A story needs a beginning. a middle and an end. Of course it does.
This is something you know. When you were little, and someone said to you, “Once upon a time…,” you understood what was coming next, and what order it would be in.
Right off the bat, you’d be told there was a beautiful princess—the main character. And she was in a forest, right? Setting. And she needed to get back home, right? Her goal.
If she could get back to the palace in two days, she could marry the love of her life, the handsome prince. But! Between all that was an evil wizard, and a dragon, and the potential for a whole bunch of other scary and difficult obstacles. But finally, after an epic struggle, all would be well. Goal, motivation, conflict, climax, ending. Act One, Two, Three.
Readers understand this. Expect this. Are comfortable with this. And for your book to be successful, you must understand what they crave. A three-act structure is how readers understand stories—so using that simple-but-complicated template is crucial for harnessing the rhythm and music of a story, and the expectations of your readers.
“Wow, that’s strange!”
What should be in your act one?
Think of Act One as “Wow, that’s strange!” And here are some questions that must be answered in those pages.
The key to Act One is that the main character and the world they inhabit is intensely altered by an out-of-whack experience. Some call this an “inciting incident.” The character is pushed out of his equilibrium by something: something important and critical and meaningful and something they want to—no, they are required to—change. If the main character does not respond to the impetus of Act One, something terrible will happen to them or someone they love. The stakes are high. (They’ll get even higher as the book progresses, but in Act One, the main character is called to action, eventually accepts the challenge, and thinks they know what they want.)
What’s at stake?
Act One must have a big hook—the thing that gets the readers connected, and interested, and compelled to turn the pages. The reader has to care. The situation you’ve set up for the main character to solve—whether its a mystery or a date for the prom—has to matter.
Who’s driving the train?
You must introduce your main character. Instantly. In most books, that will be the first person you meet. I know, it sounds formulaic, but the reader must instantly sign on and accept the journey of this person. The reader needs to know who they are, and what they think they want, and why.
We must “meet” the antagonist, or at least understand there’s an antagonist. The person who is trying to change/ruin/destroy/kill the main character, or someone they care about. And understand—usually from the main character’s point of view—why.
In Act One, something must happen (and continue to happen) to this person we now begin to know and understand. It must be so important that it compels our character to change their life to take care of whatever it is.
You are writing a whole book, remember, so this must life-changing. And, because you want people to keep turning the pages, interesting and life-changing. All that has to be in Act One, or the reader will never get to Act Two.
How many named characters in Act One? Well, in Chapter One, maybe one or two. Three, if you must.
And some unnamed people who inhabit the world—”the other soldiers.” But by the end of Act One, the reader should basically know all of the main characters and their milieu—except for the zingers you’ll unleash in Act Two as your subplots develop and complications escalate.
Where am I?
Act One absolutely must tell the reader where they are. Not only geographically, but in time. Are you in Paris during the French Revolution? In Manhattan in 1890? Somewhere on the prairie… where? When? In 1842? In 2040? The planet d’Ron in 4203? The reader needs to know this— and needs to know enough about this place and time to feel comfortable and situated in it.
If there is a supernatural or paranormal element, Act One is the time you must introduce it.
You cannot say, in Act Three, oh, guess what, there are ghosts.
Why do I care?
The stakes must be important to the reader as well as the character. Why does the reader care about what happens to this character? What does the character want, and what will they do to get it? This might change, and certainly will, of course, as the book progresses, but in Act One a goal must be set. And the stakes, the stakes that exist in Act One at least, must be clear.
You’ll understand, as the author at least, that these stakes will change. Something the character is doing for him or herself will become a wider problem. The drive that the character has to save their own life, in whatever metaphorical or specific way, becomes a drive to save others’ lives, too.
What’s the bigger picture?
In Act One, you’ll begin to set your theme. Is this a book, in the biggest of ways, about redemption, or revenge, or justice or family or loyalty? Of course your main character does not know this as the book begins! But if you as the author are aware of it, you can begin to tuck in references, subtly, to what will be revealed in glorious writerly fulfillment at the end.
You may not know what this theme is when you start. That’s okay!
Often the theme is something that evolves as the book does. So don’t worry if you don’t know it. And even if you think you do, it may change.This is the time for smart authors to be flexible.
In a 350-page book, Act One should be no longer than 100 pages. And it makes pacing sense that it’s a little less than a third of the manuscript.
At the end of the first act, we know the character, and how he has decided, possibly after several refusals, to persevere and pursue whatever goal has been presented to return their world to equilibrium. And the reader has to care about that. We must be aware of the ever-increasing threat of the adversary.
At this point, the reader will understand the disaster that will ensue if the character fails, and the smart readers will understand that as the book progresses, those perceived stakes will change. In fact, everything will change. But Act One cements the relationship with the reader, because you the Career Author have so carefully laid the groundwork for what is to come.
And there should be a crucial decision, or a major new challenge, or a reversal, an unexpected situation, a revelation, or an intensifying of the problem. Or all of those things. The action in your book is rising at every turn. You are advancing the story like mad. There will be a big turning point. The main character’s life will never be the same.
At the end of Act One, the reader should be turning the pages like mad to get to the meat of the story. They will be asking, “What is going to happen? How will the main character succeed?” They should feel: “It’s so important that they succeed, and I am with them all the way to find out.”
What are your secrets of Act One? Is that how you write and structure your stories? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page. (And we’ll talk about Act Two, Act Three and the Coda right here—coming soon.)