The Ordinary World

on September 7, 2006

A friend of mine very close to publication asked a question on one of my writers loops about her opening chapter. A friend who had read it thought the first chapter was too slow. She said that she set up the heroine’s “ordinary world” ala Vogler (and everyone here knows how much I love Vogler!) but wanted to ask people what they felt about slower openings.

I don’t have an answer to how slow or fast the opening should be. It depends on the story. BUT we all know that the first five pages are the most important in pulling in a new reader. Something has to happen. But not everything. I’ve read some contest entries that are a series of one dramatic event after another with no sense of character. The best action scenes also convey character. Indiana Jones in a pit of snakes is just another action scene . . . except that we know he’s terrified of snakes.

Establishing the ordinary world is important, though it doesn’t always have to be done at the beginning. Part of the “ordinary world” is setting up the character of the protagonists, giving the audience an example of who they are and what they do so that when conflict arises we can see it coming. The tension helps drive the story.

One problem with some “ordinary world” openings is that there is no conflict. We see a character going about their daily life like nothing is going to happen. This can work if there’s a rich sense of “character in action” and hints of the conflict to come, but a basic telling of a character waking, rushing through the shower, making lunch, taking the kids to school, going to Starbucks and getting her triple-grande-nonfat-nowhip-mocha is boring . . . unless the reader knows something that the protagonist does not.

Like the barista is a sex offender who is stalking her . . .

Her husband is on a plane that just crashed . . .

A gunman has taken over her daughter’s high school gymnasium and it’s her ex-husband in charge of hostage negotiations . . .

Set up the hint of conflict, and the ordinary world does double duty–establishes character AND builds tension.

Sometimes it takes starting the book in another place. Or having a scene prior to the “ordinary world” where you see something from the villain’s POV or the hero’s. Sometimes omniscient even works.

In romantic suspense, long passages of description just don’t cut it. Long set-ups don’t cut it, either, unless you already have an established readership who trusts you to be leading them down the right path. Something has to happen–or a big hint that something is about to happen. I love ordinary worlds but they have to be done right. The first five pages sets the tone for the entire book. If nothing happens . . . you’ve lost the reader.

And the first reader is an agent or editor.

Here are some examples (and in general, 5 manuscript pages equal 4 printed pages.)

RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris. Immediately establishes Will Graham’s ordinary world–quiet life by the ocean with his wife and her son by a first marriage (she was a widow)–where he is healing because of a run-in with a serial killer years before. Yet it also immediately establishes conflict: his friend Jack Crawford asking for help because there a second family was brutally murdered. By the end of page three, we know that Graham doesn’t know if he can help–he doesn’t know if he can open himself up to think like the killer again. We see in the rest of chapter one his interaction with his stepson, his wife, his quiet peaceful life, but we sense his inner turmoil, his need for justice for the dead. Very powerful chapter where the ordinary life is clearly established and the conflict is set-up.

YOU CAN’T HIDE by Karen Rose sets up the conflict beautifully in a short prologue. We move from a victim’s POV to the killer’s POV and learn that the heroine is being set-up . . . in a “game.” Yet we get to meet her for the first time in her “ordinary world” through the hero’s eyes in chapter one (which is also a fantastic conflict set-up.)

TROUBLE IN HIGH HEELS by Christina Dodd. Chapter One should really be a prologue (maybe her editor doesn’t like prologues), but it’s very ordinary world while setting up the heroine’s characterization incredibly well. It’s 14 years in the past and her mother and step-father are fighting–he wants a divorce, she is a spendthrift. The backstory is beautifully woven in and by the end of the first chapter, we have a great sense of character and motivation and hints of conflict to come. Dodd’s book is a lighter romantic suspense, more along the lines of Susan Andersen.

In my own books, I try to blend ordinary world in with the beginning of the conflict. In SPEAK NO EVIL Chapter One starts with a dead body. But it’s also my heroine’s ordinary world–she’s a homicide detective. In THE KILL Chapter One starts with my heroine in her crime lab–she’s an FBI scientist–her ordinary world, but that’s rocked almost immediately when her ex-husband comes in. I nurse this a bit in order to bring out her character–he’s serious, he asks that they go for a walk, etc–so that she can grow tense and nervous needing to know what happened, but afraid to ask. Yet before page 5 we know that her sister’s killer has been set free, the man she testified against when she was a child.

The opening is critical. We don’t have the luxury of a walk through the woods–unless the reader knows that something is lurking in those woods. You don’t have to start with a dead body, as long as you have conflict and tension from page one. The opening line, the opening paragraph, the first five pages . . . if you don’t hook the reader, you’ve lost the reader. But be careful using too much action at the beginning because without characterization, action is just plot.

Now, one caveat . . . this is subjective. Voice can go a long way in hooking the reader. I recently read a book that is out next year where the author’s first chapter is about a reporter starting his dream job and . . . nothing happens. BUT, and this is key, he sets up some key characters who are important, and from the way they are portrayed to the reader we know that they are going to be important. Characterization is also established quickly because this is in first person, so we know what the protagonist is thinking, seeing, feeling in his own voice. Think of the Stephanie Plum books. We don’t always have action on page one, but we do have a hint of action when she gets an assignment to bring someone in. It’s the promise of conflict that hooks us.

Give me the ordinary world any day of the week–but make it do double duty.