Act I is the foundation and first impression of your story. It defines everything that comes after in terms of character, tone, and pace. Its how you convince your reader that they’re in capable hands.
I could ramble about how I adore beginnings and the Act I formula and playing with pacing and structure, but there is a lot to cover, so we’re just going to jump directly into the post.
Start with goals
- What is your character’s long-term desire? I don’t mean something abstract like acceptance or love–I mean their ultimate dream.
Example: Kaz Brekker in Six of Crows wants revenge on Pekka Rollins.
If your character doesn’t have a dream and is simply living their status quo, then I would still encourage you to give them one. Dreams make characters interesting. Desires make characters act.
Once you’ve identified your character’s specific, ultimate dream, write it down. Do this for all of your point of view characters, if you have more than one. You can also do this for major characters without POVs who still have developmental arcs, but you should note that their arcs won’t be affected by the plot in the same way as the POVs. Don’t feel pressured to fill out this whole exercise for them, as it’s meant for POVs! ID-ing character goals for any character, however, will always be helpful.
- What is your character’s short-term desire? This is also going to be something very definable and concrete, usually a first step on the road to achieving their long-term desire.
Example: Kaz Brekker intends to make the Dregs richer and more powerful so that, one day, he’ll get his revenge.
This desire doesn’t have to be something simple or fulfilled with a single action. It can be a complicated first step like Kaz’s. What matters is that it relates to the achievement of the ultimate goal, but is something your character is working actively toward in their very first chapter, before the catalyst launches the story. This is your character’s status quo.
Identify this goal for all of your point of view characters.
- What does your character care about?
Sometimes, this will be evident from your protagonist’s goals. But if not, identify something your character currently possesses for which they care desperately. You need to give them something to lose (whether or not they do over the course of the story). This will also help invest your reader in your character’s plight.
Example: We can tell from their early scenes that Kaz cares about Inej’s well-being.
Craft your set-up
I use a beat sheet method known as Save the Cat, which breaks the first act into three sections: set-up, catalyst, and debate. Now that you have your goals, you can successfully outline the set-up section of your novel.
Your character’s first scene and introduction should be them in active pursuit of their short-term goal, not them just going about their daily lives. Open your story with goal and conflict! This immerses your reader into the story.
Example: Kaz’s opening scene (through Inej’s point of view) introduces us to his character and the brutal methods he uses to secure his gang’s power.
I typically allow a set-up to have between 1-2 chapters per point of view character. This gives you enough time to open with a strong scene of your protagonist in pursuit of their short-term goal, explain to the reader the long-term goal and why that is, for now, in the far off future, and show the reader what your character currently has that they could potentially lose.
You have TWO OPTIONS for your catalyst.
Option #1: A catalyst that throws a wrench into the character’s long-term goal or threatens the one thing the character wishes to protect. These are the sort of catalysts that totally uproot your protagonist.
Option #2: The catalyst offers the protagonist a new opportunity or a shortcut to achieving their long-term goal. Kaz’s catalyst in Six of Crows, the opportunity of the heist, falls into this category.
Either way, what has happened?
- The short-term desire has been derailed
- The long-term desire is still present in some form
- The thing the protagonist cares about is either just fine or in great jeopardy
Catalysts take 1-2 chapters per point of view character.
Your character now has to react to the catalyst! We are preparing the character to begin their adventure.
- What is your character’s new short-term desire?
Example: Kaz now wants to complete a heist to earn the money to make the Dregs filthy rich.
- Re-identify your character’s long-term desire.
Example: Kaz still wants revenge on Pekka Rollins
- That thing the character cares about?
If the catalyst threw this thing into jeopardy, your character has likely decided to try to get that thing back. Early into Act II (Ah! Act II? I thought this was about Act I! … It is, mostly), you will want to introduce us to a new thing the character cares about. Not to replace, but to continue giving them something to lose. Characters must always have something to lose.
If the object of your character’s affection is doing just fine, keep it close throughout the Debate and as you move into Act II so that you can throw this object into harm’s way later.
The Debate is when your character has reacted to the catalyst and must decide how to move forward. What is key here is the decision. Even if the catalyst was something outside of your protagonist’s control, you need to make your protagonist feel like an active participant in their story. They need to make a decision and re-assess their goals as they move forward into Act II.
Debates take 1-3 chapters per point of view character (Preferably less chapters per character the more POVs you have).
If you’re sitting there thinking that your Act I is so messy, and all your characters are intertwined, and maybe you have two catalysts, and [lists a thousand other reasons here], it’s okay. Not every book will have a clean, formulaic beginning. Could this have made your life a lot easier? Absolutely! But even if you have no idea how to fix it, your story isn’t ruined. One of my soon-to-be published books has two first acts, and it’s made my editorial life hell for five years, but I’ve also made peace with it.
But don’t use this as an excuse to avoid some wonderful Act I plotting! If you’re getting feedback that readers are struggling to connect to a character and their motivations, you probably need to reassess their goals and what the character cares about in relation to the plot. If you’re getting feedback on pacing, maybe one of these sections is simply too long in relation to the others. If your first chapters are too slow and starting in the wrong place, maybe you need to give your protagonist a stronger short-term goal for their opening scene.
I hope this is helpful! Obviously, there are plenty of elements of Act I we haven’t covered, like introducing places and ideas that become important later, balancing world-building with plot, etc. But that is simply too much for one post. If you do have any advice to add, however, please do in the comments! I’d love to hear how you plot your first acts.