Understanding the Normal World of a Story’s First Act

No matter their genre or focus, stories are about something happening—a shift in the status quo. Where the characters begin is not where they end. This may refer to their literal physical surroundings, or to a more metaphorical state of being—or, very possibly, to both. Whatever the case, it is important for authors to understand the idea of the four “worlds” represented within a story’s structure. The Normal World of a story’s First Act is perhaps the most referenced of the four. Fully understanding it (and the other three) can help you visualize a powerful story progression for your characters.

Regular readers of this site may have noticed that I use the terms Normal World and Adventure World quite often in discussions of story structure. I’ve written some before about the Normal World of the First Act, but recently I realized I’ve never delved specifically into the Adventure World of the Second Act. Particularly because the word “adventure” can be misleading when viewed as anything other than symbolic, I want to provide a quick resource that examines exactly what is meant by this term. (Bottom line: the Adventure World is not something belonging only to adventure stories.)

While brainstorming this post, I kept coming full circle to the realization that if the First and Second Acts are “Worlds” unto themselves, then surely the Third Act should be as well. And so, what started out as an idea for a single post has turned into a small four-part series, which will discuss:

1. The Normal World of the First Act

2. The Adventure World of the Second Act

3. The Underworld of the Third Act

4. The New Normal World of the Resolution

The terms Normal World and Adventure World are derived from concepts in the Hero’s Journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and originally distilled for writers in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. All these decades later, of course, we can find a multitude of riffs off the Hero’s Journey and further developments of it. I’ve talked about my take on the Hero Arc in my series about archetypal character arcs, which explores five more “journeys” beyond just that of the Hero.

In some ways the terms Normal World and Adventure World are specifically evocative of the Hero’s Journey, since these terms are intricately intertwined with the unique challenges faced by a Hero archetype. In my archetype series, I have used distinctive terms for the First and Second Acts in each archetypal arc (e.g., the First Act in the Queen Arc takes place in the symbolic “Domestic World” and the Second Act in the “Monarchic World”).

However, I personally still use the terms Normal World and Adventure World to apply to all stories of all types. I do this primarily for consistency and clarity, since I have always used these terms in a general way in story-structure discussions, and also because I do feel they are solid umbrella terms that make sense for almost any type of story.

With all that said, today let’s take a peek at the symbolic importance of your story’s Normal World in the First Act.

The Normal World of the First Act

The First Act represents the first quarter of a story, from 1% to 25%. It opens with the story’s Hook, is divided by the Inciting Event halfway through (12% mark), and ends with the threshold of the First Plot Point (around the 25% mark). The First Act is the “setup” for the rest of the story. The protagonist’s interaction with the main conflict will not come to a full boil until the First Plot Point’s entrance into the Second Act, which means that the First Act is primarily about getting your pieces and players into place and, perhaps most importantly, creating the context for the changes that will occur in the story to follow.

First Act Timeline

What Does the Normal World Symbolize?

It is important to remember that these terms are all symbolic. The function of the Normal World in a story is to indicate to readers the status quo from which the protagonist is about to depart. It represents not so much a physical setting but more so a state of being.

As such, the Normal World may indeed represent the most normal of all normalities—quite literally the character’s normal life before it is touched by the conflicts and challenges of the story to come. Because one of the main functions of the First Act is to offer the opportunity for your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment, it is often useful to create a Normal World in which the protagonist is allowed simply to be himself—doing something he normally does.

This normalcy doesn’t have to be healthy for the character or even objectively good or desirable in any way. It is a representation not just of where the character will start the story, but of who he is in the beginning of the story. For good or ill, the Normal World is the place, person, and state of being that the character will leave behind, probably forever, once he engages with the story’s main conflict.

How Does the Normal World Function as a Physical Setting?

The setting and situation in which your story opens may be anything but normal. Yours may be a sci-fi epic, set in a bizarre setting completely abnormal to the readers’ experience—such as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which is set on… the moon.

Even if the story is set in a real place, here in our actual world, the circumstances in which the protagonist begins the story may still not be what we consider “normal”—such as the prisoner of war camp in The Great Escape.

Great Escape

The Great Escape (1963), The Mirisch Company.

Of course, the Normal World may be utterly and even stiflingly normal, as in stories such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or It’s a Wonderful Life.

George Bailey James Stewart It's a Wonderful Life Frank Capra

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Liberty Films.

It’s also possible the Normal World may not be particularly normal for your protagonist. The story may open in medias res, with the character having already arrived in a new place or having been thrust into a new situation, as in Footloose or The Bourne Identity.

