The First Act (or Being in Order is For Losers)

The First Act (or Being in Order is For Losers)

Since my writing group is tackling act one this week, I thought it would be an appropriate time to examine it here! This is the part of the book most writers know well because we all start new projects like they’re going out of style. But what is the job of the first act? It has a specific role in writing beyond just “starting the story.”

Now, as a brief recap of last week’s post, about the second act, the second act typically comprises half the book. More or less. With that in mind, you’re looking at act one comprising about a quarter. In a book of 60,000 words (to make the math easy), you’re looking at about 15,000 for your opener. This number is, of course, flexible and hardly set in stone. So don’t think I’m trying to give you strict limitations. But there are those out there for whom ballpark projections help a lot.

So, in this fifteen thousand or so words of your opener, you need to: introduce the main character(s?), introduce the setting, and introduce the main conflict. These are all vital parts of the story and none should be skimped on. While they can be accomplished in brief early in the first act, you need to give time for each of the elements to breathe, like uncorking a fine wine.

If you’re using the Beat Sheet like I do, you’ll know the first act comprises of these phases:

  • Opening Image
  • Theme Stated
  • Set Up 
  • Catalyst
  • Debate

In those phases, you introduce the three things I mentioned above. Now, in this blog post, I’m not going to address hooks and the importance of the first chapter. That’s for another time. But know those are vital parts of the revision process and should be considered throughout. I’ll deal with them later, since for now I’m looking at the first act as a whole rather than piecemeal.

So, to tackle the parts separately, you first introduce the main character(s). That means we’ll see who they are and what their role in the world is before the life-changing events to come in the Catalyst phase. This includes, typically, a little information about their physicality (appearance, etc.), and it should tell a little about the character’s history. Now, not all of this has to happen at once. Nor should it. Info-dumps and/or exposition are things to be handled with caution. You have a fair amount of space to establish these things, so it’s okay to use it. Also, at this stage of the book, your readers don’t need to know everything about the main character(s). It’s okay to let them keep their secrets.

In this fifteen thousand or so words of your opener, you need to: introduce the main character, introduce the setting, and introduce the main conflict.

E. Prybylski

For example, in my current work-in-progress(WIP), my main character’s story remains hidden from the reader until the very end of the first act. Them choosing to divulge it is part of the Debate. But my character’s general appearance shows up in the first few chapters. In addition to that, I introduce the main members of the supporting cast through this space and provide a little information about the world.

In novels where the story takes place somewhere other than the real world, a fair bit of setting establishment happens here. In my WIP, I need to introduce the reader to the urban fantasy elements of the story and establish what the basics of the world are like. Right now I know I’m quite light on that, but I’ll go back and add more once I’m editing. At the moment, I’m still in the first draft and throwing things at the page and moving on. Typos be damned. And that’s okay. My WIP has comments in the margins about things I need to set up or research in the “later” time. Right now, I just want to write the story that’s burning in my chest like a brand.

Most of the first act is the set-up phase. It’s where we put the pins into place that we will knock down later. In the earliest stages of this, it’s our chance to introduce readers to the worlds in our head. And it’s an exciting thing to write! In the genres of sci-fi/fantasy (and all their various subgenre), however, there’s the temptation to dump all the information on your readers at once. We’re like that. We get started talking about something we’re really into, and suddenly everyone’s eyes glaze over because while they may be passively interested in the way Italian rapier styles differ from Spanish, they weren’t prepared for the full Fiori theater we just put on, and we lost them an hour ago.

There are many techniques available to writers to establish their setting, and I don’t have time to get into all of them here. But one that I have found most effective is to give information as it is relevant to the character’s life. So, for example, in my urban fantasy, elves and the “tusked” races (orcs, ogres, trolls) have major racism problems between them. I don’t pour out the full history of what, why, and how all at once to the reader. In fact, I don’t even mention it until my character sees a sample of it happening “in the wild.” They then ask their companion about it and learn a little of what and why.

