The First Act: Nailing Your Novel's Opening Chapters
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Are you ready to discover the power of story structure?
For many writers, plotting out their major story beats according to a specific structure may not sound like the most attractive idea in the world. The misconception that structure is too rigid or makes for predictable stories is pervasive, but it is indeed a misconception.
Story structure is not a story in and of itself. It's simply a blueprint, mapping out the major beats — a.k.a moments of conflict — that give a story shape and a sense of pacing, while still maintaining the flexibility needed to produce unique storytelling.
There are many story structures writers can use to map out their books, but the 3-Act Story Structure is perhaps the most widely used and beloved. Over the next three weeks, we're going to break down each of the three acts in this structure step by step here on the blog, beginning today with Act One. But first, is the 3-Act Story Structure right for you?
Is the 3-Act Story Structure right for you?
Whether you're a pantser or a planner, a newbie or an old pro, a strong understanding of story structure is one of the keys to writing a strong, captivating book.
Keep in mind that understanding story structure doesn't mean you have to outline or pre-write. If that's not your style, no problem. It's the understanding of story structure — and writing with structure in mind — that will make all the difference. Some writers even re-map their books according to a specific structure during revisions rather than plotting before the first draft.
The 3-Act Story Structure itself can be used to map out most genre-fiction books. Whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven makes no difference, as the 3-Act Story Structure takes into account both the external arcs and internal arcs of a story, weaving them seamlessly.
The three acts of the 3-Act Story Structure represent a strong beginning, middle, and end — or, as I like to call them, the introduction, opposition, and resolution — with the transition between each act serving as one of your story's major turning points. Let's look at a quick overview of each act now...
- Act One makes up the first 15% - 25% of a book and serves to introduce the protagonist in their everyday environment before pulling them into the heart of your story.
- Act Two picks up where Act One left off and runs through the 75% - 90% mark of the story, showcasing your protagonist's journey toward achieving their story goal, opposing the antagonist (or antagonistic force), and developing as a character.
- Act Three runs through the remainder of the story, revealing how the protagonist overcomes their core flaw or fear, defeats the antagonist or antagonistic force, achieves their story goal, and makes right any wrongs committed along the way.
Think this structure may work splendidly for the story idea you have in mind? Let's dive in deep, writer!
Exploring Your Novel's Opening Chapters
The first act of the 3-Act Story Structure consists of three important hallmarks: the Hook, the Inciting Incident, and the First Plot Point. These hallmarks make up anywhere from the first 15% - 25% of a novel, simply depending on how many scenes are needed to establish the protagonist's everyday life, dissatisfaction, and call to adventure.
If you don't already have a strong idea of how you want to open your novel, I suggest beginning with the final hallmark — the First Plot Point — and working your way backwards. This is a trick I often employ when plotting my own stories, since I'm far more likely to know how my protagonist gets dragged into the heart of their journey than I am the opening chapter.
That said, we are going to work in chronological order for the sake of clarity today. Let's begin by breaking down the Hook!
Nailing Your Novel's Hook...
The Hook is the very first scene or sequence in your novel, and its purpose is just that: to hook readers into your story so they'll continue reading past chapter one. To be effective, a hook must do three things:
- Introduce the protagonist.
- Establish the protagonist's everyday life.
- Show the protagonist dealing with an everyday conflict.
These three items give readers a strong understanding of not only who your protagonist is, but also what they're like — their personality, their shortcomings, their hopes and dreams, and so on.
Meanwhile, by introducing an everyday conflict—something that shows the protagonist is not or will no longer be safe or satisfied in their everyday life — you kick off your novel's forward momentum. You let readers know that your protagonist's life cannot go on as is, that something needs to break — and soon.
Ready to see the Hook in action? Check out these popular examples:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is introduced as a responsible, determined teenager who hunts illegally to feed her family, which suffers under the rule of the Capitol.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, readers meet Elizabeth, one of five daughters facing financial insecurity should they remain unmarried upon their father’s death.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel is introduced as a teenaged cancer patient battling depression and her mother’s insistence that she attend a cancer support group.
Finding the Inciting Incident...
The second hallmark of Act One is the Inciting Incident, the event that sets the story in motion. Something in the protagonist’s world changes, providing them with an opportunity to assuage their dissatisfaction or presenting them with new dangers they must overcome.
In most cases, several expositional scenes will fall in between the Hook and the Inciting Incident that continue to expand upon your story's protagonist and world. That said, it's the Inciting Incident that will first give readers a taste of the adventure to come.
Before we dive into examples, it's important to note that many protagonists don't initially accept the call to adventure found in the Inciting Incident. A core flaw or fear roots them in place, with the potential consequences of action proving to be too steep in comparison to inaction, at least in their mind's eye.
Check out these popular examples of the Inciting Incident:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss’ beloved younger sister, Prim, is randomly chosen to participate in a televised fight to the death.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball and immediately takes a disliking to him, despite the financial security his hand in marriage could provide her family.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel meets Augustus at a cancer support group and the two begin to forge a friendship.
Defining the First Plot Point...
Several scenes may occur between the Inciting Incident and the final hallmark of Act One that continue to expand upon your protagonist's world and inner conflict. However, it is that remaining hallmark — the First Plot Point — that will at last launch your protagonist into the heart of the story: Act Two.
Typically arriving between the 15% - 25% mark of a story, the First Plot Point represents the moment of no return, in which the protagonist at last chooses to engage with the action of the story.
In some cases, however, the Inciting Incident and the First Plot Point will actually be the same event. This typically occurs when a character is thrust into engaging with the story, whether by force or extreme stakes, rather than hesitating and later choosing to do so.
If your protagonist initially resisted the call to adventure during the Inciting Incident, they will now answer that call as a result of raised stakes. The consequences of inaction? Because of the events between the Inciting Incident and the First Plot Point, they can no longer afford them. They must engage with the events set in motion or risk far greater consequences.
Need a few examples? Check out these moments from popular stories:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Games, thus pulling her into the heart of the story.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Darcy encourages Bingley to break off his relationship with Elizabeth’s sister Jane, thus cementing Elizabeth’s hatred for Darcy despite the man’s growing affection.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Augustus shocks Hazel by revealing he has arranged a meeting with her favorite author, whose book’s ambiguous ending has haunted Hazel for years.
Wrapping Up Act One...
The First Plot Point is a major turning point in your story, wrapping up Act One by pushing your protagonist into an adventure far outside their comfort zone. But the three hallmarks of the first act — the Hook, the Inciting Incident, and the First Plot Point — shouldn't be the only moments that occur during your novel's opening chapters.
As we touched upon earlier, additional scenes should fall in between each story beat. But how many? It depends on the story!
If you know your Hook, Inciting Incident, and First Plot Point, focus on figuring out what key expositional details readers need to know and the actions and conversations that will transition your protagonist from one story beat to the next.
This certainly isn't easy. Nailing your novel's opening act is a process that will take time, so don't worry about mastering these tricky opening scenes in the first draft. Revisions, editors, and beta readers are your friends when it comes to finalizing an amazing opening sequence for your novel.
As you also likely noticed, there are a few key elements you first need to know if you want to plot a strong opening act. Here are a few resources you can use to help develop your story's protagonist, story world, and stakes if you've yet to do so:
- 33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters
- How to Determine Your Character's Story Goal
- How to Find Your Character's Motivation
- Defining Your Character's Lie (a.k.a. their core flaw or fear)
- How to Raise Your Story's Stakes
Have these elements all worked out? Come back to this breakdown anytime to work on mapping out your story's plot with style, structure, and ease! Or, click here to check out the remaining 3-Act Story Structure breakdowns.