Story Structure #14: Act I, Stage 1: The Ordinary World

Act I is all about the Ordinary World. It is where we meet our Hero. Where they live – most of the time. Eventually our stories will rocket them into a Special World, but before we go there, we need to have a strong sense of what normal is for our Hero and our world. We meet the Hero in his everyday circumstances, we create the mood, tweak the lighting, play a little ambient music to really set the stage.

In addition to meeting our Hero, we need to get inside him. Straight away, our reader needs to find himself empathizing with the spunky little guy he’s going to follow from page one all the way to the end. Everything has to be laid out meticulously, to make sure that every image says what we want it to say. First impressions just may be everything with our stories. What is at stake? What is important, to our Hero and to his world?

Also in Act I (not necessarily Stage 1), we need to set out our theme. We’re not spelling things out here. Our reader wants to strive with us through the story, and have those a-ha moments throughout, within the dramatic story arc, but also within the theme. If we, as authors, say everything we have to say on page one, what is the point? Our readers want to get to know us, our ideals, our motivations, our social statements, through our stories. Act I, within the Ordinary World, is the place that we first start laying our the seeds.

And finally, this is also a good place to provide the needed backstory. Again, we don’t want to throw it all in the reader’s face, but allow them to think about it, to derive their own truth from our limited, but necessary shell of details. We give enough, and not too much.

Here are all the missions that we have to complete in Stage 1:

Introduction to the Ordinary World

  • We meet home base, gaining context for our story
    • Provides contrast for the Special World to come
  • Opening image is a suggestion of: the story to come; or the theme; or the Special World
    • It sets the stage
    • It conjures up a mood, an image or a metaphor, all by our design
  • Hero’s entrance – Defines the hero straight away
    • How will our reader first experience our hero?
      • First actions speak volumes
      • First actions and behaviors should be characteristic – defining and revealing character
        • No bait and switch – be consistent
    • Raises dramatic questions about hero – goals, inner and outer problems
      • What’s at stake?
  • Lures our reader into our hero – empathy – identification, bond, sympathy
    • Universal goals, drives, desires, or needs
    • Hero’s Lack (missing elements) can drive reader’s sympathy and desire for their wholeness
      • Hero’s Lack makes him human, real
      • Lack is sometimes hidden, but still somehow revealed
  • First statement of theme comes in the Ordinary World (In Act I)
    • Theme: “something set before” – needs to be laid out in advance
  • Backstory through exposition – artfully and gracefully reveal all backstory and all other pertinent information about the plot
    • Reader will be more involved  if they have to work a little to piece things together
      • Reveal indirectly: visually, on the run, through conflict

Again, remember that those last two, Theme and Backstory, need to come forth within Act I, not necessarily Stage 1.

Thus far, our Hero is just plunking along, business as usual. He is about to be Called to something bigger, but before we issue the Call, we want to make sure our reader is really digging our Hero as he is. Spruce him up. Old Spice and all that jazz. Maybe a snazzy new suit. Keep him true to himself, but make sure everything about him is larger than life, glowing, kicked into high gear. He’s meeting his audience. He should definitely bring his A game.


As usual, a printable version of this section, for your reference, can be found here: Stage 1: Introduction to the Ordinary World

To view a chronological listing of the posts in this series, continue below:

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