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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Wow, first to comment? O.o
Anyway, I loved this post as I just finished doing my own “normal world” part. It’s awesome to have finally reached the first plot point and leave behinds the fears of a fish head or whether it’s too irrelevant. It also became very intriguing to do research into prostitution, so I doubt that part of the Normal World will be boring.
Thanks again, I’ll check out the book 🙂
(Uh, uh, I’m going to wanacon! :D)
If the “normal” world is abnormal to readers, they’re sure to find it interesting, even if the characters themselves may find it old hat. Glad you enjoyed the post!
normal is telling the story as it is, i like the way you spill it out, thanks for the advice
Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post.
It is quite amazing to me personally to read this post and find out I am on the right track regarding beginning a new story. I just spent a good few agonizing moments on the loo thinking about this…
Always a good feeling, LOL. When I was new, it was more, “WTH have I DONE????”
LOL. I never cared before about what I had done, but now that I am taking this writing a bit more “seriously” you have to ask the tough questions. Hence posts like these are a bit of a Godsend, if I may say so!
First step forward in becoming a serious writer is even realizing there are these difficult to questions to ask. Next step is realizing you actually have the right answers!
A great post…thanks. It’s great to know I’ve done at least one thing right. My story opens to my protagonist’s normal world. Though it isn’t boring, it isn’t nearly as interesting as her life becomes later when that world unravels. At the same time, the event that sets the unraveling in motion occurs only 1,100 words into the story, though the protagonist (and the reader) doesn’t fully appreciate the repercussions.
We absolutely want to create a rising interest level. If we chuck all the best stuff at the readers right away, we might be able to hook them, but we’ll also end up disappointing them when it dawns on them that that’s all we’ve got.
That’s such a great point! And you’re right. The opening is a healthy baseline. Don’t open with fury and follow with countless fizzle. I’ll feel cheated and, yes, disappointed.
A terrific post. I’m writing a comedy novel. It has very unusual characters in a very ordinary world collide with very normal people who (for one reason or another) experience the normal world turned on its head. Your post has helped me to re-see my assumptions about the “normal” and my strategic uses of it. Thanks.
Ordinary characters who see the world as extraordinary and extraordinary people who see it as a ordinary. Nice.
Thank you for this important lesson. I am finding that many writers don’t understand that a hook on the opening pages can still be normal. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge shows up in critiques, yet somehow the readers who aren’t writers get it.
Readers often have a much stronger instinctive sense of what works and what doesn’t simply because they don’t have all our writerly “rules” cluttering up their story sense. I always like to have several non-writer beta readers read my early manuscripts. Their input on things like this is invaluable.
I love this advice. The opening section before everything changes is often my favorite part of a story.
I would like to see the author, Michael Crichton, get the credit for “Jurassic Park” rather than the director of the film based on his book, but maybe that’s my bias as a writer. 🙂
I accredited Spielberg, since I’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book (although I realize Crichton wrote the screenplay as well). Hard to know *who* to credit on movies sometimes, since so many people are involved in pulling it off!
Hmmm, I think I can apply these ideas to my non-fantasy novel, in way of character development, like you illustrated with Jane Eyre. Very cool, thanks for the tips!
This is the best place to start sowing that character development – which is what makes it one of the most fun parts of the story to write!
I appreciate framing the “world” as in what’s important to the story. I loved your “what about Bob” routine, and I think the other ‘boring’ world beginning that relates is from ‘Stranger Than Fiction’. I think I need to remember what is ‘normal’ for my characters.
Yes, more often than not, our characters aren’t going to be quite “normal” themselves. There is a reason we’ve chosen them as our protagonists, after all. If we can focus on that element, we can hook readers’ interest, while still focusing on the introductory details of our story worlds.
Great post! I think sometimes we take too much notice of having to start with a ‘hook’ and as you have pointed out, readers don’t necessarily have to be thrown into the middle of chaos kicking and screaming.
I did a little survey amongst friends who read, but don’t necessarily write, and it was interesting to find that most enjoy character led novels, and love to learn about their ‘normal’ world.
I’m going to stop beating myself up now, after having rewrote my first chapter three times, I’ve decided to take your advice and accept ‘normal’ as a good place to begin.
It’s important for us to pay attention to what hooks *us*. We need to create curiosity in readers. Hook them with a solid question, and they’ll be more than happy to keep turning pages until we’re ready to give them the action.
Normal…such a relative term. I am struggling with this in the opening of the first book in the series I’m writing. To me, the way to hook readers here is by giving your narrator a unique and engaging voice. Even surfing the Net can be entertaining when you’re in the mind of a sarcastic teenager.
Thanks for breaking it all down for us, K.
