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

Starting your novel – Your protagonist needs a problem

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I recently had a moment of enlightenment regarding this whole writing a book thing. The start of a story occurs at the start. Yes, you read that correctly. The start of a story occurs at the start. Many of you would argue that it is not much of an enlightenment. But, for me, it was a big leap in understanding story structure…

For a long time, I had thought that the story started at the inciting incident, that everything that came before this point (Gap A) was context and set-up and exposition. This is still true – The Inciting Incident does kickstart your story AND Gap A is all about context and set-up and exposition. The paradox arrives by way of realising that Gap A is also more than this – it is also the beginning of your story.

Lightbulb Moment

 

So this is our conundrum – both the Inciting Incident AND Gap A serve as the story’s beginning.

Some writers deal with this by having the Inciting Incident arrive in the first chapter of their story. I like a longer lead in time for my stories – to really ground the reader in the world and the status quo before launching into the story proper. If you’re like me and locate your Inciting Incident around the 10% mark, then you’ll also be faced with the challenge of crafting two story beginnings – because you can’t have your reader wading through 10% of your book before they can actually start reading the story.

So, how do you start a story twice? The answer lies in understanding that any novel is comprised of two stories – two core conflicts – two key problems – The Story’s Problem and the Protagonist’s Problem.

The Story’s Problem is the conflict that the Inciting Incident catalyses – it is usually external to the protagonist and critical for shaping their actions in response. It is the story that you see in movie trailers, it is the story that could have happened to any other character (even if the results would have been wildly different).

The Protagonist’s Problem is the conflict that the Protagonist brings with them to the story. No protagonist enters a story as a clean slate. They always bring their own story, their own problems, their own baggage. This is important, because the baggage that a protagonist holds is what shapes how they respond to the Inciting Incident and navigate through the rest of the story’s gaps and turning points. The Protagonist’s Problem is, therefore, necessarily internal and dominant in shaping their thoughts, behaviours and emotions. It is the hidden story, the story that is completely unique to the protagonist. Even if the  exact same Story Problem had happened to another character, the personal impact and permutations explored in the Protagonist’s Problem would never be replicated.

The existence of these two stories allows for two beginnings – Gap A can start with the Protagonist’s Problem, and the Inciting Incident can commence the Story’s Problem. Allowing you to start your story at the start!

How do you start your stories? What are the challenges and obstacles you face when crafting a compelling beginning?

 

Image courtesy of Aaronth via Flickr Creative Commons

Starting your novel – Your protagonist needs a problem

Books = Stories about stuff happening

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Books are a lot of things, but mostly they are stories about stuff that happens. They are not monologues or dialogues, long transcripts of people just talking. They are not detailed descriptions of static environments, lovingly crafted words about what things look like or how they smell. (Not that these things don’t have their place).

No, books are all about the action – movement, activity, change, consequences.

 

THE FIVE Ws

In crafting a book, it is the 5Ws that separate out that stuff that is happening in your book from the stuff that is happening in other books:

* What is the stuff that is happening? Is it an alien invasion, a falling in love, a fight to the death?

* Who is the stuff happening to? Is it a small and isolated island community, a thirteen year old boy, a nun on the run?

* Where is the stuff happening? In the middle of the Andaman ocean, a backwater town, a distant moon colony?

* Why is the stuff happening? Because of a stray meteor hitting earth, the arrival of a new face, the unexpected discovery and firing of a gamma ray?

These first four Ws can inject a great sense of character to your novel, tag it with its own unique personality. But, it is the fifth W – the When does this stuff happen? – that is the most crucial and that provides us with the framework of the Three Act Structure.


THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

The Three Act Structure is built around pivotal story moments – all points of the story where important stuff happens.

In the First Act, there is:

* The sympathetic stuff that happens: This is the introduction to your protagonist. They are doing something that a) gives the reader both a sense of who they are and the world they live in and b) instils in the reader a sense of sympathy for the protagonist – something that will keep them cheering for your story’s main character, even if they don’t particularly like or relate to the character.

For more on this ‘stuff’ see my blog post on “The only two things your protagonist needs to be”.

* The call to action stuff that happens: This is part of the story where something changes the protagonist or the world they inhabit, something that is of such magnitude that it calls to the protagonist to get involved.

* The resistance stuff that happens: Despite your protagonist’s call to action, there is a resistance to engage. This could be because of fear, uncertainty, apathy or ignorance (or a multitude of other reasons). In their effort to resist the call, the protagonist does a lot of stuff to avoid getting involved.

At the juncture of the First and Second Acts is the First Plot Point – a major point of significant stuff happening. This is where, despite your protagonist’s best efforts to avoid personally engaging with the inciting incident, something happens to spur them into action. A bigger fear trumps the earlier one, a mentor provides assurances and generates confidence, the stuff happens to someone close to the protagonist, making the challenge personal, or the protagonist has an ‘a-ha’ moment and finally sees the truth and severity of the situation.

The Second Act is divided into two parts of stuff happening.

Part One is about stuff happening to the protagonist. This is basically where the protagonist is the weak punching bag for the plot – it just hammers them with stuff that happens – events and actions and conflicts and explosions – and the protagonist is like a piece of driftwood in the ocean, just trying to stay afloat and survive.

Part Two is about stuff happening because of the protagonist. Your main character is in control and pulling the strings – the plot is now the character’s slave and the hunter has become the hunted. Stuff happens because the protagonist says so – the wall explodes because they set the TNT, the aliens flee because the protagonist is chasing them with a sword of fire, the girl is swooning because the thirteen year old boy is putting on the moves, and the moon mafia is gearing up for a fight because the nun on the run is kicking some serious ass.

Part One and Two are separated by the Midpoint – another major point of significant stuff happening. So major, that the protagonist inevitably and seamlessly shifts from punching bag to Bruce Lee.

For more about crafting a solid Midpoint, check out my blog post, “Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and Write your Midpoint”

The juncture of the Second and Third Acts is marked by the Second Plot Point – the final major point of significant stuff happening. For me the Second Plot Point is a composite of two significant moments – the Darkest Night of the Soul and the Glimmer of Hope. In Part Two of the Second Act, the protagonist is killing it – they are on fire and clearly destined for success – until the Darkest Night of the Soul. Some major stuff happens to seriously put a dampener of the hero’s quest, to crush it so low that it seems all is lost. But then some other major stuff happens – the community’s outcast finishes his alien-destroying weapon, the boy discovers the girl’s favourite story, the nun runs into the mafia-boss’ mother-in-law – and once again, there is hope that the hero with triumph.

The Third Act is one big stuff-happening fest. It’s hell for leather, as lots of stuff happens – driven by the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, the conflict and tension, the hopes and dreams, the insatiable pull towards the climax – until it all culminates in one big showdown (major stuff happening here) – which the protagonist either wins (comedy) or loses (tragedy).

IN SUMMARY

So:

In the First Act, stuff just happens (and not necessarily to the protagonist).

In the First Part of the Second Act, stuff happens to the protagonist.

In the Second Part of the Second Act, the protagonist makes stuff happen.

In the Third Act, all the stuff happens.

 

 

(Featured Image courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Books = Stories about stuff happening