Whatever the case, the Normal World must still be set up to represent something (place, state of mind, perspective, safety, etc.) that the protagonist will leave behind once she reaches the First Plot Point.

Perhaps most classically, in many stories, the protagonist will indeed physically depart the Normal World setting—to embark on that famous Quest of the Hero’s Journey. For example, Harry Potter is able to escape the horrible normalcy of his life with his relatives and enter the magical Adventure World of Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Warner Bros.

However, you will notice that in most of the stories mentioned above, the protagonist does not actually leave the physical setting at the First Plot Point. For example, George Bailey famously never leaves his small town of Bedford Falls. Indeed, the First Plot Point event of his father’s death is what seals George’s fate and ensures that he cannot escape on his adventures around the world. In this story, the setting introduced in the First Act’s Normal World never changes; the whole story takes place in Bedford Falls. Nevertheless, the First Plot Point signifies a major departure from George’s personal “normal.” Once his father dies and he must take over the family business, his Normal World is changed forever.

In other stories, such as The Bourne Identity, the story opens with the character in a brand-new setting—in this instance a fishing boat in the middle of the sea. Even in stories that begin in medias res, the First Act must still be structurally in tact. It must still set up story to follow, build into an Inciting Event/Call to Adventure, and only then fully thrust the character into the conflict at the First Plot Point. This means that even when the opening setting is new for the protagonist, it must still represent a Normal World.

Jason Bourne is a particularly interesting example, since not only is he in a new place, he also has amnesia and therefore no memory of how he got there or even who he is. How then can he provide any personal context or status quo for a Normal World? The story shows this new and bewildering situation in which he finds himself is his Normal World (and, indeed, for the time being, his only world). The story builds from there, as he begins to collect clues about himself and eventually must leave the comparative safety and normalcy of the fishing boat in order to engage with the main conflict of discovering his identity.

The Bourne Identity (2002), Universal Pictures.

How Does the Normal World Demonstrate Theme and Impact Character Arc?

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The Normal World is symbolic in large part because what it is really all about is theme. From the perspective of character arc, the Normal World represents the worldview with which the protagonist will begin the story. In the push-pull between a story’s thematic Truth and Lie, the Normal World demonstrates the character’s initial perspective.

In most arcs, the Normal World will represent the Lie the Character Believes. As such, it offers a vivid opportunity to dramatize why the character(s) believes this Lie and how it is impacting his life. The conflict throughout the rest of the story will challenge this Lie with a posited thematic Truth (which may or may not be accepted by the character, depending on what type of arc he is undergoing). This is why it’s so important to create a solid and fleshed-out First Act, which can thoroughly explore the protagonist’s “before” mindset and all the reasons he is currently trapped in it.

This is equally true in a Positive-Change Arc story such as Jane Eyre, a Flat-Arc story such as The Hunger Games, and a Negative-Change Arc such as The Godfather.

The Hunger Games (2012), Lionsgate.

Indeed, as indicated in the previous section, the Normal World may not be so much a physical “world” at all, but it will always represent the “world” of the character’s initial mindset within the story. This is the foundational symbolism of the Normal World. How you choose to further dramatize this subtext with an external setting will depend on the needs of your own individual story.


Structurally, everything grows out of the soil of the First Act. When the Normal World is executed with a solid grasp on how it affects plot, character, and theme, the story is all but guaranteed a good start. If you find that its deep symbolism and practical applications of the “Normal World” resonate with you, you can use its foundation to help you frame your entire story.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will go questing into the Adventure World of the Second Act.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What happens in your story’s Normal World? 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.


  1. John Warfield says

    Great post as always. I think the First Act is more troublesome than most any other, as balancing pace, character and world development to create an immersive and compelling Normal World without info dumps or jarring action is a a craft few writers seem to truly master. I know I haven’t, at least by my measure, though I can recognize it when others make it work.

    If it looks good, it’ll fly good 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’ve always felt beginnings were the trickiest part. There’s just so much important setup you have to juggle while still hooking readers.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    Another thought-provoking post! The story I’m working on now—a middle-school drama with a twist—begins in a Normal World that, though normal for most, isn’t normal for the protagonist. Willow, a former home-schooled girl, is now forced to attend a private school after an accident left her mom a quadriplegic. This Normal World represents the Lie in that the school very much gives off the air that you must “fit in” to get anywhere. This is further demonstrated after Willow meets several of the students. What Willow wants is to just blend in and make friends, and it would seem that everyone else wants that, too. However, the First Plot Point ensures that Willow can no longer blend in with everyone else, turning the Normal World into the Adventure World.

