The Hero’s Journey (from Joseph Campbell) begins with the Ordinary World. Before you sweep your character(s) into their adventure, you need to establish who they are and where they come from.
A wonderful example of this is the opening of The Wizard of Oz. The movie begins on a farm in Kansas in the middle of flat, prairie land. Dorothy, a kind, sensitive, unappreciated teenager with a huge heart, is surrounded by busy, preoccupied relatives and farmhands. The black and white tone paints a bleak picture of her life and lends an air of depression. Miss Gulch (later the wicked witch) has a sharp edge about her looks and dress, due to the lack of color. When Miss Gulch threatens Toto and Dorothy commits the foolish act of running away, we feel for her and her dog because of her harsh surroundings.
To help you set the scene for your story, answer the following questions:
1. What is the story location?
Where are we geographically? What is the scenery—buildings, houses, land, climate? What is the time period—historical, current, future? What is the culture and/or environment? [The Wizard of Oz begins with plain and simple.]
2. Who is your hero (heroine)?
Describe your character physically, mentally, and emotionally. List his/her history, education, family background, job, romances, likes and dislikes, prejudices, preferences in food and clothing, etc. [Dorothy is kind, generous, big-hearted, self-centered, and a little impractical.]
3. How much do you need to tell?
Your hero has a story prior to the beginning of your book. Every incident and event has helped to shape his life. Are all of these important to the reader? What does the reader need to know right now? Do you need to tell the reader those things up front, or can they be revealed indirectly (through dialogue, flashbacks, conflict)? [We don’t need to see all the years of Dorothy’s life leading up to the crisis with Toto and Miss Gulch. The desolation of the farm and the quick, vicious interaction with Miss Gulch establish the needed mood.]
4. Complete a GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict) chart for your hero (heroine).
What are your hero’s inner (emotional need) and outer (physical/worldly) goals? What is his motivation? What are his inner (fear) and outer (biggest obstacle) conflicts? Is there a villain? What would your hero never do? [Dorothy feels taken for granted. She wants to be appreciated and included. And she would never, never hurt anyone.]
5. What is the story theme?
Theme is the underlying idea behind the story, the big message you want your readers to understand. Common themes are “love conquers all,” “good vs. evil,” “man vs. nature.” What is the theme of your story? [In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy runs away from home to find the illusive something that’s missing in her life—more love and appreciation—only to discover that it was there all along, inside her.]
By answering these questions you lay out the necessary information for your story, discard the irrelevant, and begin to weave in background to bring your characters and plot to life.
Download your GMC chart here.