“Plot is about what happens, structure is about timing.”
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!
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?
- Establish the normal life of the protagonist.
- The inciting incident: Something disturbs the normal life of the protagonist. A seed of trouble is started, and the protagonist is dragged into it.
- 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.