How to Take the Guesswork Out of What Scenes Belong in Your First Act

How to Take the Guesswork Out of What Scenes Belong in Your First Act

Writing the First Act in a story used to terrify me. It felt like walking a tightrope. Blindfolded. In the dark.

But that was my own fault.

It felt that way for the simple reason that, back then, I had only a vague, intuitive grasp on what I was trying to accomplish in this oh-so-important part of my story. There are only about a jillion pieces to juggle in the beginning quarter of your story, and if you don’t have a clear idea where each of those pieces need to go, panic will set in about as quickly as a Rott on a hunk of steak.

But it doesn’t have to. Today, we’re going to talk about the most fundamental guideline in creating a successful First Act. (Want to know about the other guidelines? Check  out this article on how to properly structure your entire First Act).

First Act Basics: Everything Is Setup

This is the most important thing to understand about the First Act: it’s setup. Once you’ve hooked your readers’ interest, the main responsibility of the First Act is to lay the groundwork for everything that follows. Without that, the rest of the story will, at best, lack context and resonance.

Within the First Act, your primary job is to introduce the following:

  • All characters who will be important catalysts within the conflict.

The introduction of these things early on is important for a couple of reasons:

1. It prevents the appearance of people, items, places, and events in the Second and Third Acts from seeming random or coincidental.

2. It creates context for the readers’ questions about the conflict, which will prevent unnecessary confusion.

3. It plants the foreshadowing for important revelations later on.

How to Choose the Right Scenes for Your First Act

The above guidelines, all by themselves, will help you make good choices about which scenes to include in the beginning of your book. But you can take it one step farther with another handy rule of thumb.

Before adding an important scene or element to your First Act, stop and ask yourself: Is this element going to reappear in the second half of the book? If not, is it going to at least be referenced and/or explained in the second half?

Note, we’re talking about important elements. Obviously, not every walk-on character or random thought from your protagonist is going to affect the latter part of the story. But if you give any element prominence in the First Act, then it must turn out to be important to the plot.

How to Spot Scenes That Don’t Deserve a Place in Your First Act

As an example of what not to do, consider the appearance of protagonist Jupiter Jones’s best friend (or employer or whatever she was) in the First Act of Jupiter Ascending.

She appears in a crucial scene halfway through the First Act when Jupiter is zapped by the aliens that are searching for her. She’s also given importance by the fact that Jupiter assumes her name–which is why the aliens show up at the friend’s house in the first place.

Keeper Alien in the First Act of Jupiter Ascending

But do we ever see her again?

Nope. The result is a niggling loose end (admittedly lost among the sea of other loose ends in this story). If this had been your story, you would now be able to analyze this scene and this character and realize their faulty positioning within the catalytic setup portion of your story.

Now’s the time to examine your own First Act! Is every scene introducing or building into something that will resonate later on? If not, how can you sow the seeds for later elements, so their presence in the latter parts of the story are even more powerful and resonant?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How is your First Act setting up your important playing pieces for the rest of the story? Tell me in the comments!

How to Take the Guesswork Out of What Scenes Belong in Your First Act

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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. This post is very helpful, as I’m right in the middle of structuring my WIP. Thank you!

  2. I have a trilogy, and I’ve been treating each book in the overall storyline as separate acts. As I’m outlining the third book, I’ve gone back to revise scenes in the first because I realize that a key character in the 3rd book has not been accounted for, epically failing points 1 – 3 in the post above.

    This character’s role in the extraordinary events of the trilogy is a mystery to be solved in order to defeat the villains. However, the readers don’t know to expect his appearance, because I’ve given them no reason to know he exists. In fact, this character is the one who set everything in motion, having faith that my protagonists will act. Faith is a theme of this story, so not setting him up seemed a huge, glaring flaw that I’m convinced will make him look like a deus ex machina.