Narrative voice is absolutely a huge ingredient in a gripping opening. We have to give readers a reason to immediately be interested in our character. It’s tough to do that through situations alone. We can do it through the character’s actions, but that can take time to set up. A strong narrative voice, on the other hand, can do the trick in a paragraph or less.
Fantastic! Gotta love KM. Thanks for bringing this to my attention in such very useful way.
Thanks for reading! Glad the post was useful to you.
Thanks so much for having me today, Kristen!
Yep, my current work starts out in a “normal world.” But normal is 1715 Ireland in a cottage with a secret immortal druid who just happens to be good friends with the legendary harpist Turlough O’ Carolan. 😀
I’m wondering about Michael Scott’s book, The Alchemyst. That “normal world” set up is incredibly brief. I noticed that he breaks a lot of literary rules with that book (lots of passive voice, pov hopping, etc), but it still grabs your attention and is a good read. Can he just get away with it because he’s got a huge backlist? Or has he found a way to balance following the rules and breaking them?
I haven’t read Scott’s book, so I can’t comment on the particulars. But if he grabbed your attention and gave you a good read, I’d say he was breaking rules to good purpose.
I’ve been struggling with this in the new wip. My protag’s normal starts off in New York in his high rise corner office, but he’s immediately thrown into chaos and escapes to Ohio (I know, I’ll have to think on that one), where his new “normal” is hiding among the impoverished. We’re not to plot point 1 yet! Is that sudden shift from NY to rural Ohio acceptable, or should I start the story later and fill in how he got there. Love the book, K.M. I need the hard copy now, spiral bound please, so I can reference it easier.
Personally I would start off in Ohio and show what happened in New York throughout the story, especially if the chaos in NY is part of the plot points – his accent vs theirs, the way he moves, flashbacks, comparisons, emotions if the NY chaos later tracks him down to Ohio…etc.
Doing a prologue would work too.
Otherwise the NY chaos pacing is very important – Raven’s End and One Good Dog are two of my personal favorites that start off with action-y type sequences.
Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.
Thanks so much!
YES. A hundred times yes. I’m writing a adventure/suspense and starting it out in the protagonist’s real world, introducing it with a bang, but also setting up the “inciting incident” to come. Some contest critiques have been so overly rigid with the “main conflict should start by the end of chapter 1” that it has been very frustrating. But lately I’ve seen writing teachers like you and Jeff Gerke saying similar things, and it is so welcome. I certainly needed this today. Thanks KM and Kristen!
“Why should I care.” YES! Exactly! Thanks KM for clarifying this. I’ve had rejections before because I don’t open one novel or other with an action-packed inciting incident. I like me some high-octane, high-stakes action as much as the next girl, but opening a novel on chaos usually leaves me feeling…chaotic, and having no clue who the characters are who are in this chaos.
That said, Thea Harrison does an amazing job of opening a novel in chaos. Her paranormal romance Dragon Bound opens with the heroine literally on the run for her life. But as she runs, she’s thinking about the events that led to her running. Bits of her personal history get dropped in. It’s fun and exciting and a great example of opening on a character when her world has just been turned upside down. If you do this, I think pacing is key. If backstory slows down the momentum of the chaos or if the reader is left with too many questions, they’ll stop reading.
I find, as a fairly new writer, opening on a normal-world scenario is just plain easier to accomplish. But just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it has to be boring! Thanks for validating normal-world as a creative choice.
Pacing is definitely a major factor. We need to keep things hopping enough to keep readers’ interest. But we also have to slow down just enough to explain the pertinent bits of info and keep them oriented. As with so much of writing, it’s a balance.
Thank you for clearing all of those misconceptions, K.M.. Writer’s are constantly trying to keep abreast with the newest waves and fads, trying to find a happy medium of catering to the readers and the industry. And, with agents hammering the ‘three page rule’ (the one that states you must have action in the first three pages of your book) authors knee jerk reaction is to go as outlandish as possible. But what about that great old saying of truth is better than fiction. Life is crazy enough that we shouldn’t have to go searching for something to draw the crowd in; normalcy is quite capable of doing just that.
I think it’s valuable to remember that agents are only trying to please readers. The day they fail in that is a day they’re out of a job. So most of their strictures are there for the purpose of trying to hook readers in. But it’s very true that we, as authors, can sometimes overreact, in our stress over our already difficult juggling act, and take some of those “rules” way too far.
I debate obsessively about creating the normal world for my characters. How much is enough? How much is the dreaded info dump? As a reader I enjoy fast paced first-three-page stuff as much as the next person but, if I want readers who bond with my characters, world building is essential. Thanks for a wonderful post. I’ll go with my instincts.
Your gut is often the smartest part of your body. Pay attention to what hooks *you* in the beginning. And try to get outside beta readers’ opinions. Sometimes the background info we think is crucial turns out not to be.
