Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Three Act Structure: Act One

NA: This was supposed to go up yesterday but I hit a bit of a bad patch over the last few days and took some time away from my computer for some much needed R and R.

So last week I started a series about the Three ActStructure, a writing structure that is commonly used by screenwriters and writers everywhere. Not everyone uses one, not intentionally, but it’s one of those key plotting tools that helps you plan your story and helps with revisions. More often than not you use a Three Act Structure of some sort when writing without even realising it. As always what I write is not fact, it’s just how I see the Three Act Structure from what I’ve read. If you want to find out about the Three Act Structure just search it on Google and you’ll find plenty of results. My first post in the series was an introduction of sorts, my rambling view about what the Three Act Structure means to me as a whole. Now it’s time to look a little more deeply into it, starting with...
The First Act

What is the First Act All About?

The first act is where the story begins, where the problem is set up and the characters are introduced. It’s also usually the easiest to write because you’re still full of all that enthusiasm that steered you towards writing that particular story in the first place. Act One is full of the juicy meat of the story. It’s where you establish your world (hopefully avoiding those info dump conversations or monologues that instantly make a reader want to turn away and go do something else), you lay out the rules of your world and let readers know what to expect. Even if your setting is contemporary based rules need to be set. Not every reader knows what it’s like to climb a mountain in Yemen (do they even have mountains in Yemen? Anyone?) or have to run from a sudden rainstorm in England. It’s your job as writer to give them an idea of what the world where your characters live is like.

You introduce your characters too, showing them as they are before the big problems happen and you torture them so badly it’s a surprise that they don’t go mad. The reader needs to care about your characters, to root for them to get through this and come out the other side happy and alive, or at least alive. The readers get to see personality flaws that could cause problems later on and have some idea of what motivates the characters to actually do what they’re doing as opposed to say sitting down and covering their ears with their hands and going lalala. You also set the stakes, showing what characters risk losing or need to become in order to overcome their problem.

Finally it’s where you put in place the problem. That key thing that the characters are trying to find or avoid or overcome, it’s the thing in the story that causes the action to happen in some way. Everything about the first act is showing the reader about the problem, showing why the characters might resist the problem and show them taking their first steps towards overcoming that problem.

What Does the First Act Include?

Now, there are plenty of plot points that you can use when planning out your Act One, the most important of these being the Inciting Incident but more on that later. For me, for the version of the Three Act Structure that I use, there are five. They are;
  • Opening Conflict
  • Protagonist’s Daily Life
  • Inciting Incident
  • Resistance
  • Point of No Return.

You will notice that the Inciting Incident doesn’t happen straight away. It takes a while before it comes up. This is because the first two points are an introduction of sorts, where you show the reader the world, the characters and their lives. But let’s go into a little more detail about each of these points.

Opening Conflict

Part of the problem is set up. It could be considered a prologue of sorts but it doesn’t have to be. In fact it’s usually better if it isn’t because for some reason a lot of people really hate prologues. Personally I don’t mind them that much but I always have been a little odd. It’s that scene in films, right at the beginning, where there’s all the illusions to what the problem might be. For instance, in National Treasure it’s the story of the treasure that Ben Gates is told by his grandfather. The viewers know that there’s a treasure out there and that the Gates family is known about and mocked within the scientific community.

Something else that’s good to remember about this scene or plot point because sometimes it can cover more than one scene, is that the protagonist doesn’t even have to be in it. Sometimes in fact it’s better if they aren’t. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the very beginning we don’t really know what’s going on, we’re just following around a fat and grumpy man with a dislike of anything different. Then Dumbledore appears and leaves Harry on the Dursley’s doorstep. The problem is also revealed then, namely that Dumbledore is not convinced that Voldemort is actually dead and gone for good. But Harry doesn’t appear until the very end of that scene and he does absolutely nothing (then again he is a baby so he has a valid excuse). The story continues without him until that point and he has no direct role within the narrative.

Protagonist’s Daily Life.

This is the plot point where the reader sees who the protagonist is, what their life is like before everything goes wrong. They get to see them how they were before the story begins. For Harry it would be a kid who sleeps under the stairs and has to look after the entire family. For Ben Gates it’s chasing the clues to the treasure around the world. And I think that the National Treasure example is a good one. It reminds you that this scene or plot point doesn’t have to be boring. In fact it shouldn’t be. No one likes to read that ‘he woke up, he got dressed, he thought about what had brought him to this point for twenty minutes while he walked to work’ sort of thing. Remember this is not the place where you info dump the entire character’s backstory. In fact you should never info dump the backstory but just weave it in.

