Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: turn ordinary into extraordinary'
Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: turn ordinary into extraordinary'

Writing Tip: turn ordinary into extraordinary

When I wrote my Writing Courses for Pandaqi Tutorials, I mention the concept of “start with extraordinary”.

To me, that’s the common denominator between stories that are engaging and memorable. A story that starts with something extraordinary and explores that. Forget all the “rules”, forget about “goal and obstacle”, just make sure the book instantly presents something extraordinary and you have a story.

While my course gives some examples and further explanation, I found it hard to properly define it at the time or give a practical way to achieve this.

Now I think I have found a way. This brief article talks about how to use the power of extraordinary for your next stories.

What’s the difference? Why do I have more to say about the topic now? Because I realized the following.

  • People don’t want ordinary stories. They already have enough problems in real life—why would they want to experience them again in a story? Many people have a screwed-up family dynamic or hate their job. Why would they ever want to experience stories that remind them of that?
  • People don’t want extraordinary stories. It’s too abstract, too out there, too unrelated to real life. (I guess some people call this “high concept”, when you come up with some abstract unique idea that’s interesting but not relatable in any way.)

Instead, people want a story that turns from ordinary to extraordinary (and quickly, if possible).

People want to see themselves or their own struggles in a story, but they want distance.

  • This could mean that the character in the story is exaggerated. (So people recognize themselves, but can also comfortably tell themselves that they’re very different from what the protagonist is going through.)
  • It could mean that the world of the story is very different from ours. (Again, so people can keep a sort of distance and tell themselves this world is obviously different.)
  • Many stories put a hopeful spin on a problem, ending with a solution or victory. (This gives people the idea that their problem isn’t so bad and it can be solved.)

So, starting a story with some high concept generally won’t work. It could be really interesting or clever, but that’s not enough. People are drawn to stories through emotional engagement in the first place, through characters before plot or world.

My folder with story ideas contains so many high concept ideas that failed the moment I actually tried to write them. I regularly write down some crazy world, or magic system, or “what if”-scenario. Even though such concepts feel like a strong foundation for a book (or series), they cannot start an engaging story or write a strong first chapter on their own.

On the other hand, starting a story with some very realistic down-to-earth events won’t work. People can experience that in real life—in fact, they probably did yesterday. They come to stories for something more exciting, something more different, something with more distance to their real life.

As such, I now believe a strong story …

  • Has a foundation built on ordinary, relatable, simple, human problems.
  • Which is turned extraordinary through magic, strange worlds, “high concept”, fantastical characters, whatever.

And ideally, you want to communicate both in your cover, your blurb, your first chapter(s).

I think it helps the most to end this article with a few practical examples of this idea.

Example: too ordinary

This is a common type of blurb I see from beginning writers:

“Alex, 29 years old, unsatisfied with his job and his love life, is forced to move to a new town and also lose his friends. Sarah, 30 years old, is a professional dancer who is seriously injured and might never work again. This is the story of how they meet and go on to do great things together.”

It’s a long list of ordinary, relatable problems and ordinary, relatable events.

So why read the story?

If somebody recognizes themselves, they’re probably annoyed at the resemblance and never want to read this book. If somebody doesn’t recognize themselves, they’re probably not interested in reading made-up realistic struggles.

The final sentence somewhat hints at something extraordinary, but is vague to the point of doing nothing.

Example: too extraordinary

My statement from the previous paragraph is a general rule, I’ve learned. Check out the following type of blurb.

“Peter lives in a world where horses fly and houses are built upside-down. But a great evil, the Grizzlies, have never been defeated and creep closer and closer to his hometown. He discovers he’s gifted at magical swordfighting and embarks on a journey where many tough challenges await.”

Yes, now it’s a long list of extraordinary things. Things that are weird, unlike our world, filled with monsters or magic or whatever.

It’s also vague to the point that it doesn’t actually communicate anything. What do we know about this story? What do we know about Peter?

Sure, sounds like a somewhat cool world to live in, but we can’t otherwise relate to it. It’s a pretty standard fairytale or magical adventure setup.

In a way, humans don’t like it when a book clearly communicates that it’s a made-up story just for fun. We want to feel like the story is about some real human who experienced a real, relatable problem.

