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Learn the "bones" of story

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

12-Step Checklist for Writing Beginnings (Act I)

Beginnings tend to be the most difficult part of a story to get right, at least for many writers. There is so much Act I needs to accomplish--the hook, the introductions, the turns. 

And if your opening doesn't interest readers, they won't stick around for the "good stuff."

Well, recently I was looking for an Act I checklist . . . and I didn't really find what I wanted, so . . . I decided to make my own (and share it with you, of course). 

For most stories, the beginning--or rather, specifically, Act I--makes up the first quarter of the narrative arc. Let's go through what it should contain.

1. Open with a Hook

I'm sure no one is surprised to hear me say the story should open with a hook.

This could be a hook related to the story as a whole, as what Maggie Stiefvater does in the prologue of Raven Boys. Right in the first line, the audience learns that whoever turns out to be Blue's first kiss, is destined to die. It could also be a hook related to the first scene of the story. 

Ideally, if your plot elements are solid, you should nearly always be able to grab the goal and/or stakes to create a hook. (In Raven Boys, Stiefvater grabs the stakes. Blue's true love could die, so now we need to read and find out if that happens.)

There are other types of hooks, too, of course. You can have a line-level hook. An opening sentence that has such a strong voice, the audience can't help but be curious to read on.

And in the best-case scenario? You have multiple hooks that work at multiple levels--line level, scene level, act level, narrative arc level.

But let's be realistic. It may not be possible to do that for every story, and that may not be the best idea for every story. So use good judgment.

2. Introduce the Protagonist

For most stories, the protagonist will show up in the first chapter, and if not in the first chapter, usually in the second chapter. In any case, the protagonist needs to be introduced in Act I. Don't grab just any moment that pops into your head as his opening. Grab a situation that will demonstrate your protagonist's most dominant and relevant characteristics (if you can). 

Show what the protagonist deeply (and often desperately) wants, what his goals are. This is often best done by putting these wants/goals at risk. Audiences can then see what the character is willing to do (or in some cases, not do) to secure them (which will also help illustrate where the character's personal boundaries are).

As the character encounters antagonistic forces, use his responses to communicate the worldview he starts on for his character arc. Is he going to learn to be honest at the end? Then have him respond to an obstacle by being dishonest in Act I.

Other than all that, include his vocation and any other pertinent strengths, weaknesses, or special skills that he has. You also want to fill in some surface details like his name, age, and appearance (this will usually be communicated in his first scene). You may also want to check that you've made him likable and/or intriguing.

Basically, individualize your protagonist during Act I.

3. Include an Antagonist (and Conflict)

Act I should have an antagonistic force. It does not have to be the main antagonistic force, but there should almost always still be a form of opposition that the protagonist is up against. For example, Harry Potter's antagonists for Act I are the Dursleys. In Star Wars, Luke's uncle gets in the way of Luke going to Academy. 

An antagonist is simply a force of opposition--it's resistance, it's an obstacle. It is blocking the path the character wants to travel. It is a threat to the goal.

This may come from the environment, another person, or within the protagonist herself. Whatever it is, it's there. And you can (and probably should) have more than one.

A common mistake new writers make, is they don't have enough antagonism in Act I. This makes the beginning of the story . . . well . . . usually boring. And the only readers that are probably going to make it to Act II (the middle), are the ones who are reading the story because you wrote it, not because they love the story.

This also then means that Act I should likewise include conflict. Conflict is what happens when the protagonist and antagonist clash.

4. Communicate Stakes

Stakes are often defined as what is at risk in the story. I personally like to define them as potential consequences. It's what could happen if a condition is met. If your character has a goal (and he should), you should be able to brainstorm some basic stakes. Simply ask, what meaningful thing will happen if the character gets the goal? And, what meaningful thing will happen if the character doesn't get the goal? Make sure the answers are communicated to the audience on the page. 

Like the antagonist, these don't necessarily have to be the main stakes of the overarching story (though they can be). They can be act (or sequence) level stakes.

With that said though, many stories will communicate the story's overarching stakes by or near the end of Act I.

5. Relay the Setting (and Worldbuilding)

You should begin establishing the setting of the story right away. Make sure the audience knows when and where this story takes place. Mars? 100 B.C.? Middle-earth? You may not need to state the specifics outright immediately, but the audience shouldn't be shocked when your character hops on a horse instead of a motorcycle.

In some genres, the setting is more important than in others. If your story has a lot of pertinent worldbuilding (and magic or technology), you'll want to introduce that. 

At the same time, don't write a bunch of info-dumps.

Remember Robert McKee's adage: convert exposition into ammunition.

Just as you don't need to tell the audience every detail about the protagonist in Act I, the audience doesn't need to know every detail about the setting.

When you make the setting relevant to the plot elements, it will become clearer what needs to be included and what doesn't. You don't have to introduce every feature of the setting that will be relevant to the story, all in Act I. . . . This becomes obvious when the setting for Act I is totally different than that of Act II (which happens in a lot of stories).

In any case, make sure the setting isn't problematically vague.

6. Establish What's Normal (or Expected)

Usually at the beginning of a story, we want to establish a sense of what is normal, or at least what is expected. Frequently this is done by showing the protagonist in her ordinary life for the first half or so of Act I. Often this is where we communicate what the character's day-to-day life looks like. This relates to what the Hero's Journey calls "Ordinary World" and what Save the Cat! calls "Set-up."

One thing to note is that this is about establishing what is normal to the character. In Barbie we get a sense of what Barbie's daily life is like. It's not normal to the audience, but it's normal to the character.

If the inciting incident (see below) hits early, this segment will be rather brief.