I think a beautiful example of this is Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Fellowship Of The Ring”. By lingering in The Shire he shows us what is at stake for the rest of trilogy. I think that is one of the most important reasons for beginning a story with the normal–it let’s the audience know what the heroes are fighting for.
Even when the theme of the story is escaping the environment, showing the audience day to day life gives the characters a reason to get out–for example, “The Shawshank Redemption”, which actually gives a great deal of screen time to prison routines.
Great examples. If readers are ever to fully comprehend what’s at stake for a character, they first have to have something to contrast against the coming disasters later in the book. We want readers to fall in love with the characters’ normal world, so that they rue its demise as much as anyone in the book.
My protagonist starts off as a national record-holding Special Olympics champion with Down Syndrome. And then his life is transformed… 😉
“Normal” is a relative term. District Twelve is Katniss Everdeen’s everyday world, but to us it’s a dystopian nightmare…
Very relative. And both Katniss’s and your hero’s worlds are perfect examples.
KM, I totally agree with commenter #42, normal is definitely a relative term. There are so many settings, so many characters and so many different ways of telling their stories. If we started every book with explosions, car chases, dinosaur attacks or space battles our readers may never care about the protagonists we’ve worked so hard to flesh out.
This post is phenomenal, full of info I can’t wait to share!!!
Thank you so much for your wisdom KM, and Kristen, thank you for having her on your blog today.
Loved every word!!!
Have a great evening 🙂
Characters come first. Awesome premises, settings, and action are important too. But they’ll all topple without the foundation of great characters to hold them up.
I’m writing a true crime book, and so I really enjoyed your post about “normal world” – I’m definitely getting the book!! thanks a million! 🙂
Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.
Thanks for this post! I recently cut several scenes from my MG book because I thought it was too much “normal world”–I’ll be reconsidering those scenes with the next round of revisions.
Beta readers are always helpful for letting us know if our stories begin in the right place – or too soon or too late. Sometimes it can be easy for us to lose any objectivity about whether or not our beginnings are as gripping as they should be.
I felt my WIP was too short in the ‘normal world’ until I realised the normal world doesn’t end when my protagonist leaves home – it ends when she finds the world isn’t what she thought it was, and realises there’s no returning.
Every story reaches “a point of no return” – usually at the end of the first act, around the 25% mark in the book. That point is almost always going to be where the character finally emerges from whatever his normal world has been up to that point.
My debut novel ‘A Construct of Angels’ is contemporary and takes place in real locations in the city of York.
Very, very normal.
However, I offset this by opening the story just as the main character arrives at the city mortuary to identify someone who may or may not be her missing brother. He turns out to be an angel. Whoosh. ‘Normal’ leaves by the back door.
:Love the title!
TY 🙂 it wasn’t the original title. It only popped into my head in one of the later chapters when the antagonist was taunting the main character. I hold the hope that it intrigues. Or maybe it just makes people frown. 🙂
Great post, the opening part of a story is often my favourite. Some good advice here and will definitely be buying the book in the near future.
Beginnings are tough for the very reason that they’re special. They’re always worth getting right!
Thank you for points 2 and 3! Writers are always being told to start as late of possible, but as a reader I hate been bunged straight into action and drama without knowing the stakes, who the characters are, what they stand to lose, etc. If the writing’s good, I’ll stay with the story for a good while before I want a turning point.
Always valuable to listen to our *own* preferences as readers. If writing guru advice doesn’t align with our own reading experiences, that’s probably a good reason to rethink them.
Great post with lots of useable advice, thanks for sharing.
Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading.
Great points, thank you for posting. 🙂 My manuscript opens in the character’s normal world, though I’ve found a large problem I have with it is that her “normal” world is very different from the “real” world she discovers, and it seems to throw readers for a bit of a loop. I’ve been trying to drop hints as to what’s to come. It helps to see a post supporting setting up the normal world to make the conflict more clear later.
Hi, K.M.! Coming at this late from M.J. Bush’s Writing Geekery. What you’re saying really resonates with me, and makes me feel that my instincts are right on the money for what I’ve been doing. Always a good thing, having someone who actually knows bolster your ego! It just makes sense to me that you have to show your character in their natural environment first. How else are we going to know what she feels is important, so that later we understand why she would risk her life for it?
And yes, it also makes sense that “normal” for one person is not the same for another. You first meet my MC riding her motorcycle back home from Dragon*Con. On the way she has to pass the place where she was held captive by a psychopathic serial killer; only hints there, but those hints foreshadow both her motivation for later and the fears and issues she will have to overcome. That’s her ‘normal,” everyday life. And THEN she is abducted by aliens!
“Normal” is relative!
What if the character in the normal world is a society and culture. Can that be just as affective as a singular location
Represented by a proxy a manifestation of the culture/society. Characters are people. Humans can’t connect with landscapes alone.