Most people have at least heard of the three act structure. It originated from the stage, but can also be used by writers and screenwriters to analyse their stories. Of course, unlike a play, a book or movie is not broken down into discrete units, and so the act structure is invisible from the reader’s/audience’s perspective.
Under a three act framework, a story can be broken down into a beginning (Act 1), a middle (Act 2), and an ending (Act 3). The convention is that Acts 1 and 3 are normally about 25% of the story length; whereas Act 2, the source of most the story conflict in the story, will amount to about 50% of the story length. On this basis, Act 1 of a 200+ page novel will normally amount to about 50+ pages.
Not all writers and screenwriters necessary accept that a three Act structure is a helpful structure for analysing story. But most agree on the content or beat structure that occurs at the beginning of a story. As I am getting close to reaching this point in drafting my current novel I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the things that a writer needs to include in those first 50+ pages.
The opening scene. This is an important scene. It has to capture the reader’s attention, introduce the main character in his normal environment and reveal something about his character (for example a weakness or personal desire) before the story begins. Usually the scene will include a hook within the first ten pages that grabs the reader’s attention and encourages them to read on.
The setup scenes. These scenes expand on the initial scene to reveal the main character’s world. They may also introduce other important characters that will have an effect on the story, such as the antagonist, side-kick and love interest (if applicable). The set up scenes may also reveal the source of the problem/opportunity that will force the main character to act on at some point. And the set up scenes may well hint at the theme of the story. Theme here is not the subject matter, but is the more about the moral that pervades the story. Not all stories necessarily have a theme.
The inciting event/catalyst. This is the event that brings the problem/opportunity to the main character’s attention and changes their life forever. Not all stories necessarily have an inciting event. The problem/opportunity may have always been there and it’s the main character’s perspective to that problem/opportunity that changes so that he/she needs to respond to it.
The debate. Sometimes the main character doesn’t know how to respond to the problem/opportunity and needs the help of a side kick or some trusted guardian to help him/her to decide to act.
Turning point one. This is the point where the main character resolves to act in response to the problem or opportunity. He/she may have a plan (although not necessarily the right one), or he/she may be floundering; but there is no way of going back.
By the end of Act 1, the main character should have moved out of his/her comfort zone into a new situation that either threatens him/her or challenges him/her in some way. The reader will understand what the story is all about (the story question) and hopefully should be rooting for the main character.