Storytelling Essentials: Story Structure – Act 1
Like it or not, all good stories have an underlying structure that has been purposely put in place to keep you involved throughout the course of the tale. In screenplays, structure is so straightforward and strictly adhered to that certain beats are expected to take place on specific pages. In novels, especially those of the literary variety, structure is much more negotiable, and one can get away with adhering to it loosely (not if you want to be a best-selling author, however). So, what is this big-bad-structure-thing that you fear will suck all of your creative juices dry?
Relax, it’s nearly the foundation to the incredible skyscraper you’re about to erect. Let me point out the basic elements of the first act. From here on out, you would be wise to look for these parts in every movie you watch or book you read. Trust me – you will start to notice them, and become a better writer for doing so.
Act 1 –
This is where we get to know the protagonist. What does she want? What are her goals? Give the reader a reason to empathize with her. The sooner the reader can connect to your protagonist on an emotional level, the better.
Inciting Incident – Theoretically, this should occur as early as page 0. Many argue it should come later. In a 120 page screenplay, anywhere between pg. 8 – 15 is appropriate. The inciting incident changes everything for your protagonist – it gives them a reason to take up a new quest. Whether it be the death of a parent (like in my novel, A New Kingdom), the attack of a terrorist, or the sudden outbreak of Malaria, the inciting incident makes the protagonist’s former way of living impossible. Their leisurely life has been taken from them – and the only way they can ever to return to it is to take up a new quest.
1st plot point – This marks the end of the 1st act and the beginning of the second. In screenplays, it typically falls between pg. 25 – 30. It is the decision of your protagonist to take up their quest. They know what they want, and they’ve decided to go after it, even if they haven’t figured out how to succeed yet. The antagonist, or ‘the force that stands against the desires of your protagonist’, is known at this point.
I will introduce you to the remaining acts in other posts, and hopefully get more in depth with any concepts that may seem alien to you. Act one should take up the first quarter of your story, in case you were wondering.
If you want to learn more about story structure, I highly recommend Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. I know it had a huge impact on my approach to writing, and I could have never gotten my current position as a script analyst without first understanding the concepts laid out in that book. Kevin Brown, my good writing friend whose blog can be found at creative mysteries.net, also agrees that it was a tremendous influence and help to him.
Hope this helps!
– Thomas M. Watt
– Author of A New Kingdom