When I started writing fiction I had no idea what I was doing. The stories I produced were what I like to call amoebas. They were amorphous blobs with no structure and very little plot. My stories were basically daydreams that I transcribed onto paper.
I soon realized that my writing sucked. What I couldn’t tell you, at the time, was why it sucked. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, and man was that frustrating!
In truth, there was a LOT I was doing wrong, but learning the three-act structure was my first step towards recognizing my shortcomings as a writer.
What the three-act structure provides you with is a framework. Guidelines for what your characters should be doing, and when they should be doing it. Every act is designed to fulfill a specific purpose.
The structure is your roadmap. If you can come up with a beginning and ending to your story then the structure will give you the most effective route between those two points. Just don’t detour!
For the purpose of this blog, we’ll take it one act at a time.
Today let’s talk about five things to do in the first Act of your story.
Introduce your hero in the context of their everyday life.
Your reader needs to know who your protagonist is, and what their life was like before any major events take place. In other words, before their world is turned upside down by the Inciting Incident.
Now, you may want to jump right into the action, and give your reader a good hook like this:
Dale hung from the precipice, his body as limp as a noodle. His right hand had already slipped away. The fingers of his left hand were burning as they bore his full weight. Mendoza stood over him, puffing a cigar.
“You don’t look good, Amigo.”
Dale knew that it would only take one stomp of Mendoza’s boot and he would go crashing down to the rocks below. Mendoza held the flash drive in his hand, “Now that I have this, I don’t have much use for you, Dale.”
Mendoza hiked a knee and lifted his leather-clad foot into the air. Dale knew it was all over…
That’s some interesting action, but by now the reader is probably wondering
Who the hell is Dale? And why do I care?
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to start with action. Sometimes, a movie or a book will start with an intense scene. A little slice of the third act right up front, but what do they always follow it up with?
A flashback. To when our character, in this case, Dale, was living his normal life. Maybe he’s a low-level accountant at a security firm that’s doing clandestine business with a South American drug cartel. Dale learns of his employer’s criminality while doing a routine audit, three days later he’s hanging from a cliff.
Why do we need to know this? Because we need to understand who Dale is and how he ended up in this predicament.
Really, we need to know who Dale was before his life went into disarray. What motivates him? What is he scared of in life? These questions are important because Act I is meant to give your reader context for the story that is about to unfold.
You can boil this all down to one word: Backstory.
Act I needs to provide a backstory.
Build empathy for your character.
We, the reader, need to care about your protagonist. Yes, even if they’re supposed to be an Anti-hero.
I once read a draft of a story for a fellow novice-writer. This person was not the most accomplished storyteller, and it showed in the way they characterized their protagonist.
The hero of their story was an unrepentant, asshole. A womanizer, a drinker, an addict, and an all-around jerk. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a flawed character. In fact, it’s really the preferred way to go. The problem with this writer’s character was that there was nothing redeemable about him. He was just a jerk.
I asked the author why he had made his hero so unlikable. He gave me some lame argument about how he wanted to challenge mainstream ideas.
Don’t do that.
I’m not saying don’t be creative, but don’t reinvent the wheel, either. If your character is flawed, you need to give us a hint as to why. The messy divorce, or the dead child, or the tour of duty. People aren’t born flawed, something has to break them. If your character is broken, you don’t need to tell us the whole story why, but give us an idea.
By the end of Act I we should care a little about that character, and if they’re a jerk we need to know why.
Establish the stakes.
This one is pretty easy. Your story needs to have conflict, but in order for it to be effective, we need to know what your character stands to lose. Do they have a nice house? A perfect family? A great job?
Or maybe the stakes are deeper than those things. Take this scene from Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins:
The scene sets up the stakes for the entire franchise- Who will win the battle for the soul of Gotham? Batman or the criminals like Falcone. These stakes are beautifully mirrored in the character of Bruce Wayne. He’s young, not yet committed to any cause, and he wants an easy cure for his grief. He wants revenge.
Ultimately, with the help of his friend, he rejects vengeance for a pure ideal- Justice. Can he bring justice to a world as corrupted and broken as Gotham City? We don’t know, but we want to find out!
You don’t want to write any serious conflict in the first act because for any conflict to have meaning the reader needs to be fully invested in your characters.
However, you can, and probably should hint at what the conflict will ultimately be. What does this foreshadowing look like?
Think back to high school when you had to read Romeo & Juliet.
We get a hint of the conflict in the first act of the play during the Capulet’s ball. Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) is mad as hell to see Romeo at his family’s party. He wants to kill Romeo right there, in the middle of the ball! He’s only stopped because his uncle doesn’t want the party ruined.
Judging by Tybalt’s anger, the audience knows that this feud could lead to the death of Romeo.
Later in the night Romeo and Juliet meet and share their first kiss. Romeo asks Juliet’s nurse what the girl’s name is and when the nurse tells him he utters the line:
“O dear account! My life is my foe’s debt.”
Or, For those of us who don’t speak Shakespeare:
“My life is in the hands of my enemy.”
The point is, Tybalt and Romeo have yet to draw swords, but the audience can see the conflict coming from a mile away. By the time the curtain falls, both these dudes have been killed by their families’ clashing.
I know that’s kind of a spoiler, but the play has been out for like 400 years now.
Bring your character to their conflict.
Ultimately, you want to end Act I by introducing the story’s main conflict. You do this with the Inciting Incident.
Hopefully, by this time you’ve constructed a compelling enough character, and backstory, that your reader is willing is go along for the ride. Because, by the end of Act I, if they don’t care they ain’t reading anymore.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
The Three-Act Structure- Elements of Cinema
Fundamentals of Story Structure- The Writing Cooperative
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