Friday, February 19, 2021

Story Structure: How the Act One Problem Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The act one problem is where many first drafts fizzle out. Here’s why.

We tend to think of the beginning of a novel as the first chapter or opening scene, but it’s really the first twenty-five percent of the novel. The “beginning” is everything that happens before the first major plot point the protagonist can’t walk away from.

The inciting event might officially start the novel, but it’s a call to action the protagonist can refuse (and often does). And once they do, things spiral out of control and get worse until getting involved in the plot is no longer an option.

The protagonist must act, because the problem is now too big to ignore. It demands attention, and it’s made it very clear it’s not going away unless somebody does something.

The act one problem is the tipping point from situation to plot.

If I took a poll to discover where a first draft stalled, I’d bet a large percentage of the answers would be around the act one problem. Probably just after, because the first act is all about setting up the story and getting the plot ducks in a row, and the second act is where the actual work of plotting begins.

If you know what your act one problem is, odds are you’ll breeze right into the middle and get stuck farther down the line (grin). If you don’t know it, you’ll likely hit a wall after the setup is done, because you aren’t sure what happens next. Maybe you’ll see where the plot needs to go, but not how you get there. Knowing this moment is critical to moving forward.

The act one problem is where the protagonist has to act or the novel stops dead in its tracks.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The act one problem is where the protagonist discovers they have an issue they have to resolve, and is asked to set off on the story adventure. This might be an actual quest for a magical item, moving to a new town to start life over again, or choosing to confront a cheating spouse. Whatever happened in the inciting event to trigger the start of the story has led to this moment.

This “will you step into the unknown?” is vital for both the external plot goal and the internal character arc goal. This answer to this question is what officially launches the middle, with the act two choice.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson translates the hieroglyphics of the stargate, allowing them to travel to another world. He’s asked if he can get the team home again if they go through. His problem for the middle of the novel is “getting the team home.”
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen now faces the consequences of her choice to volunteer in her sister’s place. Her problem is “surviving the Hunger Games.”
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart has to become the beauty queen she needs to be in order to go undercover at the beauty pageant. Her problem is “can she fit in and find the bomber?”

Each character faces a problem they can’t walk away from, and they prep in some way to deal with it.

When it happens: Between the inciting event and the end of the first 25% of the novel (roughly). It ends the beginning, and transitions into the middle. It might be a single scene, or it might unfold over a few chapters, but it ends with a situation that requires a choice to move forward.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel is faced with the choice “can he get the team home?” If he says yes, the plot moves forward, because the team will go through the stargate. If he says no, the plot stops, because there’s no reason to go if they can’t make it back.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss realizes the full weight of her decision, and she has to decide how she’s going to handle the Games. The structure is a little different here, since Katniss has no choice to walk away. She’s going to the Games no matter what, but her preparation for it will decide if the plot moves forward or not. If she dies on the first day, the plot stops. If she makes it, the plot keeps going.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie has to become something she despises in order to do her job. She suffers through a makeover, and it’s very clear fitting in and being accepted as a contestant is not going to be easy. If she’s too unwilling to play her role, the plot stops. If she can fake it, the plot continues.

What its function is: To remind readers what problem the protagonist needs to solve in the middle, and give a general overview about what the middle of the novel is going to cover.
  • In Stargate, it's Daniel facing the unknown of what’s on the other side of the stargate. Will it answer his questions about who built the pyramids or not? Readers will wonder: Will Daniel go through the stargate, and if he does, what’s on the other side?
  • In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss having to face the ramifications of taking her sister’s place in the Games. Readers will wonder: What will happen to Katniss now that she’s a tribute? Will she survive?
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's Gracie having to accept being turned into something she dislikes to do her job. Readers will wonder: Can Gracie go from scruffy tomboy to beauty queen?

Why it's important: It provides a “beginning” for the middle and gives you a starting point for that story arc. The act one problem will lead through to the dark moment at the end of act two when the story question posed here is answered. It’s a launchpad to get to what the novel is truly about.
  • In Stargate, it’s Daniel taking a chance to prove his crazy theories and eventually finding out he was right (and learn that proof comes with terrible consequence that threaten Earth and everything he knows).
  • In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss risking her life to save her sister, and eventually facing another terrible choice about who lives and dies (because she'll have to kill Peeta in order to win the Games).
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's Gracie submitting to be turned into something she dislikes, which eventually lets her discover her softer, stronger side (and then having the case torn away from her when no one believes her about the terrorist).

In essence, you’re saying there’s a problem that’s big enough to carry the rest of the plot, and now the protagonist must hustle to resolve that problem.

(Here’s more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Act One Problem

1. The problem is a direct result of what happens in the inciting event.

Whatever actions the protagonist takes because of the inciting event leads them to this story question and problem. They cause it to happen in some way, and now they have to deal with it.
  • In Stargate, if Daniel hadn’t been offered a job translating the hieroglyphics, he wouldn’t have solved the stargate and be facing a choice about whether or not to go through it.
  • In The Hunger Games, if Katniss had not volunteered as tribute, she wouldn’t be facing a situation that will likely end in her death.
  • In Miss Congeniality, if Gracie hadn’t messed up so badly on her mission, she wouldn’t be putting up with the humiliation of the makeover to get back into the FBI’s good graces.

