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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Normal World

Structuring Your Novel

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!

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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.

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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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Anyone in publishing will tell you that one of the most important parts of your novel is the beginning. As an editor I hear, “Oh, but wait until you get to the good part on page 50. This is all the lead up.” Um, no. Doesn’t work that way. You might have a humdinger on page 50, but you are competing against authors who hook readers in the first three-ten pages. Many agents freely confess that they can tell by page two if they will even bother reading the entire sample submitted.

Why? Because they sit up all night thinking of ways to crush writer egos. Kidding!

To be blunt, agents want to be good at what they do and make a lot of money doing it (like the rest of us :D). How do they do this? By helping writers sell a lot of books. They understand that a novel’s beginning is the “hook” that will make or break a novel when it comes to readers. I actually believe that, as e-readers become more popular that beginnings will become more important than ever. I know that I frequently download free samples. I figure if a writer can interest me (sell me) in 3 pages, then I will read 5. If she can hook me in 5 I will read the free 30 pages. If I make it through 30, then this writer deserves my money and my time. But, remember, she had to make it past 3. Good writers do their homework and know what goes into a great beginning. I recommend studying great beginnings so you know what they look like.

So what makes a great beginning? So glad you asked. There are a lot of components that can go into a great beginning, but I am only going to discuss one of those components today—normal world. I believe if you can understand why normal world is important, the functions it serves, then you will be less eager to cut it out completely.

Normal world is vital. It is easy to feel the pressure to be interesting and begin our books with a car chase or a shoot-out.

**Hey, there isn’t a mistake I haven’t made as a writer or seen as an editor. So lighten up. It’s okay to goof up and live to laugh about it.

We as writers are so eager to be interesting in the first three lines, that we can easily forget an essential component to fiction…the normal world. Not wanting to bore readers, we toss them in a tank of sharks and grin—That’ll hook ‘em for sure.

The problem with that thinking? When we thrust a reader right into the heart of the action immediately, they haven’t been given a chance to care about or connect with any of our characters. Thus, what can easily happen is that we end up creating melodrama instead of drama.

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, and there are still figures draped with blue blankets surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane, and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If you open your story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, you are taking a risk. We readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.

Whether in books or on film, this is why normal world is critical. It gives the observer a chance to see the world as it would have remained had the inciting incident never happened. Would Luke Skywalker have been nearly as interesting if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed? And since we as the viewing audience were afforded a glimpse of Skywalker’s loved ones at the beginning of the movie, it had more impact on us when they were brutally murdered. It also helped rally us to Skywalker’s side as he set off on his journey.

2. Normal world gives the audience a baseline for character.  

By understanding how our hero is at the beginning, we also get a picture of what must be developed by the climax so our hero can be victorious. In the beginning of Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder is a single older woman who lives alone with her cat and writes about love and adventure because she has neither…and she is to afraid to pursue them. Because we see normal world, we then recognize the inciting incident when we see it—the phone call from sister who has been kidnapped. Additionally, because we have witnessed this fraidy-cat writer, we observers are now seated in real conflict as we wonder—How on earth is she going to pull this off? We have seen this woman who is afraid of everything and wonder HOW she will develop the courage she will need to triumph. We are…hooked.

Joan’s life from the moment she receives the call from her sister will no longer be the same. A series of events have been set in motion and conflicts must be resolved to restore the natural order of things. But, since we are storytellers, we know that we must leave the world better than when we found it. Joan, at the end of her quest, must have love and courage to live the life of adventure she only could dream about in the beginning, which leads to my next point…

Normal world gives us an opportunity to see the character’s starting point on his or her arc. Joan at the beginning was afraid of her own shadow. Joan at the end has been tested and tried by bad guys, jungles, snakes, and alligators, and has come out victorious. She as a person had to change in order to triumph. Your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in the opening scene (for one reason or another) should FAIL. Why? Because then victory at the end is far sweeter.

3. Normal world also allows the reader to see what is at stake.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the story begins with the Hobbits. The wizard Gandalf the Grey is riding into town for a visit with fireworks in tow. There is a reason for these initial scenes of carefree laughter on a beautiful summer day. We as the audience get to see what is to be lost should our heroes fail.

In the beginning we witness a lush green world that is lovely and innocent…but in danger. We are told in the prologue that the Ring of Power was not destroyed. Thus the Ring represents an invisible, but ever-present threat. But, because we witnessed this world in an almost perfected state, it is more psychologically disturbing to us as the darkness grows. As the tale unfolds and Sauron grows stronger, we see progressively that the days literally grow darker and darker, the shadows deepen, and no one smiles or laughs any more.

At the end of the trilogy, in Return of the King we get to the ending scenes and see that the world of innocence and joy have been saved, but we see it has come at a price. The little Hobbits who were so naïve and bedazzled by the dreams of adventure are now war veterans, home from a journey that no one in the Shire will ever fully comprehend. We see them sitting quiet at the table. We hear the unspoken words between them because we witnessed the darkness they faced and defeated. We, the audience comprehend the price they paid so the world could remain innocent. Yet, we know it was all worth it in that, unlike the beginning, the Ring will never threaten this world again. The world is restored…only better.

Points to remember:

  1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama—we have to get to know the characters in order to care and be vested in them
  2. Normal world gives us a character baseline—we need an initial glimpse to see how our hero is not in a position to succeed in the beginning. This creates genuine conflict in that we want to read the story to figure out how that protagonist could ever take down the antagonist.
  3. Normal world lets us see what is at stake—We need to see what could be lost. We also need to see what the hero may be clinging to that is keeping him from answering the call to adventure. The inciting incident must pry away something meaningful (Joan Wilder and security) or offer blessed escape (Harry Potter—escape from abuse).

What are some of the great beginnings either in film or in books? What would you recommend we study?

Happy writing!

Until next time…

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