There are several key turning points in the beginning of a novel—the opening scene, the inciting event, and the act one problem.
Just like the inciting event is the bridge between the opening and the core conflict of the novel, the act one problem is the bridge between the beginning of the novel and the middle. It gives the protagonist something to do (a goal), and asks him to make a choice and move the plot forward. It’s the first major step once the protagonist is on the path to the core conflict. It’s also where the stakes are significantly raised for the first time.
Let's break down the basics:
What it is: This is where the protagonist discovers there’s a big problem and is asked to set off on the story adventure, whether that’s 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 solves the problem of the stargate and is asked to go on the mission so he can get the team back.
- In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss has to decide if she’ll take her sister’s place in the Games or not.
- In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart is offered the choice to go undercover at the beauty pageant.
When does it happen: 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.
(Here's more on writing the beginning)
What's its function: To show the problem the protagonist needs to solve and provide the story question for the reader. It’s by going through this experience that the protagonist ultimately gets what he wants, even if he doesn’t know that at this time.
- In Stargate, it's Daniel Jackson facing the unknown of what’s on the other side of the wormhole. Will it answer his questions about who built the pyramids or not? Readers will wonder: Will Daniel go through the wormhole, 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?
- In Miss Congeniality, it's Gracie Hart 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 the plot meat of the novel.
- In Stargate, it’s Daniel Jackson taking a chance to prove his crazy theories and eventually finding out he was right (and that proof carries with it terrible consequence that threaten Earth and everything he knows)
- In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss agreeing to risk 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 Hart 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)
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 after or because of the inciting event leads him to this story question and problem. He causes it to happen in some way, and now he has to deal with it.
- In Stargate, it's Daniel Jackson discovering how to unlock the addresses on the stargate, and now he has to decide if he’ll go through it or not.
- In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss deciding to go to the tribute drawing and hearing her sister’s name called. She has to decide to take her place or not.
In Miss Congeniality, it's Gracie Hart messing up an operation and being in the doghouse and needing to redeem herself. She has to decide if humiliating herself as an agent is worth getting back into the FBI’s good graces.
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 can be resolved in a few pages, otherwise there’s nowhere to go for the middle of the novel. It’ll be large enough to require a lot of work to resolve, and snowball into something bigger. It 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 risk you need to have (such as in Stargate or The Hunger Games), then the stakes after that will be things worse than death.
- In Stargate, it's Daniel Jackson discovering during act two there’s no easy “return address” on the stargate to get the military team home. Now he has to use his skills to find them 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 deciding to play the game and 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 Hart 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.
(Here's more on when to raise the stakes)
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 to resolving the core conflict of the novel. If the protagonist fails here, he can’t “win” and the novel’s conflict won’t succeed.
- In Stargate, if Daniel Jackson doesn’t step through the wormhole, his work will never be proven and he’ll continue to be a failure, and the team will be stranded on an alien world. It’s because he goes, that they’re able to 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. It’s because of her rebellious nature that allows her to save them both.
- In Miss Congeniality, if Gracie Hart 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.
Any questions about the act one problem?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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