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.
- A demonstration of what is at stake if the protagonist fails 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.
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.
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!