Storytelling is a complicated art. Perfection lies in nuances, and there’s a lot to think about. But crafting an epic first act for a story or novel is within anyone’s grasp, so long as they understand what the point is.
Understanding story structures is part of understanding storytelling, and the three-act structure is practically ancient.
Much like Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth, it is a pattern that fits most stories. It is also simple to understand both for writers and readers.
By combining the work of people like Campbell with classic forms, we can hone an understanding of what a story needs.
When you use this method, you won’t create a lot of extra work for yourself. But you will give yourself a lifeline when writing becomes unclear.
A Note on Form and Starting In the Action
You can do some experimenting with form, if you are very careful.
One of the most common variants is starting in media res. This is the deliberate choice to start in the middle of the action. It’s powerful, but there’s something you need to remember if you got that way.
Crafting an epic first act involves catching your reader up in a wave.
When you do that, you want to evoke the story, which occurs by combining setting, characters, and action.
You can’t do that without at least a little exposition. So if you start in media res, what you’re doing is hitting the reader with that wave in a cold open.
That’s something that’s subject to taste. I know people who like opens so cold that you could describe them as sub-zero.
But a lot of readers don’t like them.
And one problem with the cold open is that it paints a scene with unknown information.
Filling in the gaps is your first goal.
I use a heuristic I call SCENE when I assess my own writing. I’ve found it helpful with this sort of experimental start, because it forces you to consider what readers need.
Part 1: Ordinary World
Crafting an epic first act starts with understanding the ordinary world the characters occupy.
This may sound unusual, because there’s nothing epic about the ordinary world by definition.
But writers need to provide it. It sets stakes, lets you show off characters without stalling the main plot, and gives readers time to explore your setting.
If you’re writing in a speculative fiction genre, you might need this time to establish the tropes and conventions of your story.
The ordinary world is also where you make promises about what the story is about. You show the protagonist and their desires. Characters and their goals will develop during the story, but their changes are as important as the final outcome.
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The ordinary world is where things get their definitions.
Work in foreshadowing, symbolism, and imagery to immerse your readers in the story. If you need to reveal something from the past, doing it here is wise. That way you avoid a deus ex machina event. You do not want to have readers believe you made something up on the spot because you hit a speed bump.
And, worse, having a deus ex machina kills the stakes and tension. It’s the equivalent of comic books that kill off characters but don’t let them stay dead. The reader needs to believe that the characters’ actions matter.
Establishing the boundaries of the ordinary world let you show how the protagonist and company change the world.
Part 2: Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is usually a short section in the text, but it’s critical to any story.
It should be obvious to readers when things change, and the first change that introduces tension is the inciting incident.
The inciting incident marks a balancing point in the first act. Up until now, you’ve been making promises to the reader. You’ve only been hinting at what will happen.
Now it’s time to tell the story.
The inciting incident is like the starter’s gun at the start of the sprint.
The character starts doing what they need to do for the rest of the novel when it kicks off.
This doesn’t mean that your character is perfect yet, either. The inciting incident is almost always something breaking down. You might have some variation on this (like Bilbo Baggins’ conscription in The Hobbit), but the comfort of the ordinary world goes away.
And the inciting incident needs to be significant enough to show the reader that there’s no turning back.
It doesn’t have to do that for the characters, yet.
Troubleshooting The Inciting Incident
The first act starts with no tension, and its goal is to build tension.
If your story has an unclear inciting incident, consider the ordinary world you have created. If you are focusing on spectacle, you may have pumped too much tension into the ordinary world.
Consider deflating the tension. For instance, if you start with action, it might be worth considering starting in the aftermath of that action.
But if you need the octane, clearly signal that this is normal life for the main character.
The movie Sicario does this tremendously. The film opens with the protagonist, who is on a SWAT team, going out on a call.
It seems normal–besides a very brief shootout–then the director reveals that the drug smugglers and human traffickers are hiding bodies in the wall.
The scene was sufficiently intense to make me feel physically ill, but it’s still in the ordinary world. It is something you might expect a SWAT team to find.
