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The Secrets of Story Structure Pt. 3: The First Act

The Secrets of Story Structure Pt. 3: The First Act

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Published by K.M. Weiland
The first quarter of the book (the first act) is the place to compile all the necessary components of your story.
The first quarter of the book (the first act) is the place to compile all the necessary components of your story.

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Published by: K.M. Weiland on Mar 11, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Once you’ve hooked the reader, your next task is to put your early chapters towork introducing your characters, settings, and stakes. The first 20-25% of the book comprises your setup. At first glance, this can seem like atremendous chunk of story to devote to introductions, but if you expectreaders to stick with you throughout the story, you first have to give them areason to care. And this important stretch of the story is where youaccomplish just that. Mere curiosity can only carry a reader so far. Onceyou’ve hooked that sense of curiosity, you then have to deepen the pull bycreating an emotional connection between your readers and your characters.These “introductions” are made up of far more than just the actual moment of introducing the characters and settings or explaining the stakes. Theintroductions themselves probably won’t take more than few scenes.
theintroduction is when your task of exploring character and establishing thestakes really begins.
What are character/setting/stakes introductions?
The first quarter of the book (the first act) is the place to compile all thenecessary components of your story. Anton Chekhov’s famous advice that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one itshould be fired” is just as important in reverse: If you’re going to have acharacter fire a gun later in the book, that gun should be introduced in thefirst act. The story you create in the following acts can only be assembledfrom the parts you’ve shown the reader in this first act. That’s your first dutyin this section.Your second duty is to allow readers the opportunity to learn about yourcharacters. Who are these people? What is the essence of theirpersonalities? What are their core beliefs (even more particularly, what arethe beliefs that will be challenged or strengthened throughout the book)? If you can introduce a character in a “characteristic moment,” you’ll be able toimmediately show readers who this person is. From there, the plot builds asyou deepen the stakes and set up the conflict that will come to a head in thekey and inciting events.
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: IntroducingCharacters, Settings, and Stakes
Where do the introductions belong?
The introductions should ideally begin in the opening chapter. Depending onthe number of characters or the complexity of your setting, you will probablywant to space the introductions throughout several early scenes. The mostimportant thing to keep in mind is the necessity of giving characters enoughspace in these early chapters so you can focus on developing them. This doesnot mean the plot needs to be slow or meandering. Every scene must bepertinent to the plot; every scene must be a domino moving the charactersforward to the point of no return. But don’t cram so much action into theseearly scenes that you waste your opportunity to flesh out the charactersbefore the bullets really start flying later on.
Examples from film and literature
Let’s examine how the authors and directors of our four exemplary storiestook advantage of their first act.
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen (1813):
Austen introduces characters,settings, and stakes, all three, in the very first scene. Ten pages in, we’vebeen introduced to all the major characters, given to understand the setting,and shown what’s at stake for the Bennett daughters if one them can’tensnare the unwitting Mr. Bingley. By the time we reach the first major plotpoint, we’ve gotten to know the sisters. The beauty and sweetness that willeventually win Jane a husband, the independence and strong opinions withwhich Lizzy drives the conflict, and the foreboding irresponsibility of theyoungest daughter Lydia are all in place and ready for use later in the story.We’ve also been introduced to the Bingleys, Darcy, and Wickham. Before thefirst act is over, Bingley is in love with Jane, and Lizzy has made up her mindto dislike Darcy—the two factors that will drive the entirety of the remainingstory.
 It’s a Wonderful Life
directed by Frank Capra (1947):
The first quarter of this classic movie is entirely, blatantly, and beautifully about characterdevelopment. Under the guise of explaining George Bailey to novice angelClarence, the head honcho angels show us all the prominent moments inGeorge Bailey’s young life. We see him as a child, saving his little brother’slife, losing the hearing in one ear, and preventing old Mr. Gower fromaccidentally poisoning a customer. We get a glimpse of him as a young man,planning his escape from “crummy” Bedford Falls, even as he begins to fall forthe lovely Mary Hatch. By the time the inciting event strikes, we know GeorgeBailey inside out. We’ve been introduced to Bedford Falls and its colorful arrayof denizens. And we’ve learned of the stakes from the mouth of George’sfather, who explains the importance of the Bailey Building & Loan in givingthe people a haven from evil Old Man Potter.
Ender’s Game
by Orson Scott Card (1977):
Card uses his first act toestablish his setting, the orbital Battle School, where brilliant young childrenare sent to train to stave off an alien invasion. We learn about this strangeand brutal place through the eyes of the main character, Ender Wiggin, who isa new arrival, and, in so doing, we learn about Ender as well. We see hisdetermination, his kindness, but also his underlying bedrock of ruthlessness—which will eventually become the element around which the entire plot mustturn. Almost all of the important supporting characters are introduced, andreaders are immediately shown what is a stake, not only for the human race,but also for Ender, if he does not overcome the handicap of his extreme youthin order to flourish in this place.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World 
directed by PeterWeir (2004):
After the initial onslaught of the furious opening battle, Weirslows his movie down considerably to allow viewers to get to know the maincharacters—the captain and the surgeon—and the several dozen minorcharacters, featured from among the crew members. The opening battlealready showed us the stakes were high, but the characters’ reactions to it,particularly the captain’s intense desire to refit the ship and reengage theenemy, help us understand why they’re fighting and what will happen if theyfail. As the crew works to repair the ship’s battle damage, we’re also given aninside view of the ship itself, which will play such a irreplaceable rolethroughout the rest of the story.
Takeaway value
So what can we learn from these masterful first acts?
If the hook has done its job, you can safely slow down the action enoughto thoughtfully introduce and deepen your characters.
The salient personality points, motivations, and beliefs of the charactersshould all be developed.
The pertinent points of the setting must be fleshed out, so you don’t haveto slow down in the second act to explain things. Readers should already beoriented by the first plot point.
The very fact that readers are developing a bond with the characters raisesthe stakes. Drive the point home by making clear what the characters (andthus the readers) stand to lose in the coming conflict.
Make certain every scene matters. Each scene must be a domino thatknocks into the next domino/scene, building inexorably to the first plot point.

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