How many pages and chapters should cover the Ordinary World also known as the normal world of the Protagonist? Ordinary World is the term used in the Hero's Journey for the ordinary world the hero will leave. Otherwise, the 'homeland' of the protagonist.

As I recall J.R.R. Tolkien spent significant time on his protagonists Bilbo and later Frodo in the Shire before their departure on their journeys. I wonder if that is overdoing it though as he is well known for a very long style which does not always appeal to modern readers. GRRM seemed to spend more time on the royal visit to the North and then the journey to King's Landing which covered several chapters. I felt that journey dragged a bit.

For my fantasy story, my protagonist is living in his homeland in an isolated culture and is in training to be a shaman. His father is a chieftain. I would like the first few chapters to cover his training, his family, his homeland, and a journey within a journey when he travels with his father to the 'capital' or fort of the high chieftain/king of his homeland. While at the fort of the high chieftain his eyes open to the wider world beyond his home village including the wider world of their culture, and the rumors of the wider world beyond. This is going to happen later in the book as well as he ventures beyond his homeland.

In perhaps cliché fashion my protagonist's homeland is going to be invaded, his family killed or imprisoned, and everything he knew destroyed. I am also trying to determine how long the invasion and escape should last. I did not plan to dwell on the killing of his family during the invasion, but rather focus on him hearing the news while away from his village.

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    Instead of thinking in terms of pages/chapters, think in terms of proporions. You have more room in an LotR-sized work than a novella. Absolute numbers are not going to be very helpful. Oct 25, 2017 at 1:57

4 Answers 4


The beginning has a job to do, and the length depends upon how big the job is. The job is bigger if the Normal World is unfamiliar to the reader.

The job, in essence, is to lay the cultural, physical (e.g. does magic exist, is flying possible by any means) and emotional foundations for the decisions and actions that are to come.

The beginning must also contain whatever "inciting event" creates the main story problem for the MC. Typically these are unjustified: You note their homeland is invaded, but why the invaders decided to do this is not detailed.

(Or maybe they did it because of drought in their own lands: Why did the drought occur? Even if you have an answer for that, eventually you come down to something that just happened, like a lightning bolt after a dry summer that started a fire and burned all their crops, or you come down to a motivation like greed or a desire to survive that needs no further explanation.)

In film, where we have a very constrained amount of time to present a story (apparently based on the average bladder size), you get 5% to 10% of the total time to "establish" the MC and the world they live in (e.g. the time period, culture, the existence of magical or sci-fi gadgets or space travel, etc), and you are expected to introduce the main conflict within the first 20% to 30% of the time. Novels often turn out to have similar break points, that is the structure of the First Act. (Here is a useful discussion of this).

These are not concrete rules; but they are grounded in human psychology, or really they are a distillation of thousands of years of human storytelling, of millions of stories, and figuring out what works in popular stories and what did not work in unpopular stories (at least in recent decades we have many commercial failures to analyze, in print, TV, and movies).

The understanding of the world is an investment. If we invest the time and imagination to follow two hundred pages of setup, and then the main problem is introduced and solved in the last fifty pages, we don't feel like the payoff was worth the investment in understanding all of this.

Here is a thought experiment: Suppose Tolkien wrote 200 pages telling us all about the shire, introducing a lot of hobbits, how they live their lives, have romances, get married, have and raise their children, their religious ideas and politics. Complete with a series of arguments and disagreements, so there is some conflict to keep the story going. After 200 pages of this, we are introduced to the villain: A magical dragon! It killed brave Kevin! In the next twenty pages, the characters put aside their philosophical differences and petty grudges, band together, and fight and kill the dragon. they saved the world! Lost a few fighters, but they build a shrine, and we see their lives continue.

This probably would not be that popular a story. There is far too much setup, and not enough payoff, and it would seem (to the reader) unfair.

Your setup can be longer if the world needs a lot of explanation, but you should aim for the 20% level, and not exceed the 30% level for total length.

I don't know how you format your pages, but I presume you are using an editor that can count words. The typical length of a first novel is 100,000 words; but many are shorter. Some writing instructors recommend 75,000 words; JK Rowling's first Harry Potter novel (Sorcerer's Stone) was 76,944 words. In paperback this came to 384 pages; so 200 words per page.

The inciting incident in that book is the moment Harry turns eleven, the very second: Hagrid is introduced, there is some conflict but Harry is going to Wizard's school, end of story. In paperback, that is the scene of Chapter Four, page 57, 15% of the way through the novel (14.87%). Before that, we see Harry's 'normal world'.