    Yet just last night I was second guessing myself. Was I being too persnickety for worrying about this? Was I wrong to think readers would care? This post today settles the question. Thank you 🙂

    • I know exactly what you’re going through. We are plagued by doubt b/c we know our characters inside and out and where our stories are headed. Very hard to know what readers will glean from certain scenes and chapters. Sometimes a critique group helps with these problems . . . sometimes :/ (let’s connect on twitter if you are there – @JMBrown2012)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I can’t help feeling excited for you just reading this post! These are the kinds of revelations that can completely transform a story and notch it up into something that really works. I think you’re totally on the right track.

  3. Fantastic post!

    1st Act…re:BS issues (Back Story)

    Back Story and World Building can bog down so many First Acts. I find myself mumbling “I don’t care, I don’t care” as I flip through pages seeking What Happens Next (in my own work as well, ARGH!.) I’m working hard to balance enriching characters and immersing readers in the setting without compromising the pace!

    I’d love to see a post about your take, perhaps a similar “checklist” approach, to help guide me in addressing these issues…

    Thanks! 🙂

  4. If we were in the same room, I’d hug you. 🙂

  5. Steve Mathisen says:

    Just as knowing what you should include is important, so are the things you should not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. If anything, there’s more to learn about what *not* to include than what *to* include!

  6. Salut,

    It’s great to learn exactly where to put the pieces. In a way it almost seems like a chess match. This reminds me of anatomy and physiology. In the human body structure determines function. For instance, the hip joint is designed for weightbearing and stability. Structurally it’s a ball and socket joint attached to the acetabulum of the pelvis through many layers of connective tissue that limit it’s motion. The femur itself is a thick long bone that can take the weight trasmitted through it. Some of the largest muscles of the body are attached around the hip. This allows for walking, running, standing etc.

    The shoulder joint on the other hand, structurally speaking, is made for mobility and can position the upper extremity for the function if the hand. This joint also being a ball and socket joint, allows for 180 degrees of motion in various directions. This is because the bones are designed in such a way that allows for very specific motions. The shoulder joint as part of the scapula, is concave. This allows the convex head of the humerus to fit perfectly inside it. But this joint is not as limited by ligaments as the hip, and the point of articulation between the two bones is about the size if a dime. Which is why there are frequent injuries at the shoulder.

    Sorry, to make a long story short, structure determines function. Some things are beginning to gel hopefully. Thanks to KM and a steady intake of coffee. *he he* Doesn’t this apply to our stories? That it’s structure determines it’s function? Things like pace, and the effects it has on our readers?

    Yesterday was special. The heavens parted, the guiding light descended, and then came the whopping revelation. Boom. Smack dab in the face. STRUCTURE IS CHARACTER. AND CHARACTER IS STRUCTURE. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when we are structuring our novels we are indeed structuring our lovely characters. That is ultra cool jelly beans! Of course after we’ve conducted our character interviews and so forth. But just the plot points with all the necessary scenery still seems like a lifeless Frankenstein on the table. Hopefully if our left and right brains are balanced, working in concert with one another, we can breath the creative life juices of our muses into that ol’ Frankenstein. He lives, he lives! Gotta give room for our intuitive creative intelligence side to attack our manuscript.

    Okay, sorry. I just wrote a trilogy in thw comment section. Got a little carried away. That wasn’t even what I intended to say! Ugh.

    See ya

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! That age-old argument about which is more important–character or plot–becomes completely irrelevant when once we realize good stories are a perfect combination of both. Story structure–or plot–is really just about creating a strong and resonant journey–or arc–for the characters.

      But you’re right that we also have to learn to meld the right and left brains. All this structural stuff is logical, left-brain stuff, but it has to begin with the passion, energy, and “feeling” of a story that comes from our right brain. If we start there, we can take that raw creativity and then use our knowledge of structure to mold it into a book that works.

  7. I love this. My current WIP is very unruly and dies in the second act every time. Which leads me to believe there is not enough threads from the 1st act to make an interesting tapestry. That said, as currently set up, my MC faces the main antagonist in the first act, but I currently have a major bad guy (her rapist) coming in early in the second. No, wait – he’s the internal antagonist and the MA is the external antagonist! So I should get him introduced in the 1st act, I guess. Never mind me, just over here answering my own questions…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You don’t necessarily have to introduce him *onstage*, as long as he’s at least foreshadowed in some way.

