I don't know about you, but when I start a project, I know much, much, much more about the first act than any of the rest of it. I can see the mountains in the distance, but at first, I know much more about the basic set up and characters. So it makes sense to start at the beginning, and fill out the Elements of Act One.
What actually goes into a first act?
The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.
When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.
- Opening image
- Meet the hero or heroine
- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- Hero/ine's ghost or wound
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/ Call to Adventure
- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
- State the theme/what’s the story about?
- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Meet the Love interest (and please don't "Meet Cute")
- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)
- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)
- Central Question
- Plan/Central Story Action (may not be introduced until early Act II)
- Sequence One climax
- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)
- Crossing the Threshold or Into the Special World (which we'll talk about later)
Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.
Let’s break these things down.
Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.
The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on the audience.
The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.
Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourself trying to concoct a great first line, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene LOOKS like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety - because you're focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book. What do we see? How does it make us feel?
(I'll talk more about this in posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING.)
MEETING THE HERO/INE
Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.
In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of
INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.
The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my multiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want. This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?
But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.
One of the great examples of all time of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.
But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.
In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”
It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.
But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.
And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.
Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.
It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonist comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.
But even in a romantic comedy, where the inner and outer desire might not be so deep, there can be a lot of meaning and change. In Romancing The Stone, Joan Wilder's obvious plot-driven outer desire is to save her sister - she's a good person and she's already got an unselfish drive. But she's also got a personal outer desire: for a great love with the man of her dreams, the one she keeps writing about.
But her inner need is to become the self-realized woman she is capable of being: the intrepid, independent, and loving woman she writes about. Through the course of the movie we see her becoming that woman before our eyes, and we see her flawed real-life man fall in love with her because of that independence and adventurousness. She gets her man by finding herself.
Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (and this is important to think about from the very beginning of Act One, since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning.)
The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.
So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up. Once you know that, you can work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.
INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE
This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.
In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)
In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.
In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.
In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.
In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”
In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).
Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. They must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.
Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. Let's face it - we all tend to resist change and the unknown, right? So much easier to just see what's on TV tonight.
In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.
The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.
Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.
Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.
Again, optional, but it's rare not to have one! This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, a mentor, or the actual villain.
Obviously, meeting the love of your life is an extremely significant moment and it should be treated as such in your script or book. Unfortunately this usually translates into appalling "meet cute" scenes in which - more times than I can freaking count - the hero spills coffee on the heroine, or vice-versa, ruining her or his new suit just before that big job interview, so the heroine has an excuse to hate the hero even though he offers to pay for the suit. Or vice-versa.
I'm not going to go into my whole rant about "meet cute" right now, I'm just bringing it up as an example hoping you will cringe as much as I do and vow to do better. A lot better. As always, I suggest you make a list of your favorite meetings of soon-to-be lovers, and see what great storytellers do with the moment - whether it be comic, erotic, or downright bizarre.
Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. This is one of the most dynamic storytelling tricks you can employ in your writing, in fact, because it engages your reader or audience fully in the action of the story.
Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.
Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning
STATEMENT OF THEME:
A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.
FIRST ACT CLIMAX/CENTRAL QUESTION:
We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.
I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?
(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)
It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.
Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.
What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?
(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)
Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?
It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”
Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).
Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.
Obviously your ASSIGNMENT is to create index cards for the first act, all the while of course making index cards for other parts of your story as they occur to you.
And if you don't know what an element is yet, like the opening image, or the call to adventure, then I strongly suggest that you just write a card that says OPENING IMAGE. And one for CALL TO ADVENTURE, and pin it up there on your structure grid in approximately the right place. Our creative minds are so very eager to do this work for us that if you just acknowledge that you need a scene like that, your subconscious will jump right to work and figure one out for you. I swear. It is one of the great miracles of writing.
If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, check out these breakdowns of the first acts of several movies, identifying these steps:
CHINATOWN Act One Breakdown
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE - Act One Breakdown
Romancing the Stone
I'll do Plan, Central Question, and Central Story Action in a separate post, because those are just that important.
So I’m interested in all questions and comments, of course, but I’m always looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict. Got any for me?
PREVIOUS NANOWRIMO PREP POSTS:
What is the Three Act Structure and Why Should You Care?
The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure
The Index Card Method and Structure Grid
Story Elements Checklist for Brainstorming Index Cards
All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.
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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.
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