Saturday, April 16, 2011

Key Story Elements - Ordinary World and Special World

Here’s another trick of detailing and revealing your protagonist. And of world-building as well.

It’s really effective to put some serious creative thought into detailing the Hero/ine’s Ordinary World and the – hopefully! – contrasting Special World that the Hero/ine will be entering, inhabiting, exploring, journeying through, or maybe even fleeing, during the course of your story.

Drama loves CONTRAST, and this is one of the easiest ways I know to provide it, as well as revealing character, developing character arc, and working the themes of your story.

I think it’s useful to first look at the Ordinary World and Special World as depicted in fantasies like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and The Wizard Of Oz to see this dynamic at work in more blatant examples, then try your hand at recognizing the more subtle variations.

Naturally, you can’t have a more blatant contrast than the Ordinary World of Dorothy’s black and white Kansas and the Technicolor lusciousness of Oz. And look at the first Harry Potter to see Harry’s tiny, cramped bedroom under the stairs in his aunt and uncle’s bourgeois house – and that first shot of the identical Muggle houses and identical Muggle cars lined up on that perfectly flat Muggle street – as opposed to the magical, colorful eccentricity of Diagon Alley and the torchlit boat trip across the lake to the towering mythical castle of Hogwart’s.

But to get a little more real - Romancing The Stone also depicts a beautiful contrast between the Ordinary World and Special World. Joan Wilder’s little Manhattan apartment is practically her whole world – but the Call To Adventure thrusts her into the colorful, expansive wilds of first Cartagena, and then even wilder (pun intended) jungles of Columbia. Going from big city to wilderness and villages, from one country to another country, is always an easy way to develop contrast – you see this in the small romantic comedy Leap Year, where the uptight heroine goes from big city Boston to the tiny village/county of Dingle, Ireland (one of my favorite special worlds, rapturously beautiful), and in The Proposal, where again, an uptight executive heroine goes from Manhattan to the mindblowingly gorgeous, relative wilderness of Alaska.

Weather is also an easy contrast, as we see in the romantic comedy New In Town. The Ordinary World for corporate executive Lucy is Miami – beach and sun and high fashion and palm trees. Her Call To Adventure (a major job opportunity) thrusts her into the frozen wasteland of New Ulm, a very small, provincial, and decidedly unfashionable town in Minnesota. But thematically, it’s really the heroine who’s frozen, and it’s that frozen little town that finally unthaws her.

Good storytellers will find all kinds of ways to make the Ordinary World and Special Worlds both contrasting and thematic. Notting Hill contrasts shots of Julia Roberts’ ghamorous Hollywood life – red carpet premiers and photo shoots and film sets - with the funky London neighborhood of Notting Hill, which with its pushcart vendors and cobblestone streets looks more like an Elizabethan village than a major cosmopolitan city. The filmmakers chose to emphasize the bohemian and eccentric and insular qualities of Notting Hill to give it that contrast to the Hollywood life, and to underscore the Cinderella theme of this fairy tale romance (The commoner falls in love with the princess). Just the visual difference between their worlds sets up a big subliminal opposition to this love story working out, and it also pushes all those fairy tale buttons. And I personally love stories that create fairy tale settings and themes in a realistic setting.

Actually anyone writing a romance – or writing in any genre, really! - should look at this film for how the filmmakers use visual detail in the sets to depict character. As authors we have an unlimited budget – our imaginations – to do this kind of production design in our books.

Here are some less fantastical examples to look at to hone your perception:

- What are the Ordinary World and the Special World in The Hangover?
- What are the Ordinary World and Special World in Meet The Parents?
- What are the Ordinary World and Special World in How To Train Your Dragon? (Okay, it’s fantastical, but this is a great one to look at for contrast).
- What are the Ordinary World and Special World in Sense and Sensibility?
- What’s the Ordinary World and Special World in Jaws? (A particularly nice use of production detail).

And tell me - what are some of your favorite examples of stories which use this Ordinary World/Special World contrast to great effect?

And of course, the real point of all of this is – how are you depicting your hero/ine’s Ordiinary World and Special World to bring out character, character arc, and the themes of your story?

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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Anonymous said...

Wow, I never thought of this. I think this is exactly what my story is lacking. I put so much work into the special world and neglected the ordinary world.

I was just re-watching Veronica Mars and I think it has a great example. Her ordinary world was being a pretty, popular teenage girl with a locally famous boyfriend and an exciting best friend. It was the perfect set-up for when she lost all of those things and the experience made her into such a badass. Her ordinary world was like Sweet Valley High and then her special world was a dark and dramatic film noir.

Thank you so much for this.

Lisa Mondello said...

This was one of my favorite things to explore in your screenwriting tricks class and while reading your book.

One of my favorite movies that shows great character growth, courage and romance is Shining Through. Linda goes from being a secretary (who is half Jewish) for an American spy during WWII to being undercover and alone in WWII Germany at a time when Hilter is rounding up and killing Jews. The fact that she's half Jewish, untrained as a spy and still insists on going to Germany shows the strength of her conviction to do something important and to search for her cousins who are in hiding. The safety of America to the bombings and raids in Berlin plus living in the home of a high ranking German officer who wouldn't hesitate to have her killed if he knew she was Jewish keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Her ordinary world is typing and translating and dancing at the USO and kicking back with a cigarette. Her special world has danger and a constant fear of being found out. The romance and escape from Germany is just perfection. Love it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, that's just great, Anon, I'm always happy to say exactly the right thing for someone at the right time.

Yes, you've got it - it's just as important to detail the Ordinary World as the Special World. I haven't seen Veronica Mars but you make me want to - sounds like a great example.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Lisa - you're always such a quick study! Yeah, a world full of danger is so often what you see in the Special World. It's exciting, and a crucible, but it's also life-threatening. It will change the hero/ine forever, and probably for the good - but that's only if s/he survives.

No one said this transforrmation thing was easy!