Example: just right?

Let’s see if we can smash the two elements together.

“Peter doesn’t want to die. As the Grizzlies, undefeated magical monsters, creep closer to his hometown, he is forced to take up the skill he swore he’d never learn. As he teams up with a hilarious blue ogre and a flock of archer faeries, he discovers something more powerful than magical swordfighting: love.”

We have some extraordinary bits: magic, monsters, evil, made-up skills, ogres, faeries, etcetera.

We also have some ordinary bits: fear of death, protect your home / family, being forced to do something you don’t want, friendship and collaboration, a hint at a love story.

Maybe I’m alone here—send me an email with your own thoughts if you want. But this feels like a much stronger setup for a story, that will actually draw people in. It took only 30 seconds to write it, now that we follow the principle of “ordinary + extraordinary”.

Beyond the blurb

We focused on your small marketing text (online or on the back of the book), because it’s short and easy. Because it’s the thing that needs to attract a new reader. The tiny prerequisite paragraph that should entice them to actually start that first chapter.

Does it also apply beyond that?

Yes, it does! The blurb is nothing more than a summary of some of the major elements in the story. So, within the actual story, you will actually devote a lot of time to those elements. Both the ordinary and the extraordinary parts.

In other words, find your balanced summary, and turning that into a full-fledged story is probably balanced too.

Whenever you think of some new cool idea for the story (a character, a storyline, an event, a twist, …), ask yourself,

  • Is this supposed to be ordinary (relatable, human, emotional) or extraordinary (exaggerated, heightened, abstract)?
  • How can we add some element to also add the other thing to this idea?

Have a character that can do magic? Give them a relatable, ordinary problem.

Have a character with burn-out? Invent a plot where the effects are exaggerated or an extraordinary solution exists. (For example, some dark magic that can get rid of exhaustion for the rest of your life.)

I shall give a final example to finish the article.

In Harry Potter, sure, there’s a lot of extraordinary. Magic school, dark lord returning, etcetera.

But how does it start? The story starts with several chapters of mostly ordinary. Harry and his abusive caretakers. Example after example of Harry just trying to navigate life and grow up. You actually get to know lots of tiny tidbits about his (boring) daily life in those early chapters.

It takes a while for Harry to be introduced. It takes a while for the magical school te be introduced. It takes even longer for the central conflict to be introduced.

But, as we know now, merely showing how horrible Harry’s life is … wouldn’t interest kids. They’d either not understand it, or it would hit too close to home. Why would they want to read that?

That’s why I think Rowling made the right choice by starting with a chapter showing the extraordinary. A few hints of wizards and references to extraordinary events.

(For those who don’t know, it starts with Hagrid dropping off baby Harry at his aunt and uncle. Just before that, Dumbledore and McGonagall do some light magic, but mostly talk about somewhat ordinary stuff.)

Even as she explains Harry’s ordinary life and problems, she adds sentences here and there about “suddenly finding himself on a rooftop” or other unexplainable events. To keep blending the ordinary with the extraordinary.

That’s how you can make an abused orphan’s life interesting to many readers—and magical worlds understandable to all as well.

In the later stories, the real issue is usually Harry’s friendship, or love life, or self-doubt, or arrogance. That’s what keeps the stories relatable and engaging—the dark lord literally only returns when it’s time for the climax.

Imagine the opposite. The story starts out with the magical world at full force—magical school, professors, prophecy, quidditch, it’s all introduced immediately—and we only gradually learn about the more ordinary problems. I am certain it would overwhelm and confuse people. They wouldn’t be able to connect and would literally see it as just a series of “cool sounding events”, instead of getting invested and feeling stakes.


The tip is still a bit vague, but that’s fine. This is a creative endeavor. Finding clever ways to combine the ordinary and the extraordinary simply takes inspiration, time, and experience.

At least now I have a more concrete definition for why and how. I can identify which of the two a story is missing when I feel it lacks balance.

I realize all those “cool high concept ideas” in my story folder need “something ordinary” attached to them before I can start writing them. And once I have that, it’s usually easy to see how it’s a much stronger setup that will engage readers.

Hopefully this helps you,