Act One: The Beginning of Everything
The first act is where you set up the problems that you the character is going to have to resolve. It takes up about the first twenty-five percent of the novel.
This is the first of three posts that put forward a simple interpretation of the three act structure.
KM Weiland suggests that there are two main events that we have to worry about here: the inciting incident and the first plot point.
The Inciting Incident
Michael Hauge calls this opening The Set Up . Here we have to introduce the protagonist in his 'ordinary life', the first 10% allows us to demonstrate the character and his situation, to establish him or her in the readers' sympathies.
In short, the opening scenes need to make us like or respect the hero.
For Hauge, the inciting incident is a choice. The character has a chance to attain some kind of new life or situation. That creates a new desire, setting the story in motion.
So the inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. Weiland is more flexible in her approach than Hauge. And perhaps this is because Hauge is a screenwriter rather than a novelist. Weiland's view is that while the inciting incident can happen on the 10% mark, it might be in the first couple of scenes as in The Hunger Games, or even before the start of the action of the novel.
First Plot Point
So from the inciting incident to about the 25% mark the character will react to the inciting incident, and this usually involves a choice on the part of the protagonist. During this section of the novel the character will encounter a bunch of problems and revelations that will most likely dampen enthusiasm and lead them to doubt themselves, until …
You guessed it – that pesky first plot point!
Hauge tells us that something big needs to happen to our hero about a quarter of the way through our story. The hero will usually make a choice here, a decision that cannot be reversed. Whatever it is, this event must change the hero's goal from a generalised desire into a specific goal with a definite end point.
And with that we end act one. We have shown the hero's ordinary world, seen him choose a new situation; we've seen his world view being challenged by a series of obstacles until finally he makes a dramatic choice that sets him on a new path towards a specific and finite goal.
Star Wars: A New Hope
If we think about Star Wars as an example we see Luke Skywalker's ordinary life on the farm. We see his competence and skill and his frustration, until at the ten-percent mark he accidentally triggers the message from Princess Leia, and this is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.
From here Luke is tested. He is attacked by sand-people! Meets a crazy old man. He refuses the call. Then the first plot point occurs when Luke discovers that the storm-troopers have torched the farm and murdered his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Luke makes a choice to follow Ben Kenobi to Alderaan and to join the rebellion.
And that's the first act: an appealing protagonist, an inciting incident and a call to action.
Next up – Act Two