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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. My first act–at least up to the First Plot Point–seems to be more fluff right now because most of it is building the characters’ normal worlds, but I did try to foreshadow the conflict to come by having the main characters interact with the bad guys, even though they don’t know those are the bad guys yet.

    The perks of deciding to pants NaNo this year…on the bright side, I did reach 13k last night. 🙂


  1. […] 3.) How to Take the Guesswork Out of What Scenes Belong in Your First Act […]

  2. […] not sure I entirely agree with this Chekhov’s gun-type argument that you should only include characters and scenes in your first act that pay off later. Sometimes I think there’s an advantage just to showing the normal life […]

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