Element 3 – The Ordinary World

Welcome to the Shire, a water farm on Tattooine, 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. Here, we find our Main Character (MC) in their natural environment.

Shh, MCs can be very shy and timid at first. Don’t spook the wee rascal.

Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay 

The point of the Ordinary World is to allow you to set up benchmarks for your MC. Show the reader what the MC’s State of Perfection (SOP) is and why they will work so hard, face so many challenges, and sometimes literally go through hell to get back home.

As we previously discussed, the SOP is generally how the MC starts off – reasonably happy, contented, an okay (maybe even great) life. They have people they care about, things they are working toward, goals, hopes and dreams.

via Giphy

Poor lambs.

And along comes you, dear writer, to take that wonderful life away. But it’s crucial to make sure that the reader appreciates, even feels that loss along with the MC.

How to do it? Five “easy” steps.

  1. Loved ones. Who does your MC care about? Why? Is it a long-time lover, or a new flame, a beloved parent, charmingly precocious child, a sibling they are trying to impress or their bestie who’s always ready to share a beverage and a chat?
  2. Hopes and dreams. What is your MC working towards? It doesn’t have to be big, but it can be. A promotion at work, a trip, eating sushi for the first time, getting their crush to notice them. Consider how this can work with the plot and how it can work against it (even better – TENSION!).
  3. Foreshadowing. This is harder to do than threeshadowing, but not as advanced as fiveshadowing. For you pantsers, some of this will be done in post-first-draft revision. Totally okay. You do you. For you plotters, this is where the magic happens. Drop hints of what your MC will face and how they will change. Be subtle, but not too subtle. You know, write casual.
  4. Setting. What are the day-to-day conditions of MC’s life? Are they super advanced, living in a world where nanotech is a thing and they can access anything via their neural implant? Are they in the middle of a war? Are they at sea, in space, under the ground, at a horse race? Consider how the setting can either push the MC outward or draw them back.
  5. Routine. What kind of life has MC built for themselves? Are they a student going through the school grind? Are they a 9 to 5 office drone? A fisherman on the lonely isle of Nergoingnoplaceelseagain (located off the coast of Wales, I believe)? Consider how this can be used against them…I mean used to propel the story. Yes.
Image by Isa KARAKUS from Pixabay

And what about the feely-feels? Your MC recognizes the story problem (“What’s the what of the story?” remember?), but can’t or won’t address it. They want to stay in the Shire and not have any adventures. They want to harvest water and shoot womp rats. They want to get out of the cupboard under the stairs, sure (not a euphemism, but J.K. Rowlings may yet prove me wrong), but they’re not expecting to go to a magical school.

Although this is where you can slow down and do a bit of worldbuilidng, writing “The Ordinary World” shouldn’t be boring and your reader shouldn’t be bored. Keep the focus on your characters – what do they care about? What do they notice? Why are they doing the things they’re doing?

If you don’t know or the answer to this last one is “cuz plot” that’s okay. This is your first draft. You can fix it later. The main thing is to get the ideas down before they escape into the ether.

Good luck!

Element 2 – Dramatic Question

The second element clarifies the overall question the story will try to answer, or the premise of the story. I use the formula I picked up from Eric Witchey’s Fiction Fluency class: X leads to Y, which results in Z.

X is the character’s starting internal and external conflicts.

Y is the change the character and story world undergo.

Z is the end state of the character as a result of what they’ve encountered and done as well as the changes to their story world.

Let’s look at how this functions in a couple books.


  1. In The Poppy War Rin’s ambition, coupled with the rigid classism of the Sinegard academy, leads her to embrace shamanism, which results in unleashing a terrible god of wrath upon the land.
  2. In my book, Survivors’ Club, Marius’ naïveté and desire to help others lead to a viral outbreak, which results in a suicidal attempt to stave off a global pandemic.
  3. In Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz’s need for safety and belonging lead him to accept his role as an assassin, which results in him saving the Six Duchies (and emotional trauma to this reader that has lasted for decades. Highly recommended!)