While uncommon, it's also possible to open right with or right after the inciting incident, in which case, this information usually gets back-filled (related to what I talk about here in this post on in medias res.)

"Normal" is also a relative term. It's "normal" compared to what comes later, even if the character is in unusual circumstances. . . . This is one reason why I've been having the concept of "expectation" creeping into this idea lately. Perhaps it's more accurate to say, this segment is about conveying what the character expects to happen (so we can then upend that as the story goes on).

7. Introduce the Theme

The theme is (almost) always linked to the protagonist's character arc. So if you introduce where your character starts in relation to her arc, you are already halfway there with this one.

But only halfway.

A theme is really an argument, and it's not really an argument if no one is disagreeing.

This means there is a counterargument. 

How exactly this plays out will depend on what basic character arc you are writing.

But the short of it is, make sure you voice, illustrate, or represent a thematic worldview that opposes the one your protagonist starts with.

If your theme is about honesty, and your protagonist starts dishonest, then make sure somewhere in Act I, we see the protagonist lie and also see a demonstration of the truth being told. (Simplistically speaking.)

I could go into this more for those unfamiliar with my concepts . . . but that would be a whole other blog post.

8. Hit the Turning Points (Inciting Incident & Plot Point 1)

A turning point is also known as a "plot point" or a "plot turn." It turns the direction of the story. The character is going down one pathway, and then information is revealed or an action is taken, and the character is now going in a new direction.

Act I has two key turning points: the inciting incident and Plot Point 1.

The inciting incident is a medium-sized plot turn--it's whatever disrupts the protagonist's established normal (or expected trajectory), and kicks off the main plotline. Basically, the main plotline wouldn't happen without this moment. 

Examples include, Gandalf inviting Bilbo on an adventure, Donkey showing up in Shrek's swamp, and Luke hearing Leia's message. (You can get a full breakdown of inciting incidents here.)

The inciting incident gets the protagonist on track to hit a big turning point at the end of Act I, Plot Point 1. This is essentially the climax of Act I--it's what Act I has been building toward. Most commonly, this appears as the protagonist choosing to engage in the journey of the main plot. This is Bilbo running out the door to join the dwarves, this is Shrek agreeing to rescue Fiona after the tournament (so that he can get his swamp back), and this is Luke agreeing to go with Obi-Wan after his aunt and uncle have been killed.

Plot Point 1 is also known as "Break into Two" or "Crossing the Threshold" in Save the Cat! and the Hero's Journey approaches, respectively.

9. Follow Basic Structure

Many of us have been taught basic story structure: rising action, climax, falling action.

But unless you've been following my blog, you probably weren't taught that basic structure is actually a fractal or like a Russian nesting doll.

That same shape is repeated within the overarching story. 

So not only does the overarching story have this shape, but each act has this shape.

(Act II is commonly split in half, since it is the longest act.)

And really, almost every scene should have this shape too.

But we are focused on acts today.

Your Act I should have a rising action and climax, and often, a falling action (though some writers cut short or even cut off the falling action). That climax is Plot Point 1. Notice how it visually turns the story from rising action to falling action, and then we start the climb for Act II, Part I.

Does your Act I follow this shape?

It's obviously not going to be as dramatic as your overarching story, since this is just the first act of that story, but ideally, the audience is still guided through a rise, to a peak, and experiences a fall (as the characters react to what just happened).

10. Convey Relationships (& Introduce Other Key Characters)

It's likely your protagonist doesn't exist alone in her world. Convey important relationships your character has. This will either be important in establishing the protagonist's current lifestyle (her "ordinary world") or important to a plotline--like a relationship plotline. 

This of course entails introducing these key characters. In some cases, the audience may spend the rest of story with these characters, but in other cases, the protagonist may interact with completely new people in Act II.

Beyond that, if you have other viewpoint characters, you may also want to introduce them, even if they don't have a relationship with the protagonist, in Act I (though this isn't law).

11. Establish the Tone

Make sure you establish the right tone for your story. If this is a comedy, we need to see the humor right in Act I. If this is a dark and unsettling story, we need to know that early on. Even though many stories will change a lot from Act I to Act II, the right tone should at least be introduced. 

For example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), we don't get to see the wackiness of Wonka's factory until Act II, but the story still establishes a similar tone through the setting and outlandish characters in the beginning.

If it's not possible to naturally integrate the main tone of the overarching story in Act I, or if the story will have a very different, additional tone later, a prologue can be used to accommodate that. The prologue can introduce one tone, while chapter one starts with another.

The main idea is we don't want to give the audience the wrong impression of the story. Don't lead them into thinking they are reading humor, only to make everything after Act I sound depressing.

12. Demonstrate Setups and Payoffs

A strong Act I is usually full of foreshadowing and promises made to the audience. Surprisingly, deft setups are one of the elements that best advertises "I'm a professional writer!"

It's doubly effective if you can pay off some of what you set up.

I know that may sound counterintuitive. Aren't payoffs supposed to happen in Act III? The end? 

Absolutely Act III should be loaded with payoffs, but if you can show the audience that you can handle act-level (or even scene-level) setups and payoffs, you will win their trust for the long haul.

The audience will be spending hours with your story--they want to know you know what you are doing, and how to do it. They want to know you can make good on your promises. They want to know they aren't wasting their time with someone who doesn't know how to deliver. (They also want to know you aren't just putting in setups to string them along.)

The sooner you can demonstrate you're great at setups and payoffs, the more likely they're going to feel "safe" reading this story. Meaning, they can trust that you won't let them down.

Bonus points if you can include some misdirection, and throw them off in a little twist.

1 comment:

  1. This is very informative! I love how you pull on these strategies together to make Act 1 as awesome as it should be!


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