  3. First off, Yay! Another multipart series from Katie coming our way! I feel that I’ve talked a lot about my eternal NIP on this site, so I’m not going to go there, but I will say that I’ve just completed a revision pass where I paired it from over 177K words to under 140K, and without explicitly thinking about it, I cut the story to be closer to this model, at least in the opening. It occurs to me that its not a horrible idea to review the architypes and appropriate structural elements prior to starting a revision pass. Not necessarily to follow them slavishly, but to assure that deviations are thoughtful rather than accidental.

    • Whuff – that’s a lot of revision! Good job! I’m paring my 160,000 words down to 120,000 and am about 2/3 there. A friend compared it to topiary – trimming back to reveal the shape within. Good luck, keep it up!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. It’s amazing how far off the path we can get sometimes without even realizing it. I’ve found time to be the best element in gaining objectivity about my own work.

  4. Cannot wait for the rest of this series – what a powerful blending of story structure and the archetypal journey! In my metaphysical novel “Mask of a Thousand Angels” the Normal World is the small, safe existence 42-year-old Paul has created for himself as a shield against the tragedy of his childhood and profound disillusion of failing as an artist. His box, almost literally. The Lie He Believes is that somehow he can protect himself from the past, protect himself from hurt, somehow he will never need to confront what lies beyond his own reflection. In the Hook his “normal world” is literally smashed into when a blackbird hurtles through his window at work on New Year’s Eve; and in the Inciting Incident his world is figuratively unsettled when the unexpected appearance of a childhood friend and rival makes Paul begin to question everything.

  5. In both the novels I’ve drafted, the ‘normal world’ is a physical place which the protagonist literally leaves. Of course there’s more to it than that, there’s also mindset shifts etc., but it really doesn’t hurt to reinforce that with a change of location.

    In the novella I drafted earlier this year, there isn’t a change of location (or at least not one which corresponds to the transition between Act 1 and Act 2). The protagonist’s normal world is ‘my life sucks’ and he enters the ‘adventure world’ when he notices an opportunity to change that, ‘oh, my life doesn’t have to suck.’

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although, as noted in the post’s examples, a change of setting isn’t necessary, I really like it myself when there’s a physical shift from Normal World to Adventure World.

  6. Mine is a family drama, so the normal world is the MC’s harmonious marriage. I spend a lot of the first act establishing the strength of their long relationship. Her lie is that stability is the most important thing and should be maintained at the cost of living authentically. She never goes anywhere, but she leaves her normal world when she confesses her secret to her husband, threatening their marriage. It was this post that made me realize that moment is my first plot point. Off to revise my outline!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! This is a great example of a solid “metaphorical” shift from Normal World to Adventure World.

  7. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series! Although I do get the importance of the Normal World and the need to get it right, I’ve always thought the concept was at least easy to understand. I’ve never considered the other acts as “worlds” (other than the New World as the second act gets underway), so I will be very interested to read what you have to share next. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I learned a thing or two in writing the series myself! It made me rethink some things.

  8. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I enjoyed this, thinking about the normal world in symbolic terms, but am looking forward to the Underworld of the 3rd because I have never thought of it in that way. I’ve always thought in terms of Normal/Adventure/Normal (improved by 33%!).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. Yeah, I realized that the “improvement” part (if indeed it happens at all, depending on the type of story) really doesn’t happen until after the Climactic Moment.

  9. Peter Moore says

    Timely post. I’ve been struggling with an issue I suspect many fantasy writers come up against. There is so much world building in the first act that there isn’t enough plot driven conflict (in other words, boring). I’m trying an experiment based on a suggestion from an editor to look at the very last point my story could begin. The new first scene is what was the inciting incident. This has a side effect of making the normal world a place of turmoil. It also has the advantage of laying the theme out in black and white right on page one. BTW, I’ve adjusted my outline so that the first plot point is now the inciting incident.

    Since my characters physically leave the normal world halfway through the first act and spend the rest of the story in the adventure world, do you think I’ve created a structural problem? Should I add scenes to stretch things out or am I overthinking things?

    Thanks, Peter

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I view the two “sides” of the First Plot Point as the “Key Event” (when the character “leaves” the Normal World) and the Threshold (when the character “enters” the Adventure World). Sometimes, these two halves happen in the same scene and are essentially the same thing. But in other stories, the beats are more obviously separate.