  8. Before I run off and start rewriting my current novel (which is in first act phase), let me ask a question.

    Is it all right to introduce characters, sets, and conflicts in the form of a “dossier” type arrangement a la Mission Impossible?

    My lead character has been recruited to do something and so far, the first act (all two or three chapters of it), has centered around his preparation for his “mission”. Where he’s going. Who he’ll be dealing with. What he’s expected to do.

    Some things are explained in the character’s voice. What he stands to lose and gain are defined in the first chapter, for example.

    So is this arrangement all right or do I need to rethink it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s definitely all right to introduce characters “off-stage.” My only caution about a “dossier-like” intro would be that it not turn into a dry laundry list of details. You don’t want readers bored by the info.

  9. Thank you! I am just about to start drafting the next version of my WIP, after brainstorming and working on it for almost a year. Thank you!

    I discovered story structure after the previous draft became 120,000 words of “I don’t know what’s wrong with this but it isn’t right!” Your site has been so valuable to me. When I started finally trying to turn notes into an outline, I had that lightning Flow feeling just as if I was drafting, discovering the story as well as transcribing notes, but I now have only 5,000 words that I can read quickly and see whether the bones are good and solve so many problems (like what to include in the first act!) before I even have to sit down and stare at a blank cursor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “I discovered story structure after the previous draft became 120,000 words of ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with this but it isn’t right!'”

      Hah. I know that feeling exactly. It’s good being on the other side of it is, isn’t it? 😉

  10. LaDonna Ockinga says:

    Best explanation I have ever read or heard on what and how to do the first act and scenes. You are the best.

  11. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    It’s great that you enjoyed the film, and I’m not trying to take away from that at all. Some of my favorite movies are those I enjoy *in spite of* their objective flaws. So don’t mind me. But I will warn you, I’ll be using a few more “try-to-avoid-this” examples from Jupiter Ascending in future posts.

  12. Your comparison to Jupiter Ascending has me thinking of the opening act of Black Hawk Down. There is one character who appears to be a main one in the beginning but being the first one out of the helicopter, plummets to his death. Fortunately, other characters step up after.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love Black Hawk Down. It’s an incredibly brilliant movie. I would argue though that Josh Hartnett’s character is always clearly the protagonist, from the first scene on. Orlando Bloom’s character–the one who falls out of the chopper–doesn’t appear until later on, after quite a few prominent characters have already been established.

      • Joe Long says:

        It seems to me that BHD starts ‘in media res’, where they have a prologue to help explain setting (what’s going on and why American troops are present) but at the beginning the mission they’re presented with doesn’t appear to be much different than what they’re normally tasked with. It’s important, but it’s the life of a trooper.

        Therefor, I see (oh, was that Orlando Bloom?) falling out of the chopper as the inciting event. That’s the random ‘coincidence’ that causes everything that happens afterwards. As I type this, I realize that maybe it’s driving the story into the second act, but I think it fits better as the IC. Without that one moment, it’s just another day which never makes the papers let alone has a movie made about it.

  13. Great post. My trilogy is full of linking subplots, and knowing when and where certain things should go for these reasons will help out with placement immensely.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Subplots complicate everything. :p And, when done right, make everything better! Glad the post was helpful.

  14. Thanks. This is really helpful. 🙂

  15. Great, timely post. I was trying to clean up a novel I discovery wrote and just can’t do it. It’s too much of a mess. Now I’m outlining a new novel with a three-act structure and you’ve answered a lot questions I have.

    The biggest problem I still run into in the first act is backstory. Trying to find the right amount of backstory to put in without telling too much takes a bit of practice.

  16. You’re probably right. I’m going to have to watch it again only this time, not after having a few beers.

  17. That Jupiter’s friend never shows up again is not even close to the movie’s biggest problems, but it’s a good point to learn from. In fact that entire movie could be a lesson on how not to write a story.It’s fine to introduce temporary characters who are important later on, but unless that character dies in the first act (like Luke’s aunt and uncle in A New Hope), they probably shouldn’t be in the first act if they don’t show up later.

