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

Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

One of the recurring plot devices in dystopian literature is the ‘Divided Population’. This is to be expected, given that dystopian stories (and their more up-beat counterpart, utopian stories) are, at their heart, socio-political narratives. Population structures and methods of control are, therefore, a key aspect of many dystopian stories.

We see this archetype in classic dystopias, such as 1984, Brave New World and Divided Kingdom, as well as in modern dystopias, like Hunger Games and Divergent. My WIP, Divided Elements, also draws heavily on this archetype in its exploration of identity, loyalty and rebellion.

The prevalence of the ‘Divided Population’ archetype is arguably due to the fact that it draws on two long-established and fundamental philosophies:

  • Divide and Rule (politics)

[The] gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people. (wikipedia)

  • Self vs Other (sociology/psychology)

…when individuals that identify closely with their own ethnic or religious beliefs begin to gain the mentality that those who are different from them are problematic. This can lead to extreme separation, alienation, and exclusion of the person or of people that is seen as different or unusual to the typical lens of one’s societal views. Othering can be described as discrimination of people or a population that is different than the collective social norm; since they are different they are also seen as deviant or in need of being cultured by the group that is othering them. (wikipedia)

 

Despite the common reference to these philosophies, many dystopian stories present the archetype differently. The main axes along which these stories differ are:

  • The basis on which the population is divided
  • Whether the division is reinforced by a geographic divide
  • Whether the division is static or dynamic (i.e. whether people can change which division they belong to)
  • Whether the division is absolute or imperfect (i.e. whether there is opportunity for inconsistencies within the divide)
  • Whether an additional class or group exists outside the division

 

1984

In 1984, the divide is socio-political – with the population generally inhabiting the same space (albeit in separate (yet, accessible) neighbourhoods) but divided into three hierarchical classes: The proles (proletariat), outer party (bureaucracy) and inner party (oligarchy). The divide is maintained organically – with each new generation born into the class of their parents. No additional class or group exists outside these divisions – rebellion comes from within the structure.

In Hunger Games, the divide is predominantly geographic and labour-based. The population is divided into 12 districts and each district is responsible for fulfilling a mandated role in resource production – District 12’s core industry is mining, District 4’s core industry is fishing. Like 1984, the divide is maintained organically with each new generation born into their district and, therefore, role. Unlike 1984, however, the Districts are equal in power/standing, with the true political divide presented between the Districts and the Capitol. A 13th district is later discovered existing outside the core division, and it from within this district that the rebellion is built and sustained.

brave new world

In Brave New World, the divide is biological – the population ‘hatched’ into a hierarchy of five castes of different intellectual magnitude. Stemming from this biological divide is the division of labour – whereby members of each caste are conditioned for roles appropriate to their level of (manipulated) competence. Like 1984, their is no geographical divide – but the strict hierarchical model means that interactions between castes is distasteful at best, social suicide at worst.

As a counterpoint to this manipulated world, there exists a more organic world – the ‘savage reservation’ –  where the population is not divided. This world (and its inhabitants) serve as a the key narrative device to illustrate the differences between the two ways of living.

In Divided Kingdom, the divide is based on personality types – the population divided into four types (represented by a different humor: blood (red), phlegm (blue), black bile (green) and yellow bile (yellow)). This divide is also geographic, with each type occupying a designated quarter that is quarantined from the others by security walls. There is no hierarchy – all types are equal in power and standing.

Unlike the above examples, the division is not static, but continually manipulated – with children born into a type (and quarter) and then taken for assessment and re-assignment (if necessary) at a predetermined age. A fifth group, not sanctioned by the state or part of the greater population structure, is known as the White – consisting of people who embody all four personality types and none of them, they are able to roam freely between the four quarters, reviled in some, revered in others.

divergent

In Divergent the divide is also personality-based and geographic. The population is divided into five factions based on personality types (Abnegation, Dauntless, Candour, Erudite and Amity) and each faction occupies its own part of the city. Movement between the different parts is allowed (although, seemingly uncommon?). While there is no specific hierarchy, in that each group is equal in general power and standing, one faction is given responsibility for leadership (the pivot on which much of the action in the story turns).

The division is not static – with children born into a type and then taken for assessment when they reach a predetermined age in their teenage years. Unlike Divided Kingdom, where membership is mandated by the state, in Divergent, the assessment is used as guidance only – with candidates allowed to choose which faction they wish to join (or remain in). The divisions are largely imperfect: A candidate more suited to one faction can nonetheless choose membership in another;  A candidate who fails their faction initiation test ultimately becomes ‘factionless’, joining a loosely-organised group occupying their own part of the city; A candidate who is predisposed to more than one faction is labelled ‘divergent’.

 

So, as you can see, despite the common theme of a ‘divided population’, each of these stories is able to present a unique narrative by mixing up the other key considerations. I’m hoping to do the same with my own novel, Divided Elements. 

 

Find this post useful? Let me know in the comments!

Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

Three Act Structure (with speculative fiction examples)

 

Three Act Structure - explained with speculative fiction and dystopian literature examples
Three Act Structure – explained with speculative fiction and dystopian literature examples


Three Act Structure (with dystopian literature examples)

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Click on the picture of link above to access my flash presentation on how the three act structure works – with examples from the Hunger Games, Divergent, Ready Player One and Under the Never Sky.

Link