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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. I’m loving this series and your “Structuring your Novel” book, which I’m using for my memoir. For Act 1, how would you recommend I show setting if the story begins in one country then the protagonist immigrates to another? And do you have any other recommendations for structuring a memoir?

  7. I do not like the first act…
    I never know what to write in the first act. I would like to skip the beginning. But if that were the case then my 1st plot point would already occur at 10% of the book. Even if I try to find good conflicts that reflect the lie of the character, the first act remains boring. I do not know how I could change that. Also my readers give me the feedback that the start of the book was too slow.
    Any ideas?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I recommend studying the First Acts in books and movies you like to discover how they make use of this section of the story. You can find lots of examples in the Story Structure Database.

      You might also find my series on character arcs helpful, since it goes it a lot of depth about the beginning of the story.

      • This is helpful. Do you think it’s absolutely necessary to introduce all your characters in the first chapter?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Definitely not. Only introduce characters as they become necessary. That said, it’s best when all important characters can be introduced or at least foreshadowed in the First Act.

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