The Best Way to Make Use of Your Story’s Normal World

The Best Way to Make Use of Your Story's Normal WorldWriters can’t afford to waste readers’ time or test their patience by meandering about in their opening scenes. At first glance, this would seem to mean you have to get right to the point of the story. You might feel compelled to open your story right at the moment when your character’s world is changed forever. The idea is that if you open at a moment of fever-pitch tension, readers won’t be able to stop turning the pages,

There’s no question this is often the most effective way to begin a story. However, most stories work best when you first take the time to introduce the character’s Normal World before the Inciting Event comes blasting into view. Doing so, allows you to provide contrast with the difficulties to follow for your characters. It can also up the tension by showing what’s at stake for the characters if they fail.

The classic western True Grit gives us a good example. If the movie had opened with the the murder of protagonist Mattie Ross’s father, we would have lost both the opportunity to immediately identify with Mattie as the main character and to witness the loving relationship between her and her father.

Director Henry Hathaway slowed down enough at the beginning to offer viewers a few quick scenes, showing the Rosses’ farm, Mattie’s family, the murderer Tom Chaney’s relationship with them, and particularly the interaction between Mattie and her doomed father.

As a result, when a drunken Chaney kills Frank Ross a few scenes later, we care about what’s just happened—and we’re completely on board when Mattie decides to track down her father’s killer.

Sometimes it pays to take your time!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you introduced your protagonist’s Normal World in the beginning of your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. AAAHHHHH, I love you, KM!!!! 😀 THIS is what I’ve been trying to tell people about my manuscript. My story has some intrigue in the beginning, some strange things occurring that are somewhat subtle, but the inciting event doesn’t happen right off. It can’t. It would mean nothing without knowing what my main character has to give up when she makes her choice.

    Thank you, thank you, for posting this!!!!

  2. Great entry. Thank you!

  3. @Kat: Interesting characters and unanswered questions are often enough to carry a story up to the inciting event (see my post on Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride) – especially if the reader is already aware of the inciting event via the back cover.

    @girlseeksplace: You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Good stuff. I always hear about starting with excitement, but you’re right, we need to care first. Maybe there’s a good way to weave them both in ;o)

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Oh, yes, it’s definitely possible to do both. And there are many good books and movies that exemplify this technique.

  6. Love the video approach. This is my first visit to your sight and I’ll be back.
    I certainly agree with what you are saying here. It depends a lot on what kind of story you want to tell and what the story is.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

  7. Thanks, Arlee! The videos have been a fun project. Every story is different. If we fall into the trap of treating them the same, we’re crippling ourselves.

  8. I think that providing a hook into your story is very important. As an author you have to give me, the reader, a reason to keep turning the pages. At the same time you don’t have to necessarily have to show me the inciting event, as long as you give me a reason to stick with it until you do.
    Of course this varies with the length of your work, in short stories you need to get to the point pretty quickly if you don’t do it right out of the gate.

    This is a great post, and you used a perfect example.

  9. Nice point about the back cover. I can’t count how many times I was tense waiting for what I knew was going to happen to rip the protagonist’s normal life to shreds. A little knowledge goes a long way.

    A staid beginning (not too long, of course) is also a nice time to drop in tidbits that will come into play later — a cross look from a rival, the unrest of the land, a protagonist’s thoughts of a lover, etc.

  10. @Jeff: Entertainment – even in meatier, more intellectual stories – is the name of the game. Keep the reader entertained, and he really won’t care if you’re following the “rules” or not.

    @Jonathan: The lull before the storm – when done well – is often one of the most interesting bits of artistic freedom in a story.

  11. Thanks for validating my start. I introduce the cast in their normal lives before the fun starts. Too many craft books tell me differently. Thanks for an insightful post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are a lot of misconceptions about “in medias res” floating around. But none of them need (or should) invalidate the importance of the Normal World.

  12. Hannah Killian says

    I suppose my protagonist’s Normal World is his happy newlywed life with his wife, so there’s some fluff going on.

    But there’s also frequent nightmares both he and his sister have as they get closer to the anniversary of their parents’ deaths in a car accident six years before. And some worry that their family’s enemies have started to close in again.

  13. This is where I’m struggling at the moment. I began with the advice to plunge my MC into terrible trouble as quickly as possible and keep her there. I began with the advice to keep the story moving, to grip my reader by the throat and ever let go. I’m starting my second revision of the novel, and this time around, I’m trying to add the flesh that seems to me to be missing from my skeleton of a story (all action and dialogue.) But my inciting incident is in chapter 2 (25 pages into the story?) and my binding point is in chapter 4 (maybe 50 pages into the story.) I’m trying to figure out how to add “ordinary world” in between, especially since chapter one (a prologue, really) takes place when she’s 6 or 8 and the second chapter begins when she’s 20.

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