The Dramatic Question is really two questions: 1) What does the Main Character (MC) want? 2) What does the MC need? A great way to add tension to your story is to make sure that these are not the same thing.

From our previous examples:

  1. Rin wants to avoid a forced marriage to an older man. Ultimately, what she needs is to study and understand how shamanism works. But she’s not interested in that. She wants to be a soldier so she can protect herself and exact revenge.
  2. Marius wants to research viruses and develop ways to treat and cure disease. Marius needs to survive and protect his friends and co-workers from the Infected. For extra fun, his attempts to do what he wants actually contribute to the pandemic that ultimately endangers everyone he cares about.
  3. Fitz wants be accepted as a Farseer. Fitz needs allies to survive at King Shrewd’s court. To gain allies and protectors, Fitz must make himself invaluable to the king. In agreeing to train to be an assassin, Fitz embarks on the road to a very lonely life and remember, he wanted friends and family.

Knowing what your MC wants and what they need helps you to craft a story where they are constantly struggling to get what they want, but you are pushing them towards what they need.

Element 2 – the Dramatic Question is where you must make it super-de-duper clear what your MC wants. You should at least hint at what they need, but this can remain unclear until much later in the story, especially if you’re writing a close first person point of view (POV).

What are some other examples of the Dramatic Question?

Once you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere!

Attendees at the 2011 Where’s Wally? World Record event in Dublin, Ireland

Element 1 – Big Trouble

Whether your story starts en medias res or with a loving description of the how the universe began, it has to start somewhere.

Many Western stories follow the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. For the purposes of learning and practicing story structure, this is the model I’ll be using – at least in the beginning.

In the beginning…

Introduces main conflict of the story. As my ever-zen writing workshop instructor Charlie used to say, “What’s the what of this story?”

External Conflict – something threatens the Main Character (MC)’s State of Perfection (SOP)

Internal Conflict – MC is emotionally stuck. They have a deep fear, limiting belief, or conflicting desires.

State of Perfection – Yes/No?

State of Perfection means the MC has a reasonably happy, comfortable life. They are not motivated to change things. They like what they like and they don’t want to have any adventures.

If the MC starts in the SOP, they will be fighting to stay there, resistant to change, reluctant to leave.

It’s a bit more tricky to start with an MC not in SOP because you have to weave in backstory and benchmarks to explain why the MC is not in SOP and what exactly MC thinks SOP is (at the beginning of the story). We know MC’s SOP may change as they grow through the story, but we need a start point to…well…start from.


Whether you’re writing spec-fic filled with nanotech, tentacle monsters, and swords and sorcery, or writing about a knitting circle in Blandsville, Nebraska (sorry, Nebraska, I still love you), you’ll need to establish where your MC is and what they’re doing.

Do NOT dump info. This is the part where you splash your reader with the world, not drown them in it. It’s more important that the reader connect with the characters and care about them than the reader understand how the hyper-drive 7000 works or the exact ritual elements needed to summon Yog Gogiryazhiji.

Instead, focus on the details the characters would care about. Unfold the world through their experience of it and trust that you’ll be able to work in all the cool tech, alien races, ancient elven feuds, and the finer points of the Double Moss Knit Stitch Pattern later.

Spreadsheety Goodness:

I have a spreadsheet and I’m not afraid to use it. Your tools may vary: 3×5 cards, notebooks, whiteboards, various software, a trusted friend or random pelagic bird who happens to be a great listener. Whatever you need to help you organize your thoughts, use it.

Image by Mario Liebherr from Pixabay

If you’d like to use my spreadsheet layout, here’s an example of Act I, Elements 1-9. I tend to ramble when I write, so I have broken down my word count targets based on an 80,000 word novel. That gives me 25% Act 1, 50% Act 2, and 25% Act 3. These are my rough goals to help me stay on track and should not be taken as carved in stone limits.

Additional Resources:

“The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler

Mythcreants has a beautiful post about the Heroine’s Journey that is well worth your time!

Fiction Fluency or really any class you can get from Eric Witchey, who is an absolute wizard when it comes to writing emotions.