      Star Wars and Harry Potter both come to mind.

      In A New Hope, Luke leaves his Normal World when his aunt and uncle are murdered and their homestead burned, but doesn’t officially enter the Adventure World until he flees Tatooine with Han and Chewie.

      In The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry leaves his Normal World when Hagrid fetches him from his aunt and uncle, but doesn’t officially enter the Adventure World until he reaches Hogwarts.

      What’s important here is that if the beats are separate, they are still distinct. One is about leaving something, but the other is about entering something–even if just metaphorically (i.e., the character could be “entering” a relationship rather than a place).

  10. A great and timely post!
    I am currently reviewing the structure for my current WiP and I think I have the opposite issue to Peter – that is, what I thought was my Hook is my Inciting Event and I am entirely missing my Set-up scenes. In other words I start my story too late and just throw the reader into the story with no proper introduction to my protagonist. (Probably due to me making the transition from short fiction to novels!) Now I’m off to write those early scenes – making sure they all have purpose and forward momentum.
    Can’t wait for the next three posts in this series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It can be quite tricky to find just the right place to begin–not too late and not too soon. But those setup scenes are definitely important for giving readers a reason to care about the characters before the action heats up. Later this year, I’ll be doing some posts about opening in medias res.

  11. Cool series!

    The normal world in my current WIP, a paranormal romance mystery sequel, is a physical location, a job, and a dilemma. The protagonists are in their home city dealing with normal hauntings. The protagonist with PTSD is obsessed with keeping the physically disabled protagonist safe. The physically disabled protagonist feels smothered by him and wants more freedom. The Inciting Event is when the couple receives orders to investigate a murder. The First Plot Point is meeting the incompetent (and crooked) sheriff in the town where the murder took place.

    They’ll end the story by resolving their domestic problem as they catch the murderer. Then they’ll go home and live happily until their next adventure. (If there is one.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It always brings extra layers when the transition to the Normal World happens physically *and* metaphorically.

  12. Very useful article. I’m looking forward to the other three.

  13. Karen A Keil says

    I’m beginning work on the fourth and final book of a series, so I guess I’m dealing with one of the media res situations. I’m trying to brainstorm it here. Zheann’s “normal world” is one in which everything has gone wrong. One of her adversaries has taken something important to someone else and has demanded that Zheann and several others surrender as ransom. In a way, this is her normal world, as she grew up meeting the demands of others (culturally, if not literally.) She had just convinced the other person to cooperate with her when the ransom note arrived. The ransom cannot possibly be paid, and she’s the one they’re going to demand solve the problem. Again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Normal Worlds do tend to becoming increasingly abnormal in later books in a series, but as you’ve pointed out there, there’s always a status quo to be departed from in any book’s First Act.

  14. Alistair Fryer says

    Great article Kim, I look forward to your second and third act comments.
    I believe, like me, you are a great follower of John Yorke and his book ‘Into the Woods’.

    I am a great advocate of the ‘Five Act Structure’ like John, with the ACT II divided by the very important ‘Mid Point’. This gives you more control over the ‘sagging’ middle of your story. As John says: ‘Used wisely, 5 acts imposes a much stronger structure, creates regular gripping turning points that increase narrative tension and in turn eliminates one of the most common problems new writers are heir to: the ‘sagging’, disjointed, confused and often hard-to-follow second act.
    Based on this belief I’ve taken the liberty of embellishing your three act summary like so:
    1. The Normal World of the First Act
    2. The Protagonist ‘Reactive’ Adventure World of the Second Act
    (Midpoint Change)
    3. The Protagonist ‘Active’ Adventure World of the Second Act.
    4. The Underworld of the Third Act
    5. The New Normal World of the Resolution
    Perhaps some of your readers will find this useful?
    Alistair Fryer

  15. Great post. I’d struggled with concept of normal world because my story starts with the main character arriving in a new country about to start a new job. I now understand that the normal world is a state of mind – I get it now.

  16. Hasan Abdulla says

    The Normal World of the First Act in my work-in-progress novel is the protagonist’s place of residence and his family. The change to the Adventure World is not quite a change in location but a change in the protagonist’s lifestyle and the people he gets involved with.

    The biggest challenge I face in writing fiction is that I am perhaps out of touch with most of the new fiction being written, and hence it is difficult to make comparisons between my work and that of other current storywriters. I have noted the examples of fiction in the above post and plan to purchase a copy of, for example, The Bourne Identity.

    Thank you for some excellent advice on the Normal World of the First Act.

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