinary events that may strain credibility. In secret societies, an old rule of initiation is: Disorientation leads to suggestibility. That’s why initiates are often blindfolded and led around in the dark, so they will be more psychologically open to suggestion from the rituals staged by the group. In storytelling, getting the audience a little off-base and upsetting their normal perceptions can put them into a receptive mood. They begin to suspend their disbelief and enter more readily into a Special World of fantasy.
Some prologues introduce the villain or threat of the story before the hero appears. In Star Wars, the evil Darth Vader is shown kidnapping Princess Leia before the hero, Luke Skywalker, is introduced in his mundane world. Some detective films begin with a murder before the hero is introduced in his office. Such prologues cue the audience that the balance of a society has been disturbed. A chain of events is set in motion, and the forward drive of the story cannot cease until the wrong has been righted and the balance restored.
A prologue is not necessary or desirable in every case. The needs of the story will always dictate the best approach to structure. You may want to begin, as many stories do, by introducing the hero in her normal environment: the “Ordinary World.”
THE ORDINARY WORLD
Because so many stories are journeys that take heroes and audiences to Special Worlds, most begin by establishing an Ordinary World as a baseline for comparison. The Special World of the story is only special if we can see it in contrast to a mundane world of everyday affairs from which the hero issues forth. The Ordinary World is the context, home base, and background of the hero.
The Ordinary World in one sense is the place you came from last. In life we pass through a succession of Special Worlds which slowly become ordinary as we get used to them. They evolve from strange, foreign territory to familiar bases from which to launch a drive into the next Special World.
It’s a good idea for writers to make the Ordinary World as different as possible from the Special World, so audience and hero will experience a dramatic change when the threshold is finally crossed. In The Wizard of Oz the Ordinary World is depicted in black and white, to make a stunning contrast with the Technicolor Special World. In the thriller Dead Again, the Ordinary World of modern day is shot in colour to contrast with the nightmarish black-and-white Special World of the 1940s flashbacks. City Slickers contrasts the drab, restrictive environment of the city with the more lively arena of the West where most of the story takes place.
Compared to the Special World, the Ordinary World may seem boring and calm, but the seeds of excitement and challenge can usually be found there. The hero’s problems and conflicts are already present in the Ordinary World, waiting to be activated.
FORESHADOWING: A MODEL OF THE SPECIAL WORLD
Writers often use the Ordinary World section to create a small model of the Special World, foreshadowing its battles and moral dilemmas. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy clashes with orney Miss Gulch and is rescued from danger by three farmhands. These early scenes foretell Dorothy’s battles with the Witch and her rescue by the Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow.
Romancing the Stone begins with a clever foreshadowing technique. The first thing the audience sees is an elaborate fantasy of a noble heroine battling sleazy villains and finally riding off to romance with a comically idealized hero. The scene is a model of the Special World Joan Wilder will encounter in the second act. The fantasy is revealed to be a conclusion of Joan Wilder’s romance novel, which she is writing in her cluttered New York apartment. The opening fantasy sequence serves a dual purpose. It tells us a great deal about Joan Wilder and her unrealistic notions of romance, and also predicts the problems and situations she will face in the Special World of Act Two, when she encounters real villains and a less than ideal man. Foreshadowing can help unify a story into a rhythmic or poetic design.
RAISING THE DRAMATIC QUESTION
Another important function of the Ordinary World is to suggest the dramatic question of the story. Every good story poses a series of questions about the hero. Will she achieve the goal, overcome her flaw, learn the lesson she needs to learn? Some questions relate primarily to the action or plot. Will Dorothy get home from Oz? Will E.T. Get home to his planet? Will the hero get the gold, win the game, beat the villains?
Other questions are dramatic and have to do with the hero’s emotions and personality. Will Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost learn to express love? In Pretty Woman, will the uptight businessman Edward learn from the prostitute Vivian how to relax and enjoy life? The action questions may propel the plot, but the dramatic questions hook the audience and involve them with the emotions of the characters.
INNER AND OUTER PROBLEMS
Every hero needs both an inner and an outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often find that writers can give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her fater who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’ hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglect to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well.
