Screenwriting Lessons: “The Wizard of Oz” — Part 4: Ordinary Character, Extraordinary World

The inherent compelling nature of a stranger in a strange land narrative.

Dorothy crosses the threshold into the mysterious and wonderful land of Oz.

Joel Coen of the Coen brothers has said: “Every movie ever made is an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz.” True or not, all I know is I constantly reference the film in my teaching. Why? Because it contains so many classic narrative elements.

Therefore I was inspired to take on a week-long series focusing on screenwriting lessons we can draw from The Wizard of Oz.

Today: Ordinary Character, Extraordinary World.

Take a look at how Joseph Campbell described the Hero’s Journey in “The Power of Myth,” the wonderful documentary series with Bill Moyers:

The Hero is found in the Ordinary World…|
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.
The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension. The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.
Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it. Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.
The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying.
The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?
During the first half, the Hero is tested…
The Hero has to determine the rules of the Extraordinary World into which they are moving — Who can the Hero trust?
Along the way, the Hero meets “threshold guardians,” people who guard the entrances…
The trick to facing any opponent is to get into their skin, understand their habits, maybe make them friends and allies.
The midpoint from a mythological standpoint is that moment when the Hero confronts that which they fear most, often related to entering the headquarters of the enemy.
Afterwards, the Hero feels the consequences of the Midpoint…
Reflects on their task, often a chance to rest…
Then a chase scene often occurs…
The enemy has been struck a mighty blow, but recovers enough to mount one final act.
A black moment where it looks like all is lost, there is no way to defeat the enemy.
The final test…
To demonstrate whether the Hero has learned his lesson or not…
The process has purified him to ensure that he hasn’t become part of the Other World — but will he succeed?
The Hero returns home with some booty, an elixir, the source of power from the Other World, i.e., treasure, Holy Grail, knowledge, gold, love, wisdom, humility.
In the end, the Hero is a transformed individual.

Sometimes the journey can best be described as departing from the Old World, then experiencing a New World.

In Good Will Hunting, Will never leaves Boston (until the Denouement), but experiencing the hallowed halls of Harvard as an insider represents the New World for him.

In Tootsie, Michael never leaves New York City, but he enters a New World when takes on the role of Dorothy Michaels.

In stories like this where the world remains pretty much the same, Old World to New World ma be more appropriate.

But as in the case of Dorothy traveling from Kansas to Oz, this is definitely a case of going from the Ordinary World to the Extraordinary World.

Why is this such a compelling narrative archetype? Several reasons:

  • Entertainment: The Extraordinary World can be a challenge for the Protagonist, however for the audience, it can be hugely entertaining.
  • Tests: The Extraordinary World can be so different than the Ordinary World, its rules and customs can be a challenge to master.
  • Underdog: As a Fish Out Of Water — Ordinary character in an Extraordinary environment — that makes for a harder road to hoe.

Whether it’s the mind in Inception, the mental institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the past in Back to the Future, a world in which George had never been born in It’s a Wonderful Life, Paradise Falls in Up, or Oz in The Wizard of Oz, the narrative setup of an Ordinary Character in an Extraordinary World is a tried and true story setup.

Part 1: Disunity to Unity

Part 2: Transformation

Part 3: Trickster

Tomorrow: Final Struggle.