Your First Act is not a plot device

By Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Lately I’ve read a few stories that had something not quite right about them. At first it was difficult to place the troubling gremlin – these stories had great characters, nice pacing, interesting conflict. It was only when I reached the end of these books that I realised I still had a lot of unanswered questions. And then I realised – most of these questions were the ones that were raised in the First Act.

It hit me: These stories were introducing tension in the First Act not as the central theme or core conflict, but as a plot device – a way to get the protagonist to where they needed to be in the Second Act. 

Imagine a story where all your protagonist wants is to protect her little sister – from their incapable mother, from a dangerous and unforgiving world, from nightmarish memories of their father’s death, from poverty and disease. Then imagine this character gets the ultimate opportunity to do this – by volunteering to take their little sister’s place in a macabre and brutal spectacle that pits child against child in mortal combat for the general entertainment of the masses. This act sends the protagonist away from their little sister and thrusts them into a entirely different world.

And then imagine that the ensuing conflict has absolutely no relevance or reference to that stated goal and tension – where the little sister is forgotten and thoughts of protecting her from the big bad world are no longer plaguing her. Where the central conflict of Act One was just a means to an end – a way to force the protagonist into this new world, and nothing else. Where the Third Act answers a completely different question to the one posed in the First.

questions

Thankfully, in Hunger Games, this is not the case. Katniss ‘adopts’ a surrogate sister, Rue – an action that helps to maintain her humanity in an inhumane situation. The need to protect her sister, Prim, also permeates throughout the series (to varying degrees) and eventually evolves in a need to protect/save everyone. Especially those closest to her.

There is something deeply satisfying, for a reader, in following the evolution and resolution of the core conflict established in the first act (and, indeed, the first book of a series). Stories that forget about this central question – will Katniss save her sister from the evils of Panem? (Hunger Games). Will Mark Watney be able to ‘science the shit’ out of his lonely and tenuous existence on Mars? (The Martian). Will Montag succumb to his Fireman role or break free from it? (Fahrenheit 451). Will Anaiya break free of her legacy and bring down the Resistance? (Resistance (Divided Elements #1)) – are in danger of ‘losing their soul’ and creating forgettable stories with no emotional resonance or connection.

 

What do you think? Have you read (or written) a story where the First Act conflict was forgotten by the time the Third Act rolled around?

 

Image courtesy of Emily via Flickr Creative Commons
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Your First Act is not a plot device