Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Ordinary World

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Now that I’ve finished my series about archetypes, I am beginning a new one about mythic structure.

Mythic structure is also known as “monomyth” and even more commonly as the hero’s journey. Mythologist Joseph Campbell described monomyth in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Film development executive Chris Vogler adapted and simplified many of Campbell’s ideas in his book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. (I also like how Vogler modernized Campbell’s stages of the hero’s journey, making them less gender-specific.)

As with archetypes, there is some controversy over mythic structure, with the main complaint being that it results in clichéd and rote storytelling. But, as with archetypes, that only happens if you resort to clichéd and rote storytelling. Structure is a very important aspect of writing, whether it’s a novel or a screenplay. It’s necessary but also endlessly variable, which I hope to demonstrate in these articles about each stage of the hero’s journey.

In Vogler’s version of mythic structure, there are 12 stages of the hero’s journey:

The Ordinary World

The Call to Adventure

The Refusal of the Call

Meeting with the Mentor

Crossing the First Threshold

Tests, Allies and Enemies

Approach to the Innermost Cave

The Ordeal

Reward

The Road Back

Resurrection

Return with the Elixir

Here are some thoughts on the best way to present your main character in The Ordinary World:

1. Resist the temptation to show your protagonist going through a routine, ordinary day. Even though you are showing her in her ordinary world, SOMETHING should be happening, SOMETHING should seem unusual or different.

For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy longs to escape her ordinary world, but more than that is happening. Her dog Toto gets into Miss Gulch’s garden and the vengeful woman threatens to have the dog put to sleep. This gives her a problem and a goal right off the bat.

The worst is the character waking up and a description given of his or her bedroom. If you’re writing a contemporary story, avoid doing this. Yes, the movie Back to the Future starts this way. That’s the exception. (Even in that case, it shows Marty’s bedroom is far from ordinary, with so many clocks, and an invention that automatically feeds his dog. It fits in beautifully with some of the story’s themes, including time and invention.)

2. The only real exception to showing a “typical, ordinary day” is if the ordinary world of the character is extraordinary to your reader. The typical, ordinary day of Katniss Everdeen is so foreign to most people that it works, especially when it comes to world building a futuristic dystopia. She wakes up and goes about her usual routine, which is to sneak under the wire fence surrounding her community to hunt because there is no other way to provide food to her family. Doing so, we find out quickly, is punishable by death.

Still, the day described itself is far from ordinary. It’s Reaping Day, when a representative from the ruling Capitol arrives to choose one boy and one girl to fight in The Hunger Games.

3. It is perfectly acceptable to start a story with a glimpse of the extraordinary world. For instance, Star Wars: A New Hope starts with a rebel ship boarded by the antagonist Darth Vader, Princess Leia recording a message to Obi Wan Kenobi, and her droids escaping the ship. Then it switches to Tatooine, the home planet of the protagonist, Luke.

4. If you do a glimpse into the extraordinary world, it works far better if it’s an action-oriented scene. The movie version of The Hunger Games chose to begin with a glimpse into the extraordinary world so they could do some exposition about the games. I think the book’s beginning is stronger because it’s action-oriented (a girl hunting) and not just two people talking.

The Star Wars example works because it’s an action scene in a movie about war. Both the book and movie versions of Jaws also do this quite effectively by opening with a shark attack. The opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark starts with an action scene of Indiana Jones trying to steal a booby-trapped artifact. It introduces him after this in his ordinary life, where he is a college professor.

In the first Terminator movie, heroine Sarah Connor’s world is so mundane (she’s a waitress with a crappy job and lousy love life) that it would have been painful to sit through–if they had not shown the killer cyborg and Kyle Reese arriving from the future in the first scenes.

5. Try to make the ordinary world different from the extraordinary world of the adventure. There usually needs to be a significant contrast.

The 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz emphasized the difference between Dorothy’s ordinary and extraordinary worlds by shooting the Kansas portions in sepia-toned black & white, and shooting the Oz scenes in vibrant Technicolor.

In the movie Local Hero, it’s a contrast between fast-paced American city and a laid-back, remote Scottish village. In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder trades the New York jungle for an actual Latin American jungle. In Jaws, it’s land and sea. In the classic comedy Some Like it Hot, it’s wintry Chicago and sunny Florida. (Also, the contrast is how in the ordinary world the characters are men, in the extraordinary world they are men trying to pass off as women.)

6. The protagonist is nearly always dissatisfied with their ordinary existence. Dorothy even sings a song about it. Harry Potter is treated like dirt by his relatives. Chief Brody in Jaws is an outsider who feels completely out of place in his current ordinary world. Like Dorothy, Luke wants nothing more than to escape his home.

7. The ordinary world frequently foreshadows things about the extraordinary world. In the clever opening of Romancing the Stone, it starts with an action adventure scene of a woman in a Western vanquishing a villain and reuniting with her true love. It turns out to be a scene in a novel written by the protagonist, a reclusive romance writer who lives with her cat. It foreshadows her adventure and love story that happen later in the extraordinary world of the story.

8. Even though they may occupy a mundane space, it’s usual for a protagonist be going through some kind of transitional stage at the beginning of a story. In the cases of young protagonists such as Dorothy, Harry Potter, Marty McFly, Katniss and Luke Skywalker, it’s simply the beginning of a transition from childhood to adulthood. (Even though Katniss has been functioning like an adult since her father’s death.)

There are other ways to convey the feeling of transition. In the Jaws example, Brody is brand-new at both his job and as a citizen of the community he’s protecting. Joan Wilder is just finishing a novel and has yet to start something new.

A character can be starting or ending something, entering or leaving an institution of some kind–school, prison, the military–or traveling from one place to another. Anything that conveys that things are already beginning to change for the character in their own ordinary world can work.

9. Something is off or needs to be addressed in the ordinary world. Of course, in The Hunger Games, it’s the crushing oppression and poverty of Katniss’ world. In most versions of the Arthurian legend, it’s chaos because there is no rightful king to rule the land. In the beginning of Game of Thrones, there is a king, but he’s too lazy to rule properly. Marty’s family in Back to the Future is extremely dysfunctional.

There’s always something in the beginning that needs addressing by someone, although the protagonist may feel there’s nothing she can do to change things.

10. Something is off or needs to be addressed about the protagonist while they are in the ordinary world. It can be external (the unfortunate circumstances of Harry Potter’s, Marty’s and Katniss’ lives) or internal (Brody’s fear and insecurity about the world he’s now occupying, Joan Wilder’s shyness and lack of confidence in real life).

They also many not know that something needs to be addressed, i.e. Sarah Connor doesn’t know a cyborg has traveled from the future to kill her so she can’t give birth to the man who will save humanity from the uprising of cyborgs.

The ordinary world is where you plant the seeds for the protagonist’s character arc. Don’t wait until the story progresses into the extraordinary world.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Ordinary World

  1. A lot of good information here! I never really gave the Ordinary World that much thought before, but was running a mental checklist for my WIP and was pleased (and relieved!) to see I hit the mark. Of particular interest are numbers 1, 2, 8, 9, and 10. Really useful!

  2. Nice! This structure is so ingrained in our subconscious through the absorption of every story we’ve ever heard that we find ourselves applying it to our own work whether we know the formal components or not. (Happened to me too!)

    1. This is very true. I noticed when my niece and nephew were little that they had already absorbed story structure. In fact, they were amazing at pointing out structural weaknesses in movies and books I read to them!

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