The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act
Once you’ve hooked the reader, your next task is to put your early chapters to work introducing your characters, settings, and stakes. The first 20-25% of the book comprises your setup. At first glance, this can seem like a tremendous chunk of story to devote to introductions, but if you expect readers to stick with you throughout the story, you first have to give them a reason to care. And this important stretch of the story is where you accomplish just that. Mere curiosity can only carry a reader so far. Once you’ve hooked that sense of curiosity, you then have to deepen the pull by creating 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. The introductions themselves probably won’t take more than few scenes. After the introduction is when your task of exploring character and establishing the stakes really begins.
What are character/setting/stakes introductions?
The first quarter of the book (the first act) is the place to compile all the necessary 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 it should be fired” is just as important in reverse: If you’re going to have a character fire a gun later in the book, that gun should be introduced in the first act. The story you create in the following acts can only be assembled from the parts you’ve shown the reader in this first act. That’s your first duty in this section.
Your second duty is to allow readers the opportunity to learn about your characters. Who are these people? What is the essence of their personalities? What are their core beliefs (even more particularly, what are the beliefs that will be challenged or strengthened throughout the book)? If you can introduce a character in a “characteristic moment,” you’ll be able to immediately show readers who this person is. From there, the plot builds as you deepen the stakes and set up the conflict that will come to a head in the key and inciting events.
The introductions should ideally begin in the opening chapter. Depending on the number of characters or the complexity of your setting, you will probably want to space the introductions throughout several early scenes. The most important thing to keep in mind is the necessity of giving characters enough space in these early chapters so you can focus on developing them. This does not mean the plot needs to be slow or meandering. Every scene must be pertinent to the plot; every scene must be a domino moving the characters forward to the point of no return. But don’t cram so much action into these early scenes that you waste your opportunity to flesh out the characters before the bullets really start flying later on.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): Austen introduces characters, settings, and stakes, all three, in the very first scene. Ten pages in, we’ve been introduced to all the major characters, given to understand the setting, and shown what’s at stake for the Bennett daughters if one of them can’t ensnare the unwitting Mr. Bingley. By the time we reach the first major plot point, we’ve gotten to know the sisters. The beauty and sweetness that will eventually win Jane a husband, the independence and strong opinions with which Lizzy drives the conflict, and the foreboding irresponsibility of the youngest 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 the first act is over, Bingley is in love with Jane, and Lizzy has made up her mind to dislike Darcy—the two factors that will drive the entirety of the remaining story.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): The first quarter of this classic movie is entirely, blatantly, and beautifully about character development. Under the guise of explaining George Bailey to novice angel Clarence, the head honcho angels show us all the prominent moments in George Bailey’s young life. We see him as a child, saving his little brother’s life, losing the hearing in one ear, and preventing old Mr. Gower from accidentally 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 for the lovely Mary Hatch. By the time the inciting event strikes, we know George Bailey inside out. We’ve been introduced to Bedford Falls and its colorful array of denizens. And we’ve learned of the stakes from the mouth of George’s father, who explains the importance of the Bailey Building & Loan in giving the people a haven from evil Old Man Potter.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): Card uses his first act to establish his setting, the orbital Battle School, where brilliant young children are sent to train to stave off an alien invasion. We learn about this strange and brutal place through the eyes of the main character, Ender Wiggin, who is a new arrival, and, in so doing, we learn about Ender as well. We see his determination, his kindness, but also his underlying bedrock of ruthlessness—which will eventually become the element around which the entire plot must turn. Almost all of the important supporting characters are introduced, and readers 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 youth in order to flourish in this place.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: directed by Peter Weir (2004): After the initial onslaught of the furious opening battle, Weir slows his movie down considerably to allow viewers to get to know the main characters—the captain and the surgeon—and the several dozen minor characters, featured from among the crew members. The opening battle already showed us the stakes were high, but the characters’ reactions to it, particularly the captain’s intense desire to refit the ship and reengage the enemy, help us understand why they’re fighting and what will happen if they fail. As the crew works to repair the ship’s battle damage, we’re also given an inside view of the ship itself, which will play such an irreplaceable role throughout the rest of the story.
So what can we learn from these masterful first acts?
1. If the hook has done its job, you can safely slow down the action enough to thoughtfully introduce and deepen your characters.
2. The salient personality points, motivations, and beliefs of the characters should all be developed.
3. The pertinent points of the setting must be fleshed out, so you don’t have to slow down in the second act to explain things. Readers should already be oriented by the first plot point.
4. The very fact that readers are developing a bond with the characters raises the stakes. Drive the point home by making clear what the characters (and thus the readers) stand to lose in the coming conflict.
5. Make certain every scene matters. Each scene must be a domino that knocks into the next domino/scene, building inexorably to the first plot point.
The first quarter of the book builds the foundation of your entire story. A weak foundation will topple even the most brilliant of conflicts and climaxes. Do your groundwork, set up all your necessary playing pieces, and grip readers with an undeniable urge to find out what happens to your marvelous characters.