Lately I’ve been studying The Hero’s Journey, or, in its original form, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The simplified form of this goes through twelve ‘steps’ to define a story.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
- The Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies
- The Supreme Ordeal
- The Road Back
- Return with the ‘Elixir’
Alright, now, I know naturally stories are much, much more complicated, and normally I’m the first on beating down formulas and writing rules and such fluff. But on the other hand… people would look pretty awful without a skeleton, and it’s certainly not what you see when you look at them. There’s also a ton of variance to the formula– steps can be rearranged, added to, deleted altogether. But probably most of all, having seen it appear naturally in my own work, I think this bears a closer study. Think of it as a way of studying story elements.
So, act one, part one. The beginning– The ordinary world.
The ordinary world, supposedly, in the starting point– the native setting before thrusting the character into something unfamiliar and alien, so as to better contrast the difference between the two. Which makes sense. If something changes in the story (and it would be pretty dull if nothing ever happened), you need to show what it changed from. The shire before Bilbo’s road East in The Hobbit. Grace’s reckless, lonely character in the movie Miss Congeniality, fighting with the microwave in her empty apartment. The Secret of Nimh’s Mrs. Brisby seeking help for her ill son.
What strikes me, though, is that none of these worlds are really ordinary, and they’re not necessarily comfortable. Bilbo Baggins may have been a comfortable bachelor who somehow needed to do nothing but eat tea and cakes and blow smoke rings (I’m not sure how, as he wasn’t filthy rich before the end of The Hobbit– how rich was his Took/Baggins inheritance?), but the other two examples begin the story with problems.
That’s how the world works, after all. Problems everywhere. I very much doubt, in that sense, that there ever is an ordinary world– just, the world currently untouched by the larger adventure that’s in the midst of approaching. Ned Stark, in A Game of Thrones, had enough work to do before the King sent word that he was coming to Winterfell, and as much of a fuss of hosting the royal family went, we never left that stage until Ned admitted that the king had asked him to be his Hand. The prologue, the executed deserter, the direwolf puppies in the snow, the arrival of the royal family, Jon’s issues with his stepmother (I loathe that woman– if you want to hear my anti-Catelyn Tully-Stark rant, I’ll be happy to supply it), Arya’s problems with her perfect sister Sansa, the grim warnings that ‘Winter Is Coming’… ordinary. Business as usual. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems.
I wonder if that’s the first element to The Ordinary World. To begin your story with a metaphorical warning. Winter is coming, in one way or another. The introduction of problems provide reason, and sometimes motive, for the launch of the story, but they aren’t the story in and of itself. It’s stepping around rubble before the character stops, looks up, sees a mountain towering over him, and begins to wonder if this was really the way they even ought to be headed.
Furthermore, I think if you have a multiple character story, this ‘formula’ can occur for each character, in different ways. Everyone starts somewhere. Everyone has their initial ups and downs– a relationship, a housing situation, a romantic let-down, a lost job. In A Game of Thrones, Jon Snow called himself to adventure to escape his stepmother (bypassing the ‘Refusal of the Call’ altogether) at a pace related to, but ultimately independent of Ned Stark’s adventure. Tyrion Lannister’s and Daenerys Targaryen’s didn’t start until much, much later, despite being some of the most important characters to the series, and they receive their calls in such different ways that we never much notice that it is a ‘call’ element. Furthermore, because their viewpoint builds up the story before they’re fully involved, their ‘ordinary world’ is much better established for it.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’ll get to the Call to Adventure later.