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Stage One: The Ordinary World

THE ORDINARY WORLD: The hero is introduced to his ordinary world. Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you’re going to tell a story about a fish out of his water, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world.

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Dorothy in Kansas.
  • The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins in Hobbiton.
  • Star Wars: Luke Skywalker on Tatooine.
  • The Lion King: Simba at Pride Rock.

The Ordinary World is as different as possible from the Special World the hero will soon enter, so that audience and hero 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 Technicolour Special World of Oz. In the Hobbit, the Shire is peaceful, quaint and green, and probably quite boring. Quite the contrast from the myriad landscapes the hobbits will encounter, including the warlike, dangerous, blackened – but exciting – county of Mordor. Yet the seeds of adventure are already here, in this Ordinary World. In Oz, Dorothy clashes with Miss Gulch and is rescued by three farmhands – this is foreshadowing for the Wicked Witch and the three friends (scarecrow, lion and tin man) she finds in the Special World.

Every hero needs three conflicts: an inner one, a conflict with another person, and a conflict with the whole universe: Luke Skywalker’s inner yearning for adventure, bored at being a farmhand; his battle with his great adversary, Darth Vader, and his fight with the whole galactic empire and dark side of the force. At the climax of the story, he’s going to have to beat all three at once.

The audience should feel a strong bond of sympathy with the hero – he (or she) is like us; during this story we see the world through their eyes; they are the ‘centre of the good’ in their world. This doesn’t mean every hero is a goody two-shoes: for every lovely little hobbit, or valiant Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), or suave Rick Blaine (Casablanca) or charming Harry Potter, or neurotic Neo (The Matrix), there are plenty of violent gangsters, devils, conmen and crooked politicians in stories, who are the heroes. That’s one of the warm thing about humans – through the power of storytelling, we can see the good in just about anyone.

Look at it from the point of view of the ‘baddy’ – in their own world, they are the hero, not the anti-hero or evil one. Lord Sauron (Lord of the Rings) just wants to rule Middle Earth; Darth Vader (Star Wars) is just trying to get his son to rule the galaxy; Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) is an abandoned orphan who was wants to live forever … ‘bad guys’ who aren’t actually good in some way, simply aren’t interesting.

This opening part often begins in medias res – right bang smack in the middle of the action. As a reader or audience, you’re thinking: What on Earth is going on? Who are these people? Where did all this come from? But gradually you figure it out; you absorb yourself in the world before your eyes in the theatre, or on the screen, or on the soft pages of the book in your hands. This is called the willing suspension of disbelief* – it means that, even if the story be set in a magical world, or in outer space, or another country, you can identify with it because the characters feel real.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is the Ordinary World of a story you know?
  2. How does the author introduce the hero?
  3. Is there foreshadowing to suggest where the story will go?
  4. Are the heroic journeys/stories of men & women different?
  5. Do different cultures need different kinds of stories?

*A phrase coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1817.

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