Friday, November 6, 2009

Some Thoughts on First Acts

If you are basing your novel in any way on the traditional three-act structure, I think there are certain things you should think about when writing your first act. This applies to stories where the protagonist is goal-oriented and must work against some sort of active antagonist; other types of stories will require other types of structures, I'm sure.

In many of the unpublished mss I'm privileged to read, the first act isn't very strong. The ideas are there, the conflict is there, but there's just not enough of it. I don't like to hand out formulas or recipes for writing, but I do think that writers should have tools they can use (and no, I'm not prepared to distinguish between "formulas" and "tools" today), so I offer up these thoughts.

1. Your first act should end with the literary equivalent of a train wreck. What I mean by that is that you should be moving constantly toward a collision of conflicting needs and desires that results in the protagonist having to make a major life decision and consequently act upon that decision.

2. Your protagonist should have a clearly-defined goal. Often this is a wrong-headed goal based on a misunderstanding the protagonist has about the world. The train wreck at the end of the first act will leave the protagonist with a better picture of reality and possibly a new or modified goal to which he must direct his life and actions.

3. Your antagonist should have a clearly-defined goal. This isn't necessarily something Evil, but it has to set your antagonist and your protagonist on intersecting paths that will result in the above-mentioned train wreck. Generally, the train wreck leaves your antagonist stronger, and his goals won't change at all; he'll just keep moving in the direction of his goals and continue acting upon his desires and needs.

4. Your support characters should have clearly-defined goals. These are usually goals that are supported by or aligned loosely with the protagonist or the antagonist. Know which is which. Your protagonist could be allied with people who are actually working against his goals, even if not deliberately or with Evil Intent. Their lives will also be affected by the train wreck in some way. Some of them will change their goals, others won't, but all of them will continue to act to achieve their goals.

5. The story must MOVE toward the train wreck, and things have to REMAIN IN ACTION. Think of your first act as the opening of a game of chess, where each side is closing in on the other, and pieces are constantly being moved forward, some pieces captured and removed from the game as it progresses. Often the protagonist won't even know that there is another player opposite him, killing his pawns and planning to put his king in checkmate. The point is, the characters are all active and constantly moving forward.

You are, in a traditional first act of a traditional three-act structure, moving toward a point where all of these conflicting courses crash into each other with a big bang, from which the rest of the story will spin away toward the climax.

Your job is therefore to:

Keep your characters moving toward goals
Let your readers know what these goals are
Let your readers see what the conflicts are
Let your readers know what is at stake for each character
Let your reader see the train wreck coming before your protagonist sees it
Make sure all the motivations are plausible and clear

I do find myself thinking in terms of either a train wreck between locomotives racing toward each other on the same track, or a street intersection with two or more cars all speeding to a messy crash. Don't get me wrong; the pace of the story does not have to be breakneck. But you do need to set forces in opposition and have them collide.

The most effective way to do this is not, surprisingly, through plot but through character. What happens to people is not nearly as interesting as what people are trying to do. This is a very important distinction. Don't let your plot push the protagonist; have the plot result from the protagonist pushing against life. Agents, editors and, yes, readers generally aren't interested in characters who are reactive, who get pushed around by life. You might think that this sort of victimhood will make your characters sympathetic, and you may be right, but you will probably be wrong if you think that will make them compelling to readers. So think of the train wreck you'll be creating as a collision of characters and goals, not as the meeting up of plot strands, okay?

Sorry about all the italics. I got carried away.

Note: I am currently on vacation, so I won't be able to reply to any comments on this post. Hopefully Michelle and Davin can pick up the slack for me. Apologies all around. Also: someone needs to remind me at some point that I want to write about beginnings of stories, Chekhov's gun and how the two can work together to give a writer story options.


  1. In my MG novel, I wrote the first draft with the first chapter starting in the middle of a terrible storm. I loved it.

    I had a well known editor critique it. I paid for her advice. She told me that I needed to write a new first chapter. Start slow. Let the readers have a reason to care about the two MC'S. I listened to her and now I think I made a huge mistake. I don't love it.

    The new first chapter isn't exciting and I think MG girls already care about two girls their age, that are stranded with their horses in the mountains alone.

    I'm redoing it. Back to the way I had it at first. Now I realize I'm talking about a first chapter here and you're talking about the first act. I tell you this, because you mentioned that you want to write about beginnings of stories and I'm giving you a beginning. :)

    I think you're right about the first act ending with a train wreck. Though I think some people get carried away with that notion too. They pace their story way too fast. It is like a game of chess. Using all the right moves at all the right times. Oh and I love italics too. :)

  2. I'm jealous of your vacations, Bailey!

  3. The idea of having an active character was something I didn't think about for a long time. As a result, I wrote about a lot of people that just took their hits and felt bad about themselves. Being active is a really sympathetic trait in a character, I think. People are willing to root for people who try more than people who have just given up on life. Writing this makes me feel dumb for not realizing it sooner.

  4. "Don't let plot push the protagonist. Have the plot result from the protagonist pushing against life." That's a great writing mantra! Thanks!

  5. I'm not sure how closely my current NaNo WiP mirrors this post (particularly since alot of it is messy right now), but I can definitely see parallels in things I have done and things I "want" to do. Thanks very much for the advice, Scott. I hope your vacation is enjoyable.

  6. Thanks for this post. I find it useful because I'm writing a story based on Grimms' fairy tales. In those old tales, there is a lot of magic transforming people from the outside and a feeling of inevitability from prophecies, recognizable patterns of success and failure, etc. I'm trying to give my characters more power, control, and responsibility while maintaining magical elements.

    You remind me that the characters' goals need to be made clear, even if they are based on familiar characters from old stories that we all know. I'll be careful not to take for granted that the characters are sympathetic and that their actions make psychological sense. It's an interesting exercise. I'm taking an old tale and constantly saying to myself, "Okay, we all know that Character X does this. But how can I show why a 'real' person in their position would be motivated to do that?"

  7. Great post.
    I started my NaNoWriMo with my characters on the move toward their goals...although they are both also running away a little bit, escaping their current lives. The end of Act I will redefine their goals towards some specific outcomes.
    You do mention not to be reactive...I feel that there is a difference between Acts I and II, that the characters are somewhat buffeted around in Act I, like they're steering the boat but they don't really know where they're headed. In Act II, they've set the sail, fixed the rigging, and are heading straight into the storm.
    Then in Act III, they've weathered the storm, but the boat is sinking, and they need to get to dry land before it's too late :)

  8. I agree, I believe when your character has a goal, it not only pushed the story forward, but makes the character more enjoyable to read.

  9. Scott, what great thoughts! I think I need to incorporate a little more of this into Monarch and it'll be going in the right direction. Especially this:

    Don't let your plot push the protagonist; have the plot result from the protagonist pushing against life.

    So true.

    Hope your vacation was awesome!

  10. Thanks for a good post and giving us all a lot to think about. Most people realise the protagonist needs to have a clearly defined goal, but frequently forget the antagonist needs a defined goal as well. Otherwise they are like the cartoon villain who simply seems out to thwart the hero for the sake of it.


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