Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Act One: All Setup or Does it Need More?

novel openings, structure
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

How much goes into setting up the beginning of a novel?

Novel beginnings don’t make it easy on us poor writers. We have to introduce characters, set the scene, ground readers in a new world (real life or make believe), and we have to do something compelling to entice those readers to keep reading.

Story structure helps with this, giving us a proven path to take after that first sentence is written: Opening scene leads to inciting event leads to end of act one. That encompasses the beginning, and act one is essentially the part of the novel where the story is set up. Introduce the protagonist, put them on the plot path, and turn them loose to resolve the story’s conflict.

And that’s where the trouble starts for some writers.

They have the opening scene down pat. They know what the inciting event is. But after that it gets fuzzy, and they wonder…

Is the time after the inciting incident still "setup"? Should we be saving action of any sort until act two?

inciting event, starting a novel
Don't hold back. Leave it on the page.
Yes and no. The inciting event can either be the first time the protagonist faces the core conflict (as in a murder mystery where the body is often one of the first things found), or a catalyst to send the protagonist toward the core conflict (a problem that leads to the bigger problem).

Since the inciting event can occur anywhere between page one (opens with a dead body) or page fifty (discovery of a magic talisman, a call for help, a reason to run, etc), you might need a little or a lot of scenes to fill out act one. Different types of stories also have different act one needs. It depends on how much setup is required before you get down to the meat of the plot.

(Here’s more on the inciting event)

That can be tricky, as the word “setup” has different meanings in writing. It can mean:
  • The well-planned development of all the right scenes and details needed to craft a turning point
  • The introduction of key characters or concepts needed to understand the story
  • The manipulation of events to create a needed situation
  • The unnecessary infodumps and backstory that explain the story instead of dramatize it

Technically, act one is all setup, because it’s establishing the story and planting the protagonist firmly on the plot path. At the end of act one, the protagonist is faced with a choice to act or not, and that choice launches the goal and plot for act two.

The setup in act one is the good kind of setup, not the bad. It’s creating a situation that funnels the protagonist and the plot to a point where the protagonist has to decide to fight the good fight and face the problem (the core conflict) of the novel. In many cases, the end of act one, is when the protagonist discovers the core conflict. This is what’s really going on and why all their trouble has brought them here.

(Here’s more on the different between good setup and bad setup)

As for saving action for act two…

Remember, act one should have action all on its own, and be a compelling story with a solid plot. You want action here to draw readers into the story. The beginning isn’t explaining and dumping information to bring readers up to speed so they can finally enjoy the story—it’s giving them what they need to know in an interesting and plot-driving fashion so they enjoy the building of the story.

The action that belongs in act one will have different goals than act two—both for the characters and the writer. While the goal of act one is to “setup” the story and establish the core conflict, the goal of act two is to show the protagonist’s attempt to resolve that core conflict.

(Here’s more on the core conflict)

Whatever scenes and actions fit that introductory, getting the protagonist involved, putting them on the plot path (with the inciting event) so they can face that, “Do I really want to tackle this challenge?” choice that the rest of the book will focus on are the scenes that go into act one.

Now, figuring out what those scenes are can sometimes be a challenge, so here are a few things to ask to help you determine if a scene goes into act one or act two:

What choice does the protagonist face at the end of act one?

act one, character choices,
What choice are they facing?
This is the turning point that connects the beginning with the middle. The protagonist can be dragged into the story mess in the inciting event, but by the end of act one, it’s a conscious choice to act. It’s may be the only choice, and a bad choice, but it’s still something they do on their own free will. It might also turn from just a job (as in a detective story) to something personal.

The result of this choice creates the story drive and plot for act two. Should Scrooge accept Marley’s offer to save himself or go back to sleep? (If he doesn’t do it, he won’t see what the ghosts show him and he’s not redeemed). Should Marty jump into that Delorean, knowing it’s a time machine? (A good example of a choice with few options, as Marty is being shot at by terrorist at that point.Driving off is the only thing that will save him, despite the risks). Should Hiccup train to be a dragon hunter when he’s just befriended a dragon? (If he doesn’t, it puts the very dragons he’s come to like at risk).

The scenes and actions in act one all get the protagonist to this important moment where the story and plot shift from “here’s the life the protagonist lives in and what troubles they’re facing” to “here’s the problem we’re going to focus on for the next few hundred pages.”

(Here’s more on the act one problem)

What does the bulk of act two cover (or at least the first half)?

act two, save the cat, middles
The pieces should all fit smoothly.
Blake Synder’s Save the Cat structure calls the middle the Promise of the Premise. I love this term, because it’s a good reminder that the middle is where all the fun lies. This is why the reader picked up the book. This is probably why you wanted to write this book. This is when we see Scrooge face his past bad behavior. This is where we see Marty living in the past and seeing his parents as teenagers. This is where we see Hiccup training to be a dragon hunter.

The middle is where the protagonist is eyeballs-deep in the main problem. If you know that problem, it’ll make it easier for the you to figure out what that act one question is.

If a scene is helping the protagonist reach this choice and this point, it goes into act one. If it doesn’t, it either goes into act two (if it fits the promise of the premise), or it doesn’t belong at all.

(Here’s more on the act two choice)

Act one sets it up, act two knocks it down. More or less.

Knowing what scenes go into act one, and what goes between the inciting event and act two, depend on what the end of act one is and what act two will be. Everything in act one leads the protagonist to that choice at the end and launches act two.

That includes subplots and character-defining scenes as well. For example, showing the protagonist has a particular fear, flaw, or weakness in act one that will affect how they behave or make decisions in act two is important to see in the beginning. So even if it doesn’t directly affect the core conflict or that act one choice, it still influences how the core conflict will be handled later.

What’s your act one choice? How much story takes place between your inciting event and the end of act one?

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 ShifterBlue 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. This makes complete sense. I've not seen act 1 explained quite this way and it's a big help. Great article Janice! Good news it confirms my Act 1 is "correct" structurally as driving the protagonist to their choice.