Acting out the first act is the only way of knowing if your novel opens the right way. There is no single ‘right’ way to begin a novel, but there are plenty of wrong ones. Breaking down your first act will increase your chances of keeping the reader to Act Two.
We are, of course, talking about a three or four act plot structure in fiction. However you choose to break your plot into story units, a three-phase beginning, middle and end is about as conventional as you can get.
Beginning at the beginning with Act One, this is approximately the first 25 per cent of your book. Act one establishes:
- the characters, starting ideally with the protagonist
- the protagonist’s internal and external goals (wants)
- the protagonist’s internal and external conflicts
- the protagonists misbelief and any flaws that present obstacles to their progress
- the world or setting
- an indication of tone, style and voice
- the genre of the story
- the promises you as the author are making to the reader
Act One will also contain the Inciting Incident, the event that kick-starts the story, propelling the protagonist from their everyday, Ordinary World into the extraordinary adventure.
In most conventional story structures, the Inciting Incident occurs at the 10-15% mark. That means you have 10-15% of the novel’s word count to lay out everything on that list before the adventure begins.
You will also see advice that the opening hook should come no later than 5% of the way in. That opening hook is something to get the reader interested and invested in the protagonist’s upcoming dilemma or conflict.
That’s the conventional wisdom.
No Time Like Right Now
In today’s fiction market, it seems everything needs to happen sooner. It’s now common for the Opening Hook to happen in the first chapter and the Inciting Incident soon after that. No one has the time or patience any more to wait around for those 10-15% markers.
More conventional wisdom tells you not to introduce everything right away; that you have a quarter of the book to lay out the items in that list. But, you have to set out your promises early and point to some progress through Act One. Under the influence of contemporary social media, the protagonist’s day-to-day life gets compressed to a snapshot.
No one wants 10-15% of Ordinary World any more. The new rule for acts, chapters and scenes is ‘enter late, leave early.’ That is, get the story moving faster using quick strokes and fill in the details later. But don’t hang around longer than necessary.
This is at odds with the idea of getting to know the characters and setting over the course of the first act. Certainly you don’t want to pad a slow beginning with unnecessary detail. But what amount of detail is ‘unnecessary?’ How much contrast do you need to show of the mundane domestic and work life before the upheaval of the story’s central conflict?
Sanderson has a whole session on Promises, Progress and Payoff’s. Act One is where you make promises about the characters, genre, tone, plot and setting. And you better stay true to those. But Act One also has to demonstrate some progress toward paying off those promises. It may be through short-term escalation or resolution of conflicts in Act One. Movement is vital.
In application, the content of Act One will vary by genre and story type.
Raising the Curtain
In my fantasy genre, I have it relatively easy. Diving into the action in medias res means I usually open with good guys versus bad guys in a fight scene in the early pages. I introduce my protagonist, their goals, flaws and misbelief right away. I highlight some aspect of the magic system along with a hint of the wider conflict of the story.
Act One – The Sixth Messenger
- (Really Bad Day) Introducing my fighting priestess opposing the bad guys over the mystery child. Aeryn has doubts, fears, magic, and a poor set of interpersonal skills.
- (Something Peculiar) Aeryn escapes with boy. The seriousness of her mission, and hints of her past, force her to suppress her softer side.
- (Grasping at Straws) Stuck out in the wilds, Aeryn finds the boy is a fire mage, not a prophet. The mission is already a bust, but the bad guys don’t know and won’t care. She has little choice but stick to the mission for now. The mission is bound up in faith, something our priestess appears to lack.
The mid-point of Act One brings the Inciting Incident.
- (Call to Adventure) This is the revelation of the real bad guys, the betrayal by a colleague and the second action set-piece. Aeryn is up against it now; her skills and abilities are of little use against the Brotherhood’s psychic powers.
- (Head in Sand) Aeryn vows to stick to the mission and get back to the Abbey with the boy.
- (Pull out Rug) Aeryn’s arrival at the Abbey brings more detail about her Order and her estranged relationship to it. We meet the bulk of the supporting cast for the rest of the story. The Abbess is revealed as a hard taskmaster bearing down on Aeryn without compassion.
Act One concludes with Aeryn denigrated and downcast, given little praise for the courage and sacrifice she makes for the Order and its mission.
I can check every item in the list from the beginning of this post; protagonist, genre, tone, setting, style and voice. Let’s not forget promises, progress and some down-payments to the payoff.
It sets up the break into Act Two and the First Plot Point. If the events of Act One proved challenging, we can expect Act Two to get even more difficult.