If you are familiar with most of the common plot structures for fiction, both for novelists and screenwriters, you have heard the term Ordinary World. Even if you aren’t familiar with these plotting structures, the term kind of gives it away.
The Ordinary World is the world in which your protagonist lives before the events of your story change it or him. It’s his “normal.”
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it’s Dorothy in Kansas with Toto before the tornado hits. This Ordinary World appears in both the book and the movie. It’s a bit different in each, but it’s there.
You can also find it in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope when Luke is at home taking care of the droids and having dinner with his aunt and uncle.
And it’s in more recent movies and books too. Katniss Everdeen, from Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games, in District 12 before her sister’s name is called for the Games. Moana in her village before the curse and her grandmother’s urgings send her off to find Maui.
So that said, it’s obvious Ordinary World is still an important element of plot that you should consider when writing your novel or screenplay. But why? And, maybe more importantly, how much should you include?
First, the Ordinary World gives your readers a chance to connect with your characters before the action of the story gets going. This makes it popular with readers of more character-driven stories like women’s fiction or cozy mysteries. It also allows you to set up a few rules of the world that you may want to draw on later. The Districts in The Hunger Games for example or the legends in Moana.
Another reason to include Ordinary World though is that it sets up a comparison for the end of your story.
If you let your reader see how things were before the events of the story, it will make your character’s arc more meaningful. It also allows you to do some fun things like “bookend” scenes where you put the character in a similar place or surrounded by the same people at the end of the book as we saw them in the beginning during their Ordinary World. This helps to really highlight how they and their world have changed.
In Bridget Jones Diary we see Bridget walking in the snow to her parents for their holiday curry buffet. At the end of story she’s back in the snow, this time evolved and mature enough to accept the “good guy” Mark Darcy.
Now for the how much?
It depends. As I said above certain readers or lovers of certain types of stories like more or less Ordinary World. And in my experience working with new writers, far more writers err on the side of way too much Ordinary World than not enough. Ordinary World is not the place to dump all the backstory you have stored in your brain. It also is not the place for pages of description, no matter how lovely it may be. It is also important to remember that while Ordinary World is still a popular and useful part of any story, it is not as popular or even as tolerated as it was in times gone by. Modern readers and viewers want to get on with the story. There are even stories and readers who don’t need it at all.
That’s right not at all.
Examples of this can be found in thrillers quite a bit, but also any story where action is of the utmost importance to reader/viewer satisfaction. In that case you may choose to jump right in with that dead body or that ticking bomb or that marriage proposal that forces your character into action. You may also choose to shift things around a bit and give us that action propelling scene (Inciting Incident) first before moving on for a brief stint in Ordinary World. (Note: There are tricks to doing this well. I don’t recommend just plucking a scene out of order and dropping it in the beginning to give that false sense of action, only to immediately slow us back down to a crawl… but that is something to address in another post.)
Back to the original questions. Do you need Ordinary World and if so, how much?
Most likely yes. Almost all stories are improved with at least a peek at how things were before, but don’t feel you have to include it just because some random blogger (ahem) told you to. And so far as how much? As much as your readers want and that serves a purpose to your story. If half your book is Ordinary World, you are probably going to be the only person who knows it because everyone else set it down a long time ago.
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check our her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing.