TAP014, How to Write a Great Ordinary World Scene
TAP014: The Ordinary World
Are you struggling to figure out how to start your novel? Quite often we place much emphasis on the first sentence or paragraph and not to the large scene. In three-act structure, this scene is referred to as the ordinary world. In this episode, we are going to discuss why this scene is so important and I’ll share seven tips to help you write a great ordinary world scene.
So, let’s get started.
A Little Bit of Housekeeping
Before we dive into this episode, I want to point out a few necessary pieces of information. I’m a thriller writer. By admitting this, I would like to point out that my story structure method reflects this genre. This is the reason I started off with the story hook and not the ordinary world scene. A thriller novel starts off with a crime being committed or with the discovery of a crime. If you’re writing a romance, you may want to not have the hook as a separate scene but an element within the ordinary world scene. Once again, before we get started, I would like to point out this episode will contain a few minor spoilers from the thriller novel, Sanctus by Simon Toyne.
About the Series
This episode is the second instalment of my three-act structure mini-series. If you’ve just joined me on this podcast then, I will link the previous two episodes, the hook, and three-act structure below.
In a nutshell
The ordinary world plot point sits at the start of Act one. It introduces the protagonist who lives a certain life. And, it sets the stage for disruption. I also want to point out I’m unpacking a thriller novel so, if you’re writing a different genre, that isn’t a thriller, mystery, or suspense, then your hook and the ordinary world could appear in the same scene. You need to make sure you’re writing to genre expectations.
What do you need to, include in a great ordinary world scene?
There are seven things you need to do in the ordinary world scene. I know this sounds like a lot of things to think about, but I wanted to break down the elements, so it’s easy for you to follow. But, before we unpack these seven elements, I want to give you a quick recap of the ordinary world scene in Sanctus where we meet the protagonist.
The Sanctus Ordinary World Scene
Liv Adamsen is in central park on Bow Bridge holding a manilla letter-sized envelope in her hand. The envelope is from the US Bureau of Vital Records. At this stage, we don’t know for sure that Liv is her name. You can only assume she is opening her mail. The information in this scene is dished out gradually. She is reminiscing about the moments she had spent with a guy in New York. She contemplates opening the envelope. The letter reads eight-year absence, no new evidence, officially deceased.
At this stage, we don’t know the relationship she has with the missing or now deceased person. We get the impression she had been looking into this person’s whereabouts for quite some time. She had a goal to find this man and get answers, but she had failed. He has been officially declared deceased due to absence. She still doesn’t understand what happened to him. Her memories of him were fading. She gives the man a symbolic Viking death as he wanted even though he might still be alive.
1. Provide Contrast
You need to show the hero’s normal life at the start of the story, before the adventure begins. In saying this, the hero’s life isn’t all tiptoeing through the daises. They have problems. This is precisely the situation we see Liv Adamson, the protagonist in at the ordinary world scene for Sanctus. In this scene, Liv is consumed with her problem of not knowing the whereabouts the missing person. As the story progresses, this scene is in complete contrast with the setting of the rest of the book, Ruin. We know at some point her entire world will be turned upside down, and at this moment she is unaware.
2. Raise Questions
Add to the mystery of the opening scene. Feed the reader answers to some questions while keeping some unanswered. If you start with action, build an emotional connection first by answering the following two questions.
- Who is the character?
- What’s at stake?
As the ordinary world scene in Sanctus develops, we are drip fed information; we are left to guess about her relationship with the missing person. But, we don’t know what the relationship is, all we know is she’s been looking for him for quite some time. This question is left unanswered. Just like, we don’t know her name for sure. All we can assume is she is opening her mail. Throughout the scene, the protagonist is referred to in the feminine third person, she or her.
3. Provide a Goal for the Protagonist.
What does the protagonist want? This goal may change but focus on what they want at the start of the story before everything falls apart. Liv’s focus in this scene is her search for details regarding the whereabouts of her brother, and the state has officially declared him deceased. Everyone else has given up, and she is forced to admit defeat. She still has no answers. She has failed to achieve her goal.
4. Build a Connection Between the Protagonist and the Reader
Another goal of the ordinary world scene is to present a flawed but sympathetic protagonist. As an author you want the reader to build a connection with the protagonist. This connection is what will keep the reader turning the pages of your book. Toyne does an excellent job of this by presenting us with a protagonist searching for a missing loved one and is forced to give up all hope and morn the loss of them. This is something we can all relate too, losing a loved one. Most people can connect to this. It’s a part of the human experience we all have or will have to deal with at some point.
5. Set the Scene with the Essential Details
At this stage of the story, you aim to keep the reader turning those pages. Considering this goal you only want to set the scene with the essential details. Just enough to create intrigue. When we first meet the protagonist we know, she is in central park on bow bridge. But that’s it; we know nothing about the season or the surrounding scene. As a reader, we are left to fill in the blanks. The first part of the scene is devoted to the letter in her hand. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t think the entire scene is necessary.
6. Build a Bridge to the Backstory
Presenting backstory isn’t a licence to info dump. It’s important to release information as it is necessary for the reader. But, don’t underestimate the reader’s ability to reading between the lines. In this scene, we see this in action in two different ways. The first is by not confirming the protagonist’s name and letting them make assumptions, but only at first. The second is the flashbacks where Liv recalls the moments she shared with her loved one. We are given just enough information to understand an element of their relationship and nothing more.
7. Start the Journey Toward the Story Goal
The protagonist fails to achieve this initial goal and as a result, creates a new goal. The new goal is the story’s big goal and drives the protagonist forward for the rest of the story. At the end of the scene, we know that Liv has not achieved her goal. She has reached a dead end. We know that she has been presented with a decision. A decision that comes in the form of a “what next” moment. But, we don’t know what she will do. She gave her loved one a Viking style send-off by burning the letter. But, what we don’t know is, if she will accept this and move on with her life, or if she will continue the search on her own without official help.
Examples of Ordinary World in Literature
Before I wrap up this episode of the podcast, I wanted to leave you with a few examples of ordinary world scenes in literature and further reading. I will leave links to these books in the show notes on my website.
At the start of Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone, Harry Potter is living with his Aunt and Uncle and sleeping under the stairwell. In these scenes, we get a glimpse of his life before the letter arrives from Hogwarts.
The opening scene of J F Penn’s Stone of Fire starts with the protagonist Morgan Sierra going about her usual day in Oxford.
In the first scene of Lee Child’s Killing Floor Jack Reacher is sitting in Eno’s diner eating eggs and drinking coffee. We get a sense that Reacher wanders from town to town. It sets the tone of the novel and the entire series and is the perfect introduction to Jack Reacher.
For those of you who want to dig deeper into writing a great ordinary world scene than I recommend The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Third Edition by Christopher Vogler. The ordinary world scene information starts in book two on page 83.
I know I mentioned this before but, if you want to read a great ordinary world scene, then I highly recommend reading the opening scene of The Killing floor by Lee Child. I’m not a Jack Reader fan, but this opening scene is great and ticks all the boxes for a compelling ordinary world plot point.
The main job of the ordinary world scene is to encourage the reader to continue to turn the pages of the book. This page-turning effect is created by following these seven elements. Just to refresh your memory, these seven elects are: provide contrast, raise questions, provide a goal for the protagonist, create a connection between the reader and the main character, set the scene with the essential details, build a bridge to the backstory, and starting the journey towards the initial story goal.
As always I have to ask, are you writing your first novel or, are you writing an ordinary world scene? Which tip did you find most helpful? Let me know by coming over to the blog post or the YouTube video and sharing in the comments section.
Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you in the next episode of The Indie Authorpreneur podcast where I will discuss the inciting incident scene.
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I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the first book in the James Lalonde series. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.