Then, while the protagonist and company are searching through an outbuilding, a bomb goes off. This kills several of them, and sets up the cooperation between the protagonist and shady government agents.
Ordinary world: SWAT team kicking down the door and finding gun-wielding gangsters and bodies.
Inciting incident: A bomb wipes out the SWAT team and gets federal agents involved.
This worked as a high-tension opener for two reasons:
- The good guys “lose” in the inciting incident, which sets the stage for the main conflict of the film.
- The initial scene focuses on physical action, but the rest of the film is more philosophical with action as punctuation. This clarifies that what is changing is not the protagonist’s SWAT skills, but her understanding of the world.
Part 3: The First Trial
The first trial follows the inciting incident.
The important element here is that this trial differs from anything that could occur in the ordinary world.
In a literary fiction piece, this could take the form of a new moral or philosophical problem confronting the protagonist. More broadly, an external intruder or massive change in situation can trigger a new trial.
The protagonist has not developed the skills they need for the first trial in the ordinary world. If they succeed at it, they are gifted. If they fail at it, they set their goal for self-development accordingly.
When crafting the first challenge, consider:
- What makes this different from the normal challenges the character might face?
- How does this align with the central plot conflict?
- What does this reveal about the character’s deficiencies?
- How does the character need to grow to deal with this problem?
If you want to make a great first trial, think about how it shows the protagonist in light of their role throughout the story.
If they will decline, they should face a significant obstacle that they best, but which takes many of the initial resources they have.
For instance, they may confront the antagonist and succeed temporarily, but be disarmed and need to recover before a final confrontation.
However, it is more likely that the protagonist will fail at first, and receive help from outside forces. These are either guides and mentors or companions and allies, but the distinction is moot at this level of analysis.
Part 4: Orientation
This part of the first act sets the stage for the two acts that follow it.
Orientation involves the protagonist and antagonist coming into a revealed alignment.
The problem that the main character will confront comes into focus.
The ordinary world is gone, and the protagonist must adapt to new rules for the game of life.
Orientation is more important for you as a writer and may be opaque to the reader, because it is the transitional phase that leads to the second act.
One temptation here might be to make an on-the-nose statement about what the protagonist has to do.
Sometimes, this works. For instance, if a mentor figure is laying out a hero’s path, that makes sense. If the first trial ended in catastrophe, people might discuss what went wrong and what their next step is.
But sometimes being too on-the-nose has issues. In a story where most development will be internal, the protagonist might not know how they have to grow.
In such cases, it may be better to focus on the distinction between the ordinary world and the new world. Especially if the protagonist is not moving between physical locations, this can be a subtle process. Ennui and disquiet serve as powerful indicators that something is wrong. A new relationship or a change in an old relationship following the first trial might spark future change.
The important thing here is that the orientation must direct the tension built in the inciting incident and first trial as the story moves into the second act.
A Note on My Model versus the Hero’s Journey
People familiar with the Hero’s Journey, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s work, may notice some similarities. However, I have deviated somewhat from the normal patterns (e.g. avoiding the Call to Adventure/Rejection of the Call terminology). These often cause confusion because of associations they carry.
Further, I do not believe they catch the most important focus of these sections of the story.
I have made the deliberate choice to focus on structural rather than archetypal elements. There are two reasons for this.
First, the archetypal mode of analysis requires exposure and background. While I am familiar with it and use it, it requires explaining things of secondary interest to writers.
Second, I have concerns with the stratification of elements in the Hero’s Journey. Although there are strengths to it, there are also issues with trying to make generalizations where every story will have a different specific element.
One thing I seek to address is the distinction between traditional heroic and tragic forms. This is possible using the Hero’s Journey model, because you would simply consider how a tragic figure fails.
But it is not where the tool is best applied. Further, many modern stories take on an anti-heroic mode, which can still be expressed using the Hero’s Journey but strains the schema.
This model is more universally applicable, since it focuses on the dramaturgical role of the stages, not the archetypal significance underlying them.