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

Star Wars - classic three act structure.
Star Wars - classic three act structure.

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






;nbsp

Opening Sentences.

So this is my second post about opening sentences. K.M. Weiland looks at opening sentences, making the point that openings need not be memorable, but must be multi-functional. She writes that openings should introduce:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

Here's my second choice.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral is my favourite William Gibson book. I like the pace of it and the tightness of the scenes. The opening of Neuromancer is now pretty famous  ('dead channel' and all that), but I really love The Peripheral. Here's the opening.

They didn't think Flynn's brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him. They said it was like phantom limb, ghosts of the tattoos he'd worn in the war, put there to tell him when to run, when to be still, when to do the badass dance, which direction and what range.

Third Person Collective

Like Bannan's 'Weightless' , also set in an anonymous mid-west location, Gibson uses the third person collective 'they' as the subjects of the sentences. Again, like 'Weightless' the choice creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the verbs 'think' and 'said' demonstrate that it is 'they' and not the individual that rule the setting.

Proper Nouns

Gibson introduces the protagonist, Flynn, indirectly. She is not the subject of either sentence. She isn't even the object. Her brother is. This allows Gibson to introduce the protagonist without is seeming overly direct.

Cumulative Sentence Structure

The second sentence uses a cumulative structure, with the main clause 'They said it was like phantom limb' followed by four subordinate clauses, creating a sense of the building layers of gossip surrounding Flynn's brother, Burton.

***

I always feel that Gibson breaks with convention in that the beginnings of his books often confuse and disorientate as much as they entertain. The supernatural lexis ('phantom', 'ghosts') combine with the connotations of  perception and manipulation of 'haptics'  to create mystery and tension and link to Gibson's trademark themes of social manipulation and alternate realities. Finally, the informal lexis ('badass') helps to create a sense of Flynn as a dynamic, blue collar protagonist.

&nbsp: