The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act

Once you’ve hooked the reader, your next task is to put your early chapters to work introducing your characters, settings, and stakes. The first 20-25% of the book comprises your setup. At first glance, this can seem like a tremendous chunk of story to devote to introductions, but if you expect readers to stick with you throughout the story, you first have to give them a reason to care. And this important stretch of the story is where you accomplish just that. Mere curiosity can only carry a reader so far. Once you’ve hooked that sense of curiosity, you then have to deepen the pull by creating an emotional connection between your readers and your characters.

These “introductions” are made up of far more than just the actual moment of introducing the characters and settings or explaining the stakes. The introductions themselves probably won’t take more than few scenes. After the introduction is when your task of exploring character and establishing the stakes really begins.

What are character/setting/stakes introductions?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe first quarter of the book (the first act) is the place to compile all the necessary components of your story. Anton Chekhov’s famous advice that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired” is just as important in reverse: If you’re going to have a character fire a gun later in the book, that gun should be introduced in the first act. The story you create in the following acts can only be assembled from the parts you’ve shown the reader in this first act. That’s your first duty in this section.

Your second duty is to allow readers the opportunity to learn about your characters. Who are these people? What is the essence of their personalities? What are their core beliefs (even more particularly, what are the beliefs that will be challenged or strengthened throughout the book)? If you can introduce a character in a “characteristic moment,” you’ll be able to immediately show readers who this person is. From there, the plot builds as you deepen the stakes and set up the conflict that will come to a head in the key and inciting events.

Where do the introductions belong?

The introductions should ideally begin in the opening chapter. Depending on the number of characters or the complexity of your setting, you will probably want to space the introductions throughout several early scenes. The most important thing to keep in mind is the necessity of giving characters enough space in these early chapters so you can focus on developing them. This does not mean the plot needs to be slow or meandering. Every scene must be pertinent to the plot; every scene must be a domino moving the characters forward to the point of no return. But don’t cram so much action into these early scenes that you waste your opportunity to flesh out the characters before the bullets really start flying later on.

Examples from film and literature

Let’s examine how the authors and directors of our four exemplary stories took advantage of their first act.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): Austen introduces characters, settings, and stakes, all three, in the very first scene. Ten pages in, we’ve been introduced to all the major characters, given to understand the setting, and shown what’s at stake for the Bennett daughters if one of them can’t ensnare the unwitting Mr. Bingley. By the time we reach the first major plot point, we’ve gotten to know the sisters. The beauty and sweetness that will eventually win Jane a husband, the independence and strong opinions with which Lizzy drives the conflict, and the foreboding irresponsibility of the youngest daughter Lydia are all in place and ready for use later in the story. We’ve also been introduced to the Bingleys, Darcy, and Wickham. Before the first act is over, Bingley is in love with Jane, and Lizzy has made up her mind to dislike Darcy—the two factors that will drive the entirety of the remaining story.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): The first quarter of this classic movie is entirely, blatantly, and beautifully about character development. Under the guise of explaining George Bailey to novice angel Clarence, the head honcho angels show us all the prominent moments in George Bailey’s young life. We see him as a child, saving his little brother’s life, losing the hearing in one ear, and preventing old Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a customer. We get a glimpse of him as a young man, planning his escape from “crummy” Bedford Falls, even as he begins to fall for the lovely Mary Hatch. By the time the inciting event strikes, we know George Bailey inside out. We’ve been introduced to Bedford Falls and its colorful array of denizens. And we’ve learned of the stakes from the mouth of George’s father, who explains the importance of the Bailey Building & Loan in giving the people a haven from evil Old Man Potter.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): Card uses his first act to establish his setting, the orbital Battle School, where brilliant young children are sent to train to stave off an alien invasion. We learn about this strange and brutal place through the eyes of the main character, Ender Wiggin, who is a new arrival, and, in so doing, we learn about Ender as well. We see his determination, his kindness, but also his underlying bedrock of ruthlessness—which will eventually become the element around which the entire plot must turn. Almost all of the important supporting characters are introduced, and readers are immediately shown what is a stake, not only for the human race, but also for Ender, if he does not overcome the handicap of his extreme youth in order to flourish in this place.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: directed by Peter Weir (2004): After the initial onslaught of the furious opening battle, Weir slows his movie down considerably to allow viewers to get to know the main characters—the captain and the surgeon—and the several dozen minor characters, featured from among the crew members. The opening battle already showed us the stakes were high, but the characters’ reactions to it, particularly the captain’s intense desire to refit the ship and reengage the enemy, help us understand why they’re fighting and what will happen if they fail. As the crew works to repair the ship’s battle damage, we’re also given an inside view of the ship itself, which will play such an irreplaceable role throughout the rest of the story.