Characters without inner challenges seem flat and uninvolving, however heroically they may act. The need an inner problem, a personality flaw or a moral dilemma to work out. They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.
MAKING AN ENTRANCE
How the audience first experiences your hero is another important condition you control as a storyteller. What is he doing the first time we see him, when he makes his entrance? What is he wearing, who is around him, and how do they react to him? What is his attitude, emotion, and goal at the moment? Does he enter alone or join a group, or is he already on stage when the story begins? Does he narrate the story, is it told through the eyes of another character, or is it seen from the objective eye of conventional narrative?
Every actor likes to “make an entrance”, an important part of building a character’s relationship with the audience. Even if a character is written as already on stage when the lights come up, the actor will often make an entrance out of it by how she first impresses an audience with her appearance and behaviour. As writers we can give our heroes an entrance by thinking about how the audience first experiences them. What are they doing, saying, feeling? What is their context when we first see them? Are they at peace or in turmoil? Are they at full emotional power or are they holding back for a burst of expression later?
Most important is: What is the character doing at the moment of entrance? The character’s first action is a wonderful opportunity to speak volumes about his attitude, emotional state, background, strengths, and problems. The first action should be a model of the hero’s characteristic attitude and the future problems or solutions that will result. The first behaviour we see should be characteristic. It should define and reveal character, unless your intent is to mislead the audience and conceal the character’s true nature.
Tom Sawyer makes a vivid entrance into our imaginations because Samuel Clemens has painted such a character-revealing first look at his Missouri boy hero. The first time we see Tom he is performing a characteristic action, turning the rotten job of whitewashing the fence into a wonderful mind game. Tome is a con artist, but the con is thoroughly enjoyed by his victims. Tom’s character is revealed through all his actions, but most clearly and definitively in his entrance, which defines his attitude toward life.
Actors stepping onto a stage and writers introducing a character are also trying to entrance the audience, or produce in them a trance-like state of identification and recognition. One of the magic powers of writing is its ability to lure each member of the audience into projecting a part of their ego into the character on the page, screen, or stage.
As a writer you can build up an atmosphere of anticipation or provide information about an important character by having other characters talk about her before she shows up. But more important and memorable will be her own first action upon entering the story – her entrance.
INTRODUCING THE HERO TO THE AUDIENCE
Another important function of the Ordinary World is to introduce the hero to the audience. Like a social introduction, the Ordinary World establishes a bond between people and points out some common interests so that a dialogue can begin. In some way we should recognize that the hero is like us. In a very real sense, a story invites us to step into the hero’s shoes, to see the world through his eyes. As if by magic we project part of our consciousness into the hero. To make this magic work you must establish a strong bond of sympathy or common interest between the hero and the audience. This is not to say that heroes must always be good or wholly sympathetic. They don’t even have to be likeable, but they must be relatable, a word used by movie executives to describe the quality of compassion and understanding that an audience must have for a hero. Even if the hero is underhanded or despicable, we can still understand her plight and imagine ourselves behaving in much the same way, given the same background, circumstances, and motivation.
The opening scenes should create an identification between audience and hero, a sense that they are equals in some ways.
How do you achieve this? Create identification by giving heroes universal goals, drives, desires, or needs. We can all relate to basic drives such as the need for recognition, affection, acceptance, or understanding. The screenwriter Waldo Salt, speaking of his script for Midnight Cowboy, said that his hero Joe Buck was driven by a universal human need to be touched. Even though Joe buck engaged in some pretty sleazy behaviour, we sympathize with his need because we have all experienced it at some time. Identification with universal needs establishes a bond between audience and hero.
THE HERO’S LACK
Fairy tale heroes have a common denominator, a quality that unites them across boundaries of culture, geography, and time. They are lacking something, or something is taken away from them. Often they have just lost a family member. A mother or father has died, or a brother or sister has been kidnapped. Fairy tales are about searching for completeness and striving for wholeness, and often it’s a subtraction from the family unit that sets the story in motion. The need to fill in the missing pieces drives the story toward the final perfection of “They lived happily ever after.”
