Story structure — the big moments of Act One

Story telling, whether you are a novelist or screenwriter, requires an understanding of story dynamics and structure. For some writers, this is ingrained into their DNA: they don’t need fancy ideas and concepts for something that comes natural to them. All they need is a story, which starts with a problem that comes into a protagonists life; escalates and complicates until it reaches a crisis; and ends with a climax and resolution. For others these three stages can be formed into three acts.

Story Structure.001It sounds simple, but it is far from it. That’s why screenwriters and dramatists have developed methodologies to break down the process into more manageable bite-sized chunks.

Story structure won’t turn a bad story into a good one. But a good story with a bad structure may well turn the story into a disaster.

In previous posts, I’ve looked at some of the different methodologies used  by screenwriters for story development. I’ve looked at the Three-Act Structure popularised by Syd Field, Michael Hauge’s the Six-Stage Plot structure, Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey and the Frank Daniel’s Sequence Method. And in an early Blog I dealt with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

There are clearly differences of emphasis that the different gurus want to make, and their use of different terminology can be confusing. But in practice the different methodologies have more in common with each other than they would care to admit.

What I have attempted to do is to try a pick the best of each approach and pull them together into one cohesive story blueprint. This blog, and the following two, deal with the structural elements of that blueprint. The graphic shows a three-act, eight-segment structure with five-key turning points and seven further plot points. At first  sight it might seem complex. It’s not. It might seem rigid. It’s not. It’s up to you to see how you want to use it. If four or five acts makes more sense to you, then use whatever division of narrative structure you are most comfortable with.

Let’s start with Act 1, which sets up the story.  This Act normally consists of two sequences (but sometimes three). The first sequence introduces the main characters and the protagonists story world. It shows his normal world before his world is disturbed by the Catalyst at the end of the first sequence. The Catalyst (TP1) is the point in time where the protagonists is first confronted with the major problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes them as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.  It has many different names: the Inciting Incident, the Inciting Event, the Call to Adventure, and the Opportunity. It’s importance is that it ‘radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonists life (McKee).

The second sequence of Act 1 generally deals with the consequences of the Catalyst. Our hero may be reluctant to act, he may take advice from a mentor, or be forced into action by a further event(s) ( which I call the Bump) before eventually he responds to the challenge. The second turning point is the Act One Break (TP2), where our hero decisively moves forward on his quest with a goal in mind. This is sometimes called Crossing the Threshold, the Lock-in,  the Commitment, or the Change of Plans. It signifies the end of the setup process and the start of the main story conflict.

So there are two key turning points in Act 1: the Catalyst and the Act One Break.  However,  both events could occur almost simultaneously if the hero acts decisively. For example, in Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games when her sister’s name is drawn from the lottery. The two events are practically the same. Similarly in a crime mystery there maybe little difference between the timing of the crime being perpetrated and the detective taking control of the investigation.

A confusing complication is that another school of thought uses the same term “Inciting Incident” to refer to the first incident  in the screenplay.  One of the proponents of this approach is Syd Field, who  describes the inciting incident as the first incident that ‘opens up the screenplay and sets the story in motion’. Field goes on to use a second term, the Key Incident, to describe the event which draws the main character into the story and reflects what the story is about. He then explains that the Key Incident normally arises at the end of the first act (i.e. the Act One Break where the protagonist is committed to his goal), but not necessarily always.  And he gives an example in the Bourne Supremacy, where the story revolves around a Key Incident (where he killed the politician and his wife in Berlin) which occurs before the start of the movie. The emphasis of the Key Incident is on the effect of the event on the protagonist and the story  rather than when in time it incites him to act.

The two different definitions of the inciting Incident tend to give different results when the antagonist is introduced before the protagonist. For example, in  ‘Star Wars – New Hope’, is the inciting incident the opening scene where Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s starship, or is it when Luke gets the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan”.   Similarly, in Jaws, is the inciting incident the first shark attack, or the second, or the third, or when Brody first discovers the body of the first victim on the beach?

Act One.001

I prefer to take the view that the Inciting Incident is the event which connects the protagonist to the main conflict of the story. So, for example, in Romancing the Stone, it’s the phone call that Joan Wilder gets from her sister telling her she’s been kidnapped and to bring the map sent to her by her later brother-in-law as ransom. It’s not the actual kidnapping, which the audience doesn’t even see.

In Star Wars: the Force Awakens, it’s when Rey rescues BB8 from scavengers. This starts the chain of events that forces her to escape from the First Order in the Millennium Falcon at the end of Act One. There are many more exciting events before this moment in the movie, but this is the first incident that engages the protagonist — Rey– to act.

If you would like further examples of Inciting Events I suggest you visit K M Weiland’s Story Structure Database. It’s a great source of information on the story structure of movies.

Because of the different uses of the term Inciting Incident, I prefer to refer to this moment as the Catalyst (the term used by the late Blake Snyder), or the Call to Adventure (the term used by Christopher Vogler). It avoids confusion.

By now you’re probably wondering what the other three plot points of Act One are. They’re not necessarily as important as ‘turning points’, but they serve a purpose. The first one, P1, is the Hook. This is simply a scene at the start of the story to hook the audience/reader’s curiosity and interest. For example, in a movie it might be James Bond finishing a previous assignment.  In Indiana Jones and The Raider of the Lost Ark the hook is a high intensity sequence in the Peruvian jungle where Indie obtains and then loses an idol to Balloq.  The whole purpose of the sequence is exposition:  it introduces the audience to the characters of Indiana Jones and Balloq and their rivalry. It has no direct relevance to the actual plot, which is about the Ark. But it’s a great example of how to make exposition about a character exciting.

Hooks are more important to novelists than screenwriters. If a reader doesn’t connect with a story in the first paragraph or first five pages then they might put the book down. Movies are different. Audiences are unlikely to walk out in the first twelve or so minutes, but a script writer should not try their patience. They need to pique the audience’s interest with something, particularly if the inciting event is delayed to the latter stage of Act One. The Hook is one way of doing it.

The second plot point, P2,  is the Foreshadow.  It’s the scene that lets the audience or reader know there’s a disturbance on the way. It’s the shark fin in the water, the meteor heading on course for Earth, the storm gathering in the distance. It’s used as a tension builder to tell the audience or reader there’s a problem coming.

The third plot point, P3, is what I have called the Bump: the event or events that persuade the protagonist to act. It’s the discovery of Luke’s murdered aunt and uncle that persuades him to go to Alderaan with Obi-Wan.  It’s the  discovery of further shark attacks in Jaws. These bumps don’t occur in all stories but when they do they ramp up the tension.

Are these the only turning point and plot points in the first act? Not necessarily. Todd Klick in Beat by Beat identifies some thirty story beats in the first acts drawn from a collection of blockbuster movies from each of the top-selling genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Horror, and Thriller. He identifies their Inciting Incidents  and timing (12 mins),  their Act One breaks, which he calls the Quest (29-35mins). And in addition, he identifies one further turning point which arises between minutes 16-18.

So what can a novelist learn from all this?  Structure is important, but you don’t need to follow it blindly. It is more important that your story develops in a natural way and most times this will follow the common structural pattern for all stories. In the next blog, I’ll look at the Second Act. In the meantime, I would welcome any thoughts you have on this blog.