Takeaway value

So what can we learn from these masterful first acts?

1. If the hook has done its job, you can safely slow down the action enough to thoughtfully introduce and deepen your characters.

2. The salient personality points, motivations, and beliefs of the characters should all be developed.

3. The pertinent points of the setting must be fleshed out, so you don’t have to slow down in the second act to explain things. Readers should already be oriented by the first plot point.

4. The very fact that readers are developing a bond with the characters raises the stakes. Drive the point home by making clear what the characters (and thus the readers) stand to lose in the coming conflict.

5. Make certain every scene matters. Each scene must be a domino that knocks into the next domino/scene, building inexorably to the first plot point.

The first quarter of the book builds the foundation of your entire story. A weak foundation will topple even the most brilliant of conflicts and climaxes. Do your groundwork, set up all your necessary playing pieces, and grip readers with an undeniable urge to find out what happens to your marvelous characters.

Stay tuned: Next week, we talk about the First Plot Point.

Tell me your opinion: Do you take the time to introduce your characters, settings, and stakes in your first act?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m on page 19 so definitely working on this while tying it into the plot. This section is harder for me to write than I thought.

  2. The first act is always the most difficult, in my opinion. We have so many things we have to get right in a short amount of time, the most important of which is keeping the readers’ attention. Once we’ve got them to the second act, we can breathe a little easier on that score.

  3. I’ve been struggling with this a little in my current WIP, because many of the characters are not quite who or what they initially seem. So they need to be presented one way, with just enough unsettling details to make you suspect something is up. This is where my first person POV is particularly important, since we only know what she knows (or what she thinks she knows) and what she suspects. But outlining is helping a lot with this!

  4. I went back and did a rewrite recently. It’s getting there, I think.

  5. @Angelica: It’s very easy to say, “introduce everything in the first act,” but the truth is that those introductions are different in every story and every story brings its unique challenges. Sometimes the demands of our stories direct that we simply can’t introduce everyone important (think Treasure Planet‘s Ben Gunn, who doesn’t show up until the climax). As always, these concepts of structure are guidelines and must be massaged to fit the needs of each unique narrative.

    @Lorna: Every rewrite is a step closer!

  6. Yes. I had to look what I had written so far and was initially discouraged because I am writing a science fiction novel and the idea for me as a reader to check in is the action what happens to the character that defines the plot *BAM* in Chef Emeril vernacular. So I introduced the main characters and with their banter and description defined who they were previous to the action following the formula.
    I find myself more drawn to a) Beth slumped down the adjacent wall shot in the face as blood pooled from her mouth and a silent incantation escaped her dying breath.
    As opposed to the following sentence as delineated here in b). Beth was a flaming red head of wistful expression and freckles that made her hazel eyes flash with unspoken promises and bemusement. At 5’6 she had a pistol slung in a leather holster under her arm at the ready for whatever might come. Unfortunately for her whatever might come was five seconds ago and the smell of cordite too late.
    Which do you prefer ? Or neither ?

  7. Taking the time to “slow down” for character and setting setup doesn’t mean we have to devolve into lengthy descriptions. Sometimes it *does* mean this, but we’re almost always better off showing the essence of the character through her actions, rather than explaining them. Another important point is that just because the emphasis in this first quarter is on introducing the players, that doesn’t mean there can’t or shouldn’t be action. Quite the opposite. If you think about some of your favorite action films or novels, you’ll see the action rolls even as the viewer/reader is given ample opportunity to discover the characters.

  8. Arthur Levine would be proud of you. He talks about making sure there’s an emotional connection with the character before you go thrust the character into the middle of the plot. And if you think of Harry Potter, in the American edition edited by Levine, you’ll recall that Harry is not immediately sent off to wizard land. We get to see his struggles so when the invitations arrives and he begins his journey, we cheer him on and care what happens.

    We do need to get to the “big problem” before we lose readers, but we don’t have a chance of hooking them if they could care less about the character. You’re exactly right when you say slowing it down doesn’t mean going into descriptions.

    And Chris, if we have met Beth or whoever might be affected by her shooting, and understand their wants and needs, we can care about what happened to her, and to them because of their relationship with her. It’s not the physical descriptions we’re missing. That’s someone looking in from afar. We want to be in the character’s heads, feel their emotions. Slowing down doesn’t mean lack of action. Just let us in, let us care…

    Excellent post. One of my favorites of yours.

  9. Great thoughts, Deb. The notion of “taking time” to introduce characters can often be misconstrued. But when we examine the stories that have moved us, we can see at a glance how they kept our attention with the purposeful mingling of character and action. Authors sometimes are nervous that if they spend too much time on characters, early on, they’ll bore readers. But if our characters aren’t fascinating enough to hold the reader’s attention, action alone isn’t going to do the trick either.

  10. So then a balance must be struck between holding the reader’s interest making us care about the characters and at the same time knowing when that time is finishing to raise the stakes with actions and consequences is largely how an author paces the story he or she wishes to tell. Too much description and you risk boring the crap out of the reader. Too little an investment in description and introduction and the reader doesn’t care if the character lives, dies of dysentery or if possible a turn of misfortune takes place.
    Right now I am near 3000 words..and I am wondering if I should end the chapter at about 4000 words as a set number. A lot went into describing the main characters and their shared predicament. As I am nearing the new paragraphs closing on 2734 words or so the major plot opens hitting the fan. I can only hope that through reviewing and re-reading and sticking to my outline or even breaking, modifying or tossing out the outline that things go well.

  11. Great post! Lots of food for thought!

  12. I second, a great post!! I’ve been sitting here thinking on whether I spend 25% of my book with introductions, hooking the reader with getting to know the characters better. I best look into this!! Sometimes I think we’re so concerned about getting from point A to point B, we forget to show the human that comes in-between.

  13. Best. Post. Evah! I tell you what, I love this so much. Many of these points we know instinctively, but when you’re in the thick of writing, it’s easy to forget. So great to have this as a revision checklist. Good stuff, KM, as always! :o) <3

  14. @Chris: There’s no set word count for chapters. They can be anywhere from 500-10,000 words. I’ve always felt that 3-4,000 is a good breaking point, since that’s long enough to be substantial, but not so long that the reader grows bored without a break.

    @Fiona: Thanks for stopping by!

    @Traci: Structure is actually a very difficult thing to explain comprehensively. It’s one of those thing we learn best by experiencing it. I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to pay attention to structure in the books and movies of others. Watch how the masters use that first quarter to introduce characters, while still keeping the plot moving forward and the readers’ attention riveted.

  15. @LTM: So glad you enjoyed it! This series has been such a blast to write. It’s making me really sit down and think about the nitty-gritty of structure myself.

  16. These are great tips on structure, thank you! I recently had to rewrite the opening chapters to my YA fiction book because it started too slow.

    Now I have action at the beginning…then it slows down to introduce the characters and the life changing problem they must solve.

    So, your post really helps me stay on track.

  17. If I had a nickel for every beginning I’ve rewritten, I wouldn’t have to sell books to make money! Sounds like you’ve got the balance down just perfectly.

  18. Great post! I’m reading the whole series so I can outline my novel despite the fact that I’ve ran out of plot aroun 40K…

    By the way, “Anton Chekhov’s famous advice that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired” – that actually wasn’t an advice, it’s was a lament that went something like this:

    “If there’s a hunting rifle hanging on a wall in act one, it will inevitably fire in act 3.”

    It’s all about some cliche drama scenes of the time being foreshadowed in cliche ways. 🙂

  19. You know, now that you bring it up, I don’t know that I’ve ever read that quote in context. I’ll have to go hunt it up. Glad you’re enjoying the series!

  20. Hello I’m a beginner writer in terms of narrative because i usually write them in the form of movie scripts. I’ve been browsing through this site and i can say that the contents are pretty helpful and descriptive that i was able to finish the hook and characters of my story in just a day. Though i wanted to ask if the first act can be two or three chapters? Thanks and more power to you Ms. Weiland.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The length of the First Act will ultimately depend on the overall length of the story. If your book will contain 50 chapters, then your First Act should be roughly 12 chapters.

  21. This is hard to generalize. It’s as easy to put too much into the introduction as too little. I think maintaining interest is the key. The intro to It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t just an info dump. It had a whole series of rapid hooks, one after another.

    IMHO Master and Commander stuffed too much into the introduction. I never knew who all the people are or what they wanted or why. The movie was a total loss for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Master & Commander is one of my top favorite movies–but I actually didn’t like it all that much the first time I saw it. It’s a story that throws viewers right into the mix–and then pulls them right back out at the end with little segue. But personally I’ve come to feel that’s part of its genius. It’s not the most accessible movie you’re ever going to watch, but I find more to appreciate about its art every time I watch it.

  22. Very useful! Makes me feel I am on the right path. Sometimes I am just too harsh with myself, constantly wondering if I’m just info dumping and whatnot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t be too hard on yourself. All of writing is a process. Enjoy it–and learn as you go.

  23. James Hall says:

    I think it is important to note that introducing your characters does NOT mean dumping your entire backstory collection. I’ve seen this done with several good stories. I almost always want to put them down before it gets better, but I have a habit of finishing them once I’ve started. Not all readers do.

  24. How much or how long is the first quarter of a story supposed to be?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Approximately 25% of the book. The actual page/word count will vary, of course, depending on the size of the story.

  25. How is the protagonist’s goal in the hook and the whole first act different from the one he’ll form after the 1st plot point? For instance, when his life is normal in the beginning, will he have a rather simple goal, such as getting a promotion at work?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the beginning, the character will be in pursuit of a Want, which will continue throughout the story, but which will either be moved slightly to the background *or* focused much more tightly when he engages with the main conflict at the First Plot Point.

      For example, in the movie 3:10 to Yuma, the protagonist Dan starts out right away with the goal of earning enough money to pay off his debt and keep his ranch. This feeds right into the main goal of the conflict at the First Plot Point, when his main focus becomes getting outlaw Ben Wade to the train station, in order to claim the reward money and pay off his ranch.

  26. Would you apply this story structure to short stories?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Short stories can be a bit of a wild card when it comes to structure. It all depends on what kind of story it is. Some short stories follow the classic three-act structure to the T – just on a much smaller scale.

      But then we also have short stories that are more vignettes – snapshots, moments. And they’re all about a single plot point at the end. The drama rises to that point, and then the story is over.

      For short stories, I highly recommend Joe Bunting’s Let’s Write a Short Story.

  27. Mauricio says:

    Overall how many scenes should be between each plot point? Should there be a minimum of three scenes between the hook and inciting event, or are the number of scenes between each plot point merely up to the writer and the pacing of the story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Depends how many scenes are in your book. 🙂 There’s no limit. You could have one scene between plot points or twenty. What’s important is that the timing is correct and as balanced possible.

  28. No, I do not take time to do it in the first act. I do it throughout the entire book. I write as go along which I now see is a bad idea. There are many different things I am leaving out or not explaining a lot.
    I have always struggled to write human characters while my animal characters, mainly horses, are explained very well and readers to understand them.
    It is something I have always struggled at and I find having trouble telling myself where I am in the stable or location my story taking place. This is something I know I need to get better with, but I never really took the time to do so. This is something I’m going to have to make a priority if I want to write a great book.
    The stakes is something I am good at coming up with, but figuring out where they go and how to make them work is something I struggle at. It seems that it can be all over the place and I know that can’t be good.
    Thank you for giving me a better idea of what I need to work on and I begin to work on getting better at it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] There are two distinct terms that consistently appear in all structure discussions that come in the First Act: the Hook and the Inciting Incident. This movie regrettably thought they were one and the […]

  2. […] Secrets of Story Structure, Part 3, K.M. Weiland […]

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