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Monday, October 23

Day Twenty-Three: Idea to Novel Workshop: The Act One Problem

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Twenty-Three of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. For the rest of the month, we’ll focus on plot and the major turning points of a novel.

Today, it’s the end of act one and the act one problem.

The Act One Problem

After the novel opens, the protagonist encounters the inciting event, and he steps firmly on the path of the plot and eventually comes to the act one problem. The act one problem is the start of the beginning’s end. It’s when the protagonist discovers he has a big problem and needs to solve it or else. Typically, this is the result of what happened when he tried to deal with whatever problem he encountered in the inciting event.

Why the act one problem is important: It’s the transition to the middle of the novel and gives the protagonist something to do (a goal), and a choice to make. 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.

Key Elements of the Act One Problem
  • The protagonist is presented with a problem that asks him to leave his comfort zone.
  • The stakes are raised and become more personal.
  • The protagonist is presented with a choice.
The act one problem ends with the protagonist facing a decision and having to make a choice on how to proceed. The choice is the key moment here, and the protagonist must choose to act. Greater forces might have gotten him here, but he must decide to move forward on his own. Agreeing to act will force him out of his comfort zone and into an unfamiliar (and often emotionally scary) situation. But this step into the unknown is vital for his goals, both the external plot goal and his internal character arc goal. This choice is what officially launches the middle of the novel (more on that in the next section).

How many scenes fall between the inciting event and the act one problem vary. A very general guide is the opening scene and the act one problem scene are roughly the same size, starting and ending the beginning (or act one). Somewhere between those two points lies the inciting event. The scenes will lead to and ramp up to the act one problem like a wave, raising the stakes and increasing the conflicts at the key points (inciting event and act one problem). Adjust the sizes as needed.

Subplots will play a role and help raise the stakes and deepen the conflicts. They’ll also help flesh out the beginning’s scenes and will likely be instrumental in causing the internal conflict at the act one problem, as well as trigger additional external conflicts. Aim for a good balance between core plots and subplots, and don’t let subplots take over the novel.

Here are things to consider to further develop your act one problem:

1. What is the protagonist’s goal and how does that lead to the core conflict?

2. What is motivating him to act?

3. What’s at stake if he fails or refuses to act?

4. Where does this scene take place?

5. Who else is in the scene?

6. Who else might be at risk?

7. How does this scene build off the inciting event?

8. What subplots might lead to this or cause additional trouble at this moment, both internal and external?

9. What choice does this problem present to the protagonist?

10. What conflicts affect this choice, both internally and externally?

11. How does this choice lead to the next goal?

EXERCISE: Describe the problem that ends with a choice, and how the protagonist got to that problem.

Be as detailed or as vague as you’d like. Consider how this scene builds off your beginning and how it might transition to the middle part of the novel. Include any helpful notes that come to you.

If you’re not sure how much to write, aim for one to three paragraphs that describe what the problem is, how the protagonist ended up here, what choice he has to make, and how the stakes escalate. He had X problem, but now he has Y problem and has to decide what to do, which leads to the next scene. Writing more is also acceptable if you want to continue with how the plot would unfold to the next major turning point.

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Ten goes into more depth on the individual turning points of story structure, as well and the basics of scene and sequel structure. It also shares tips on plotting and story development.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at act two and the act two choice.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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