By saying that you show the protagonist’s daily life I’m not saying show the minutia of it. It’s more about establishing who the protagonist is and how they see the world. It’s about creating the relationships with the people around them and showing their character and personality. Basically you’re showing the reader exactly what is at stake for the character should they fail, what they stand to lose or why they’re working so hard to reach their goal. The most important thing to remember here is DON’T BE BORING! This is the first really meaty bit of the Act, the bit that readers are drawn in by and what makes them keep reading. It’s their introduction to the characters and hopefully the point where they begin to wonder what’s going to happen and start to care for the protagonist, even a little. If they don’t care they won’t keep reading.

Inciting Incident

If you don’t want to plot many points, want to keep your outline to one point per act THIS plot point is The One. It is key to the First Act. The inciting incident is that moment where everything changes. For example, with National Treasure the inciting incident is that moment where Ben Gates decides to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to prevent Sean Bean’s character from stealing it and destroying it. It’s that pivot point, the part of the story where the character learns some or all of what he or she is up against and that they need to stop the great problem from getting worse. Let’s face it though, it usually gets much, much worse. This is the part of the story where the goal is laid out, where readers finally know what the protagonist is aiming for and where the story is going. It’s what makes them want to keep reading.

Another thing to remember is that this problem has to conflict with what the protagonist wants. If the problem doesn’t... well it’s going to be one fairly boring story. There needs to be conflict to create that tension that keeps readers turning page after page. You can’t really have a protagonist who goes ‘sure I’ll take on the giant man eating monster, no problem’. They need to fight against it, or not see where they come in to the bigger picture. Without that fight there’s no tension, no drive. It’s all one big reaction.


The plot point is the perfect place to establish what the protagonist wants, really wants, from life or their life at this point. But it has to conflict with the problem of the story, whatever that might be. Usually they just want to go home, like Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. How you establish this is up to you. The protagonist could cry, rant, have a huge arguement with another character. As long as the reader realises that what the protagonist wants and what the story needs to happen are two conflicting things they’ll keep reading. Don’t spoon feed it to the reader though, don’t shove it in their face and go ‘oh no, So-and-so wants this but actually they need to do this and here’s why’. Readers do not like that and also... it’s really boring to write. Your character’s wants can be anything though. It might be that they just want to turn around and go home, pretending none of what happens so far has happened or they might want to get to the ice cream shop and eat some waffles. The protagonist needs to do whatever they can to avoid fighting the problem, to ignore the problem.

The key thing here is conflict. The characters goals must conflict with the goal of the story, the protagonist must fight in some way with the person who’s trying to help them or sees the truth of the situation. The character does not want to help, does not want to go on a great quest to find the long lost city of Atlantis in order to save the world from giant dodos (actually that sounds like a pretty fun story to write. DIBS!) The protagonist should go out of their way to avoid involvement in the problem. This can essentially be the moment in the story where your protagonist sticks their head in the sand or their fingers in their ears and goes lalala.

Point of No Return

By this point the protagonist should decide to actually take part in the story, to work towards ending the key problem that is covering the entire three acts. They can do it grudgingly, still not seeing the point but realising that maybe they should do it because the smart lady said so. Or they can do it with a smile on their face and a song in their heart, or as a very angry individual because they’ve just seen their entire family killed and want revenge. However you get to this point it’s just important to remember that the character is now working to fix the problem. Now that they’ve taken those first steps towards their ‘destiny’ there’s no way for them to turn back. What they’ve learnt and seen can’t be unlearnt and they’re a part of the story. And it’s all their own choice.

Another part of this point is that by the end of it is the introduction of the first obstacle. The protagonist has seen sense and is jumping into their challenges with both feet but then there’s a spanner in the works and things are no longer as they seem. To go back to the dodo story the crazy scientist might have found the lost city of Atlantis only to discover that it’s ruled by a race of evil cyborgs that lock him in the dungeon. Now not only has he got the main problem to fix (saving the world from the giant dodos) but he’s also got to get free of the dungeon and overthrow the evil cyborgs in order to do it. These obstacles, which often link to the main problem in some way (but don’t always have to) are key to helping build the tension. The characters can’t easily overcome them and they need to be used as learning experiences. But the learning doesn’t come until the next Act.

Now What?

And that’s it. Act One in... a very rambling way. I hope you understand the first act a little better now, I certainly do. There are dozens of structures out there and outlines that you can use, just Google it and pick the ones that appeal to you the most. This is only a rough guide, not a sure-fire way to write an amazing novel. It’s all opinion, the opinion of a slightly crazy English woman with a fondness for tea and an increasingly annoying smoking habit. You can take it or leave it, it’s up to you.

Next up is Act Two, the doughy middle bit that can make or break a story and most writers struggle to get through. Keep an eye out for that next post.

Let me know what you think. Do you have certain points that you like to plot out in your First Act? Is there a point that you think I may have missed? Do you think I’m just talking a load of boo-hickey? What do you think should go in Act Two? Do you have an outline structure that you think works way better for you? Let me know down in the comments, I love to hear from everyone.

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