The protagonist’s actions in the beginning of the novel have directly led to this moment. This is why the inciting event is the inciting event—it shoves the protagonist onto the main plot so they have to deal with this problem or else.

(Here’s more on Beware the Vague Goal When Outlining a Scene)

2. The problem must be big enough, and the stakes high enough, to carry the plot through to the midpoint of the novel.

The act one problem can’t be something that’s resolved in a few pages, otherwise there’s nowhere to go in the middle of the novel. This problem requires a lot of work to resolve, and it’ll snowball into an even bigger problem by act three.

The act one problem also often leads to something unexpected that shakes up the entire novel, such as the midpoint reversal, when the story often goes sideways in the middle of the novel.

The stakes will also be high, but not so high that there’s nowhere for them to go. If “protagonist might die” is a likely risk (such as in Stargate or The Hunger Games), then the stakes after that will be things worse than death.
  • In Stargate, it's Daniel discovering during act two that there’s no easy “return address” on the stargate to get the team home. Now he has to use his skills to find a way off the planet, and things will get progressively worse as he tries to find that way home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss playing the Games to win, but the more she gets to know Peeta during act two, the less willing she is to kill him. But in order to win she has to, and that choice gets harder and harder (and more real) as the story unfolds.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's Gracie discovering during act two that these “girly girls” aren’t what she expected and that she has more in common with them than she thought. They’re worth saving and this becomes more than just an assignment to her.

The stakes can be either external, internal, or both. There is a consequence for following the plot into the middle of the novel.

(Here’s more on Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

3. It will eventually lead the protagonist to the core conflict of the novel and the problem that will be resolved in the climax.

Resolving this act one problem is the first step toward resolving the core conflict of the novel. If the protagonist fails here, they can’t “win” and the novel’s conflict won’t succeed.
  • In Stargate, if Daniel doesn’t step through the stargate, his work will never be proven and he’ll continue to be a failure, and the team will be stranded on an alien world (if they go at all). It’s because he goes, that they’re able to prove his theories right, and defeat the Big Bad Guy and save two worlds.
  • In The Hunger Games, if Katniss doesn’t play to win, she’ll be killed. But if she doesn’t find a way to manipulate the audience and rules to also save Peeta, she’ll never be able to live with herself. Her rebellious nature allows her to save them both.
  • In Miss Congeniality, if Gracie doesn’t agree to go undercover, she’ll never find her own inner strength that lets her excel as an FBI agent. She’s also the only one who eventually sees the real bad guy and stays after the FBI closes the case.

The act one problem is a major step on the plot path of the novel. It points the protagonist toward the resolution and asks them if they’re willing to take the risk to get there.

(Here’s more on Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

The stronger and clearer your act one problem, the easier the middle is to write.

This is the reason you wrote the beginning in the first place. All that setup and story development was to create a situation to get the protagonist to this moment, and show them the main problem the novel has to solve. The deeper and richer this problem is, the more options you’ll have to plot with in act two. The more conflict you can draw from it, the more unpredictable that plot with be, and the more likely you’ll keep readers guessing about the outcome.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and look at your act one problem. Is it doing everything it needs to do to launch your middle and carry the plot? If not, brainstorm ways to strengthen it so it does.

Here's the entire story structure series:
Does your act one problem establish what you middle is going to be about?

*Originally published May 2015. Last updated February 2021. 

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Janice,

    I want to thank you for this post. Since coming to know (and love) the three-act structure, I have never been able to accurately and decisively figure out the relationship between the inciting incident and the moment of truth that ends the first act and leads into the second act.

    Until now.

    Your examples and tips have clarified the matter. They've also shown me where and how I can improve the first act in the novels I've been trying to revise, as well as new novels.

    For that, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Best wishes,


    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad it helped :) I'll be doing a full series on each major point, so there's more to come!

  2. Thank you for your post on the topic of Basics: The Act One Problem. I like how you put the lesson together with examples of three movie stories. I may have a good idea about transitions from beginning through the acts. Though it is important for the writer to write good transition throughout the story, you put these principles in a nutshell so it becomes easier to write good stories. Thanks again. Keep posting.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. Very timely! I need to look at the opening of my project, because it isn't as strong as it needs to be. I was floundering a bit, but this post and your examples clarify what I need to consider when I revise. Thank you!

  4. Great post, Janice! I want to be a Fiction University graduate ... Now - early in my first chapter, I have AN inciting incident but not THE inciting incident. I guess it function a bit like a misdirection at the beginning of the story. Would that work in the format above?

    1. Sorry for the late reply, James, this one slipped by me. The inciting event is usually one moment, but what you probably have is a trigger or catalyst that gets the protagonist to the inciting event. But yes, that works, because it sounds like it's keeping the story moving and unpredictable.