“She puts on her armor, mounts her modern-day steed, leaves loved ones behind, and goes in search of the golden treasure.”
Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey
If you’re writing your memoir according to the Three Act Structure, or the classic Hero’s Journey, there are two worlds you need to explore in your memoir. It’s crucial that these two different worlds are explained early on in the piece, because they engage and build suspense through contrast and conflict. Currently, in a global pandemic, we’ve seen these two worlds play out in just a matter of weeks.
Read on to understand the two worlds, and what they need to include if you want to make your story compelling and move at pace.
The two worlds include the ordinary world and the special world.
The Ordinary World will typically be shown in the beginning of your memoir. Travel memoirs are an easy place to pinpoint the difference between ordinary world and special world, but even if it’s not a physically different space, every single personal story needs to illustrate these two worlds in the telling.
Somewhere near the end of the First Act, you’ll cross the threshold into The Special World. Each ‘world’ operates according to different rules.
In your first chapters, you need to explore the Ordinary World or what was once ‘normality’, before the inciting incident of your story.
The reader needs to know what was ‘normal’ before the catalyst moment, or the movement to pursuing your driving desire – the ‘quest’ of your memoir, if you will.
The purpose of the Ordinary World
- The ordinary world, in myth, story (and reality!) exists to reveal contrast.
- The Ordinary world is comfortable. It’s known. It’s familiar. The Ordinary World is that scene in every movie where the happy couple is eating breakfast or drinking coffee and reading the paper at their comfortable table before the world comes plummeting down around them
Let’s say your memoir is about a death in the family, or a health crisis, or even a crazy challenging job that transformed you – your Ordinary World will show the reader how you moved through life before this catalyst incident. Who you were. What you took for granted. What was easy. Your previous context for survival.
- TIP: The Ordinary World will show you ‘at ease’, so that when you move into the Special World of your new problem or event, the reader knows it is actually a challenge for you.
- TIP: The ordinary world isn’t necessarily a different ‘place’. In travel memoirs it usually is, but a family memoir or a health memoir or a divorce memoir might present the ordinary world as just that place where you were safe and sound and the crisis or catalyst event hadn’t hit you yet (emotionally, spiritually or physically).
- TIP: Don’t spend too long in the ordinary world. The reader wants to go on a journey with you. Stories where you’re comfortable and happy are very boring. Get to the crisis a bit quicker than feels ‘normal’. Kill your darlings so that we can enter the special world with you.
The purpose of the Special World
The special world, in myth, story, and particularly in screenplays, shows the reader a few things:
- How the heroine responds to trials [character]
- What the heroine has had to give up [sacrifice – how much the ‘quest’ central to the memoir is worth]
- How this new world has different ‘rules’ for survival (this is KEY – no matter if your special world is an emotional struggle or an intellectual one.)
In the Special World of memoir, the conditions of survival change.
You (the heroine) must learn to survive in a new way – you must rise to the challenge and you must find allies, mentors, and magical, unique and untapped forces within yourself. You show these to the reader through the tests and trials of the Special World.
This all might sound a bit Game of Thrones, but the two worlds are imperative in your memoir, particularly if you’re struggling with structure.
Almost like a musical song, when you reach the climax of the Second Act and start to move towards a ‘return’ to the ordinary world (but with some key changes, which I’ll explore in another blog post), the reader needs to know that the Special World has changed you. They need to see that. You move back through your Ordinary World, differently.
How the two worlds can help you frame your personal story:
How clarifying the two worlds helped me write A Letter From Paris is that I was able to identify the ‘threshold’ I had to cross, that the Special World was the Library full of dad’s manuscripts, letters and books. That helped me make decisions about information I included about how reluctant I’d always been to enter that Special World, and where to end the first Act.
I was reluctant to enter this world, because I had to learn new methods of survival. The mass of material gave me a different ‘truth’ about my parents (survival) than what I’d previously known and how I’d previously framed my family story (the memoir’s ‘Ordinary World’).
TIP: The heroine is usually reluctant to enter the Special World.
PROMPT: How can you show the reader why you never previously wanted to cross the threshold to the ‘special world’ in your memoir? Put that in your opening chapters. Had you tried, before, and failed? Why? What hurt you, what parts of that world were never available to you…?
Moving through the Special World will make up the majority of your memoir’s pages. It will be full of tests, trials and tribulations.
What is the Special World in your memoir?
For me in A Letter From Paris, for example, it was the library with all its archives (the “boxes of snakes” I’d been reluctant to put my hands in, for years). Perhaps, for you, it’s the new world you enter when you’re also given a key piece of information. Or, if it’s a travel memoir, you may literally be in a new place.
Usually the heroine finishes the story (after facing possible death in the special world) with some kind of treasure or ‘elixir’.
But those trials and tribulations – and all you learned, facing battles and learning to survive in the special world – are key to getting that pot of gold. The reader needs that post of gold. Every satisfying story has a pot of gold at the end – and i don’t mean happily ever after, but something has to change from the beginning of the story to the end. Stasis is not story.
Writing prompts about the special world:
- How did the rules of survival change from the ordinary world?
- How did you face death – figuratively or literally? What did you learn?
- What , when and how were you reluctant to enter the special world?
- How did the special world contrast with your ‘normal’, at the beginning of the memoir?
- When and how did you cross the ‘threshold’ into fully embracing this Special World?
This is a very short excerpt from some of the writing prompts in my signature online memoir program, 90 Day Memoir.
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