    Even if you keep these things in mind though, it’s easy to not realize unnecessary scenes or characters in the first act without some sort of outside opinion. And when you have a story that by its very nature moves around to different locations (like James Bond, Indiana Jones or a war story) then it’s hard to introduce all the important locations in the first act. Instead, you should try to find some sort of way to build them up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a certain amount of pre-programmed expectation in a story like James Bond’s. Viewers/readers *expect* multiple settings, so that, in itself, is a bit of foreshadowing.

  18. Hello,

    Currently reading the second book of a trilogy. I found the hook in the first book and was sucked in immediately. But not so in the second book. I didn’t the first chapter at all, but the second and third chapters got things rolling pretty fast. They used the second book to introduce another character right off the back and I had trouble relating to them because of it. Then the second thing that troubled me was the way the setting was presented in the first chapter. All of the writing was great and talented but the placement of two sentences was the difference. I wish it was earlier than later for the sake of context and solidifying the readers mental imagery. I still love the book and fully invested in the story. But I’m learning how critical the placement of things in our story can be for the reader.

    Thanks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good observation of your reaction to what worked and didn’t work for you in someone else’s story. Personally, I’m not a big fan of this technique either–opening with a non-protagonist character. As a reader, I’m usually bored and impatient, so as a writer, I always try to heed that and open with my main characters.

  19. Great reminders. I watched Jupiter Ascending and found much of it wildly interesting but forgettable. I hope the Wachowski siblings get on a role again. Thank you.

  20. Jeanette (Jet) says:

    Helpful information that I’m able to use now. Thanks for the post.

  21. As I attempt to go from pantser to plotter with the new book I am currently outlining, I find that what belongs in the beginning of this book is even less clear than the previous. To be more specific, I am writing a series, intended to be 4 books. So obviously it isn’t just about creating new ideas and building them up, so on so forth, it’s about creating all this new stuff following the line of the series plot.

    My issue is that at the end of book 1 I introduce an element to resolve things that is not directly related to the main plot. I don’t intend to carry this thread/character throughout the rest of the series. However, the direction my protag finds as a result of time spent with this character in between book 1 and 2 is important, and there’s a great deal of mutual impact I want this character to have on my protag and my protag to have on this character. So when i started putting together my outline, my first thought was to pick this thread back up , 7 or 8 months after book 1, follow it to it’s conclusion, so on and then the protag into the ‘new world’ that comes about as a result of it.

    But giving it more thought over the past couple of days instinct is telling me that the ‘Hook’ of book 2 is what my protag chooses to step into as a result everything that happened in the meantime. and that everything that happened in the meantime is ‘backstory’ that I need to fuel book 2 with.

    I feel this gives me more room for ‘subtext’ and ‘intrigue’ if i don’t frontload everything for the reader.

    Not that I wouldn’t inform the reader either way but I’m just concerned that it might feel like I’m not taking full advantage of an interesting aspect of the story, or even dropping the thread if i don’t ‘show it’ simply because it’s more subplot than related to main plot.

  22. I have to say that author Steven Jame’s really knows how to present a hook. The beginning of these two novels are subperb. Hook, line and sinker. Wow. Placebo and the sequel Singularity.

  23. Duane Wiley says:

    Every now and then I want to print out your content or save it to my writing folder. I click on the little print icon above the article and it always only gives me the advertising on the left and about 2/3 of the actual article. Is there something else I need to do? Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, that’s annoying! I had no idea it was doing that. Unfortunately, I also have no idea how to fix it. But I’ll check with my web guys. Sorry for the hassle!

  24. Stephen says:

    What about when you are writing a trilogy or series? Can scenes in the first act (of book 1) foreshadow events that do not get addressed again until book 2 or even book 3 and therefore have no resolution in book 1?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely. Readers will understand that elements unaddressed in the first book aren’t loose ends, but will be addressed later on.

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