The Transition to Act II is when Harry enters his new world, around page 117 (30%), boarding the train at Platform 9 3/4.

Your Ordinary world is similar. You have introductions to do; and you can explain SOME things later as they are encountered, but you must also balance the investment of the reader and their expectations. They expect things to happen, so if you run on too long, if they keep turning pages and they still feel like they are in setup mode a third of the way through your story, you are going to lose them.


This is the third question today that I am going to answer with essentially the same point, but stories are fundamentally about a choice of values. To establish the grounds for a story, you must first establish the values that will be at stake.

In a loss of home and family story (like LOTR) you have to establish the love of home and family. But if you really want to grip the reader, you not only have to make them believe intellectually the the character loves their home and family, you have to demonstrate it. Everything in a story is established by experience. You have to allow the reader to experience that love for themselves, and that can take a good deal of time and a good deal of skill.

But the fear that this will be boring is misplaced, as long as it is done well. Readers understand very well (even if they can't articulate it) that love of home and family is the essential ground of any quest/adventure story. They engage with the experience of that love of place and people because that is the human ground on which all story is based. They are experienced consumers of stories and they recognize (intuitively at least) that establishing the real world is an indispensable part of the story shape. It is not a bitter pill they have to swallow. It is not eating your vegetables before you can have cake. It is an integral part of the pleasure of a story and if it is done well, the reader will take as much pleasure in it as in any other part of the story.

Have you ever noticed that the Shire is the only place in LOTR that feels like a real place. The rest of Middle Earth feels like painted sets by comparison; all absurdly high mountains and absurdly dark woods. The shire is a hymn to the pre-industrial English countryside that Tolkien loved. It is what he knew and what he loved; the rest is merely what he imagined. The best writing in the entire work is set in the Shire. It is the little jewel of reality that makes the rest of what is a rather overblown and fanciful tale vital, alive, and beloved. The lack of something similar is why so few of Tolkien's direct imitators achieved anything like his success.

Often, though, authors will rush this part of the telling. Far from getting the reader to the interesting parts quicker, this means that the story never gets interesting at all because the essential ground of love has never been established and thus there are no moral stakes in any of the action that follows. The rushed opening is boring because it is not allowing the reader to experience the love the protagonist has for place and people. Unfortunately, the common response to being told that these passages are boring is to cut them back further, which further weakens the ground of the entire story.

Sometimes the cure for boring is not less but more. Establishing the ground of values which will drive the protagonist to the central choice of their story arc is essential work and sometimes it takes time. But it is also congenial time for the reader, building their emotional and moral engagement with the story. What is it people say when they meet someone really special? "We talked all night." Getting to know someone, establishing a relationship that you think is going somewhere, is not merely congenial, it is exciting, thrilling even. That is how it should be with the reader and your protagonist. The reader should feel like they have talked all night, even if they have to read all night to get there. We talk a lot about stakes in fiction, but stakes are love, and only love. Love takes time, but falling in love is the most exciting time of our lives. A rushed opening deprives the reader of the chance to fall in love, and without love all the rest is worthless.

It doesn't always have to take that long, of course. But sometimes it has to, and when it has to, it must be allowed to.


It depends.... I think that is a story has a familiar setting then it is okay to make it short or the reader will get bored. But if the story has an unfamiliar & unique setting then it is good to spend time on it, so the readers do not get confused. But if you spend too much time in the ordinary world and it has nothing to do with the story then the reader can feel cheated, since the end and beginning has to tie together.

*Judging from the small part of the story that you shared, and if I misunderstood than I apologize. I would suggest spending time in the ordinary world to humanize the characters and the reader can learn about the world, so the ending will have more dramatic. And try to not kill to more than one main character. But imprisoning is fine since then he can rescue them and reader will root for him and cry for them. And if logistically, imprisoning everyone does not work then only imprison his family since they are the leaders. So spend all 30% of your novel on the ordinary world. But feel free to ignore that if I misunderstood.


This is a bit of a Your Mileage May Vary questions as it's based solely upon the story and the protagonist, and you as an author. As such, the answer is firmly "It Depends"

In the end though, the point behind establishing the Ordinary World, is that the reader can identify what is at stake, and what the protagonist loses as part of the inciting incident. It provides an anchor point so they can recognize the tension within the story and why what's happening is extraordinary.

It's part of what helps the reader connect to the character and the Quest, and builds that emotional response and reason for the Hero's Journey.

It's also important to note that the Ordinary World isn't necessarily a physical place, but more the normality of life for the protagonist.

As helpful as The Hero's Journey is as a guide, it is a guide only. Books can not always be written to an exacting formula, and must be as flexible as the story demands.

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