Many movies begin by showing an incomplete hero or family. Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone and Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest are incomplete because they need ideal mates to balance their lives. Fay Wray’s character in King Kong is an orphan who knows only “There’s supposed to be an uncle someplace.”
These missing elements help to create sympathy for the hero, and draw the audience into desiring her eventual wholeness. Audiences abhor the vacuum created by a missing piece in a character.
Other stories show the hero as essentially complete until a close friend or relative is kidnapped or killed in the first act, setting in motion a story of rescue or revenge. John Ford’s The Searchers begins with news that a young woman has been kidnapped by Indians, launching a classic saga of search and rescue.
Sometimes the hero’s family may be complete, but something is missing from the hero’s personality – a quality such as compassion, forgiveness, or the ability to express love. The hero of Ghost is unable to say “I love you” at the beginning of the film. Only after he has run the course of the journey from life to death is he able to say those magic words.
It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story. In Ordinary People the young hero Conrad is unable to eat French toast his mother has prepared for him. It signifies, in symbolic language, his inability to accept being loved and cared for, because of the terrible guilt he bears over the accidental death of his brother. It’s only after he undertakes an emotional hero’s journey, and relives and processes the death through therapy, that he is able to accept love. At the end of the story Conrad’s girlfriend offers to make him breakfast, and this time he finds he has an appetite. In symbolic language, his appetite for life has returned.
The Greek theory of tragedy, expressed twenty-four centuries ago by Aristotle, describes a common fault of tragic heroes. They may possess many admirable qualities, but among them is one tragic flaw or hamartia that puts them at odds with their destiny, their fellow men, or the gods. Ultimately it leads to their destruction.
Most commonly this tragic flaw was a kind of pride or arrogance called hubris. Tragic heroes are often superior people with extraordinary powers but they tend to see themselves as equal to or better than the gods. They ignore fair warnings or defy the local moral codes, thinking they are above the laws of gods and men. This fatal arrogance inevitably unleashes a force called Nemesis, originally a goddess of retribution. Her job was to set things back into balance, usually by bringing about the destruction of the tragic hero.
Every well-rounded hero has a trace of this tragic flaw, some weakness or fault that makes him thoroughly human and real. Perfect, flawless heroes aren’t very interesting, and are hard to relate to. Even Superman has weak spots which humanize him and make him sympathetic: his vulnerability to Kryptonite, his inability to see through lead, and his secret identity which is always in danger of being exposed.
Sometimes a hero may seem to be well-adjusted and in control, but that control masks a deep psychic wound. Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness. These wounds of rejection, betrayal, or disappointment are personal echoes of a universal pain that everyone has suffered from: the pain of the child’s physical and emotional separation from its mother. In a larger sense, we all bear the wound of separation from God or the womb of existence – that place from which we are born and to which we will return when we die. Like Adam and Eve cast out of Eden, we are forever separate from our source, isolated and wounded.
To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or a deep emotional wound. The hero of Lethal Weapon played by Mel Gibson, is sympathetic because he has lost a loved one. The wound makes him edgy, suicidal, unpredictable, and interesting. Your hero’s wounds and scars mark the areas in which he is guarded, defensive, weak, and vulnerable. A hero may also be extra-strong in some areas as a defense for the wounded parts.
The movie The Fisher King is a thorough study of two men and their psychic wounds. The story is inspired by the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King, whose physical wound symbolized a wound of the spirit. This legend tells of a king who was wounded in the thigh and was therefore unable to rule his land or find any pleasure in life. Under his weakened kingship, the land was dying, and only the powerful spiritual magic of the Holy Grail could revive it. The quest by the Knights of the Round Table to find the Grail is the great adventure to restore health and wholeness to a system that has been almost fatally wounded. The Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson brings insight to the meaning of the Fisher King wound in his book on masculine psychology, He.
Another wounded, almost tragic hero is Tom Dunston, played by John Wayne in the classic Western Red River. Dunston makes a terrible moral error early in his career as a cattleman, by choosing to value his mission more than his love, and follow his head rather than his heart. This choice leads to the death of his lover, and for the rest of the story he bears the psychic scars of that wound. His suppressed guilt makes him more and more harsh, autocratic, and judgemental, and almost brings him and his adopted son to destruction before the wound is healed by letting love back into his life.