Since that information is only passingly relevant in my book (though it’s important in future books), I don’t devote a lot of time to it. Even if I know what, who, why, and how. And when! I could talk about it in-depth for ages if I wanted to, but the reader would then assign a lot more weight that than I need for this particular book. Which is part of the problem.

When handling setting and other such elements, it’s important to apply the principle of Chekov’s Gun to them. If you devote a lot of time to explaining something in the story, or have a setpiece hat appears to be of particular significance, it had better be actually important to the story. If it’s not, you’ve wasted the reader’s time and attention and will frustrate them. This is one of the main reasons why I couldn’t get into the Song of Ice and Fire. I respect its place as a wildfire literary phenomenon, but I couldn’t get into the books. The first several pages of the first book were a deep-dive into the construction of a person’s cloak. And while I understand that they’re using this as metaphors for things, I just plain couldn’t be bothered to keep reading. I am also told that he does that a lot in the series, and frankly I’m not that kind of reader.

Don’t get me wrong–metaphors are great literary devices. But if you spend pages doing a deep-dive into the details of someone’s wardrobe, by God that had better be of serious importance later.

Instead, give readers enough information to picture things in their mind, but don’t bog them down with details. It’ll wreck your pacing to the point where it’s no longer recognizable. While there are people out there who enjoy such types of writing (mostly those who enjoy books like the Silmarillion), your more casual reader will find it exhausting and quite dull. They also will have a tendency to skip those parts, and if you bury important things in the fluff, well. . .now they’ve just missed it. If you’re writing for the audience of the Silmarillion, then go for it, and I salute you, but if you’re trying to reach a broader appeal, stick to shorter, snappier descriptions and giving information as it’s needed rather than trying to dump it all on at once.

Then we have the main conflict. This is typically introduced in the Catalyst stage. It’s where we pull the rug out from under the main character(s) and set the stage for the rest of the story. In Star Wars, Episode IV, it’s when Owen and Beru are killed and Luke has to flee Tatooine with “Ben” Kenobi. This catalyst is what hurls the character into the rest of the story. They might fight it (and during the Debate phase, they deal with whether or not they’re going to rise to the challenge), but ultimately they do have to face up to this conflict because otherwise your story ends here. Whether they face the challenge willingly or not is another matter entirely, but they do have to face it.

This main conflict doesn’t have to be the only conflict, nor does what the character believes the main conflict to be have to be what, in the end, they rally against. When you hit the Catalyst phase of the story, however, you need to introduce the main character into the main body of the work with a trebuchet. YEET. They probably don’t have all the data points of why things are happening and, in fact, may not have much of any. But this is the reader’s first full taste of what is going to come. It’s where you take the afghan of their world, grab an end, and start tearing holes in their sense of safety and security.

Now, this introduction doesn’t always have to be scorched earth of the story–that comes later in act two. But it should be life-altering for your main character(s). Owen and Beru’s death turned Luke’s world upside down and destroyed the safety, predictability and comfort of his “before” world. In Iron Man, this moment is (in my opinion) when Tony Stark and Yinsen free themselves from Raza’s grasp and Yinsen dies. I’d warn you about spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the first Iron Man movie or Star Wars by now, I’m not sure what to tell you.

This catalyst and the main character wrestling with its implications and events is what sets the stage for act two to come on the scene, so it’s of vital importance. This introduction to what the reader/viewer etc. believes the main conflict is sets the tone for the entire rest of the book. Even if the main conflict is so much bigger or deeper than the reader is aware of at the outset. (And it should be!)

Ultimately, the first act is all set-up. You’re giving the readers the notecards for the rest of the story and saying, “Strap in, kids, it’s going to get rough after this.” It’s also great fun to write because you, the writer, usually have plans and ideas for the rest of the story, so it’s a perfect opportunity for villain-like mustache twirling. “Oh, you like this character, do you? Wait until you see what I do to them.” Don’t deny yourself that. It’s the little things in life.

You’re giving the readers the notecards for the rest of the story and saying, “Strap in, kids, it’s going to get rough after this.”

E. Prybylski
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