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.
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.