A hero’s wounds may not be visible. People put a great deal of energy into protecting and hiding these weak and vulnerable spots. But in a fully developed character they will be apparent in the areas where she is touchy, defensive, or a little too confident. The wound may never be openly expressed to the audience – it can be a secret between the writer and the character. But it will help give the hero a sense of personal history and realism, for we all bear some scars from past humiliations, rejections, disappointments, abandonments, and failures. Many stories are about the journey to heal a wound and to restore a missing piece to a broken psyche.
ESTABLISHING WHAT’S AT STAKE
For readers and viewers to be involved in the adventure, to care about the hero, they have to know at an early stage exactly what’s at stake. In other words, what does the hero stand to gain or lose in the adventure? What will be the consequences for the hero, society, and the world if the hero succeeds or fails?
Myths and fairy tales are good models for establishing what’s at stake. They often set up a threatening condition that makes the stakes of the game very clear. Perhaps the hero must pass a series of tests or his head will be cut off. The Greek hero Perseus, portrayed in the movie Clash of the Titans, must undergo many ordeals or his beloved princess Andromeda will be devoured by a sea monster. Other tales put family members in jeopardy like the father who is threatened in Beauty and the Beast. The hero Belle has a strong motivation to put herself in a dangerous position at the mercy of the Beast. Her father will languish and die unless she does the Beast’s bidding. The stakes are high and clear.
Scripts often fail because the stakes simply aren’t high enough. A story in which the hero will only be slightly embarrassed or inconvenienced if he fails is likely to get the “So what?” reaction from readers. Make sure the stakes are high – life and death, big money, or the hero’s very soul.
BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION
The Ordinary World is the most appropriate place to deal with exposition and backstory. Backstory is all the relevant information about a character’s history and background – what got her to the situation at the beginning of the story. Exposition is the art of gracefully revealing the backstory and any other pertinent information about the plot: the hero’s social class, upbringing, habits, experiences, as well as the prevailing social conditions and opposing forces may affect the hero. Exposition is everything the audience needs to know to understand the hero and the story. Backstory and exposition are among the hardest writing skills to master. Clumsy exposition tends to stop the story cold. Blunt exposition draws attention to itself, giving the backstory in the form of a voiceover or a “Harry the Explainer” character who comes on solely for the purpose of telling the audience what the author wants them to know. It’s usually better to put the audience right into the action and let them figure things out as the story unfolds.
The audience will feel more involved if they have to work a little to piece together the backstory from visual clues or exposition blurted out while characters are emotionally upset or on the run. Backstory can be doled out gradually over the course of the story or yielded up grudgingly. Much is revealed by what people don’t do or say.
Many dramas are about secrets being slowly and painfully revealed. Layer by layer the defenses protecting a hurtful secret are torn away. This makes the audience participants in a detective story, an emotional puzzle.
The Ordinary World is the place to state the theme of your story. What is the story really about? If you had to boil down its essence to a single word or phrase, what would it be? What single idea or quality is it about? Love? Trust? Betrayal? Vanity? Prejudice? Greed? Madness? Ambition? Friendship? What are you trying to say? Is your theme “Love conquers all,” “You can’t cheat an honest man,” “We must work together to survive,” or “Money is the root of all evil”?
Theme, a word derived from Greek, is close in meaning to the Latin-based premise. Both words mean “something laid out in advance that helps determine a future course. The theme of a story is an underlying statement or assumption about an aspect of life. Usually it’s set out somewhere in Act One, in the Ordinary World. It could be an offhand remark by one of the characters, expressing a belief which is then rigorously tested in the course of the story. The real theme of the piece may not emerge or announce itself until you have worked with the story for awhile, but sooner or later you must become aware of it. Knowing the theme is essential to making the final choices in dialogue, action, and set dressing that turn a story into a coherent design. In a good story, everything is related somehow to the theme, and the Ordinary World is the place to make the first statement of the main idea.