Writing Discussion

Story Structure: Analyzing Act 1

“Plot is about what happens, structure is about timing.”

There are various story structures including the five act structure, heroes journey, but the basic three act structure still appeals to me most right now.

I’ll be going through an analysis of the three acts. It’s one thing to look at a diagram, but another to translate it to something my brain can make sense of. This will be a very clinical approach to dissecting story. You have been warned!


Act 1

If you follow screenwriting guidelines, act 1 should take up roughly the first 20% of the story. So if you are writing a 120k novel (typical fantasy novel length), this would be around the 24k mark, or 87 pages if you are typing double spaced, 12 point Times New Roman (275 words per page), with one inch margins. This is roughly around page 96 if you are using 12 point Courier (250 words per page). I like numbers.

What happens in Act 1?

  1. Establish the normal life of the protagonist.
  2. The inciting incident: Something disturbs the normal life of the protagonist. A seed of trouble is started, and the protagonist is dragged into it.
  3. Plot point 1: The point when there is no return to a normal life. The story takes another direction.

Not all novels have a hard stop between acts. Act 1 can end before the 20% mark, but back story and world are established after. Some stories begin at plot point one, and I find this is more common in thrillers, suspense, and mysteries.

However (just my opinion here) before the 20% point, even if you are technically in act 2, it would be a good idea to introduce all crucial character back story elements and make sure readers understand the world your character inhabits, because gosh, 87 pages is a sizable chunk of that novel!

Let’s look at the movie “The Fugitive.”

Normal life: We see Richard Kimble at a party. He is shown to be a wealthy, celebrated citizen, and brilliant doctor.

Inciting incident: Kimble’s party is interrupted when he is arrested for the murder of his wife and sent to jail.

Plot point 1: Kimble decides to run away from the police pursuing him, and find out who murdered his wife. Before this point he could have turned himself in to the police. Plot point 1 is where he became a fugitive. Some people may argue plot point 1 is at a different point in the movie, but in this case there is no hard stop between acts. But, you get the idea right?

Other key points to include in Act 1:

  • The reader should know what the stakes are for the protagonist.
  • If the protagonist is an average person, hint at their strengths (that could allow them to win against the odds at the end). If the protagonist is a hero, then you should hint at their weakness (the flaw that could allow them to be defeated).
  • Introduce the antagonist as soon as possible. Without the antagonist there would be no conflict, no story. The antagonist is not necessarily a person. I’ve heard it said that the protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist, so make your foe as terrible as possible.
  • Save the cat scene? If you want your protagonist to be sympathetic, have your protagonist save someone or something helpless, while risking peril to him/herself. There are other ways to make your character sympathetic, but this technique is one of the most common. Back to the Fugitive: Kimble saves a wounded criminal from an overturned bus, though a train is barreling towards them, and he has time to escape. This criminal likely would have left him to die if circumstances were reversed.

So when editing… how is this useful?

Scenes can be rearranged. Think about when plot point 1 happens. Is it too late? Is it too early? Have I established the world in the first 20%? Have I hinted how the protagonist will win or lose at the end of the story? How close did I begin to the inciting incident? Have I shown what the protagonist has to lose? Have I shown what or who my protagonist is up against? Is my antagonist enough of a badass? LOL

What else would you include in act 1? What’s your story structure of choice?

Continue to an analysis of Act 2.

9 Comments

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Thanks Stephanie! I’ve been going through this stuff now that I’m working on edits. It’s really helped me rethink the way my novel is organized. Hope the rest is helpful for you too!

  1. I’ll look forward to the rest of this series with interest. I’ve read enough about the various story structure types in the past to have a fair idea where this is going, but it’s always enlightening to see another person’s take on it.

    I myself am also a very structured writer. When I at last begin again on the writing of my novel/story, I plan to be very systematic about the way I go about doing it, and I’ll be boning up on various structures and formats between now and then. (The good news is: a given story can conform to multiple story structures!)

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Yes it can 🙂 What I may consider a three act structure may actually be a 5 act. Yup, none of this information is anything new, but it’s an attempt to organize the information I’ve come across from various sources.

      Personally, I’m not sure I could look too closely at structure until after the first draft, but maybe I’ll change my methods the 2nd novel around.

      1. I’m thinking of structure this early primarily because I’ve been there before. I’d finished about 2/3 of a theoretical 3-act story arc for my first novel (with it clocking it at 140K-ish words at that point, although I expected at the time that the third act would move very quickly, in retrospect I know it wouldn’t have).

        There had been ups and downs and moments when I was bored with writing and moments when I didn’t know what to write next. At the time, I was working from a very different structural format: in the form of a map.

        An actual map, I mean, of the land the story took place in – with a dotted line squiggling all about the map. The dotted line followed a random path I’d generated as a child on a simpler version of the map, with the idea that this was the physical journey of the hero across the land. So, my structure was “I have to get my hero from Point A to Point Z via Points B, C, D, E, F, G, and so on. And then stuff happens when he gets there.” (Usually, it ended up being stuff that happened to him instead of him doing stuff. Booor-ing.)

        So, I figure, the next time around, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to want to have some structure. What I used last time, as it turns out, didn’t really work as a “structure”. So, this time, I ought to do it right; I ought to apply a/some structure(s) that are designed to focus on story. One I’m very interested in completing my knowledge of is the Hero’s Journey. 3-Act is another very useful tool, of course, that I’ll probably also be using. There are others as well.

      2. T.S. Bazelli Author

        Ah hah, the classic “role play” quest outline, the trap that so many fantasy novels fall into.

        I’m interested in the hero’s journey as well. I’m about halfway through “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler. Some of it overlaps, and the hero’s archetypes are quite interesting. Maybe when I’m done with the book, I can post something about the hero’s journey as well.

      3. Yeah, I guess that’s what it looks like… except I had this plot “outlined” long before I ever started roleplaying. I think it’s more of the “travelogue” plot outline: a related and largely overlapping trap (particularly insofar as most roleplay outlines are travelogues consisting of “go to location x and retreive important quest item/defeat boss character”).

        In fact, it all started shortly after (or during the time when) I first read “The Chronicles of Prydain” as a kid in the single-digit age bracket… at which point I drew my own map for my own imaginary landscape… and started that dotted line and imagining what events take place at each stop along the way to the climactic final battle.

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