Remember back to when I was explaining the elements of a scene (part 1) and I showed you the picture of what the structure of a scene looked like? That is also the basic structure of your story. It is divided into three parts, and each of the three has their own importance in the crafting of your story.
Act 1, I would argue, is the one that holds all the cards. This is the section of your story in which your readers will decide if it is good enough to continue reading or not. Here, the readers are either going to connect to your characters and be willing to sacrifice hours and hours with their eyes glued to a book, or they’re going to turn up their noses and pick up another story to read. This is because in Act 1, the readers will be presented with your main characters, some history about those characters, the rules and laws of your story, and the inciting incident. That’s a lot to take in in the first 50 pages or so, and if it isn’t done properly, readers will lose interest.
Hopefully, you all have fleshed out your characters using character biographies. If not, I’d hop to it since this can be a crucial step in creating and maintaining realistic and reliable characters. (Here’s a Blank Character Bio that you can download and use–don’t worry; it’s free!) Now that you have your characters all fleshed out and ready to go, you have to introduce them.
A nice way in which you can do this while showing your character’s personality is by introducing your character doing something important to them. If you have a librarian, introduce her tending to her books in the library. If you have a barista, have him making the best cup of coffee yet. Feel free to use your characters’ personalities to show how they think. Do they love what they are doing? Do they feel obligated to do what they are doing? Do they not want to be doing this but have to or something terrible will happen? It’s all up to you.
You can also introduce them with dialogue. I do all the time–but you have to be sure that whatever they are saying mirrors their personality. If you begin with a character picking on another, the reader will automatically assume that he is a bully. Word choice is also crucial. If your character is a surgeon, she will most likely use jargon. If they are highly educated, they will use big words (correctly, that is). The same goes if your character hasn’t had an education. They wouldn’t speak like an educated person would they? Not unless they were super geniuses. You get my point.
The reason you have to be so careful when introducing your characters is because this is the first impression for your readers. What the readers infer from this instance will shadow your characters from here to the end of the book.
This one can be a tricky one. In order for your readers to feel invested in your characters, you need to offer the characters’ backgrounds. There’s a catch, however. You don’t want to lose your reader in a plethora of background that could easily be revealed later in the story. You only want to show the reader the background that highlights your characters’ good and bad traits while being able to tie in with the events to come.
So, let’s say that Bobby is a baseball star. You introduce him as he’s hitting a home run in the final stretch of the game with the bases loaded. That’s good. Now, you know that the inciting incident that sparks the conflict is that Bobby is going to be accused of throwing a career-defining game for $20,000. In order for the scandal to seem plausible, the reader must have some form of proof that Bobby was or was not able to do this. For example, if the reader learns that Bobby had been drafted into the Major Leagues from college where he had maintained his spot on the team through straight A’s and scholarship he probably didn’t do it, and your story would be rather short. However, if the reader learns that Bobby was about to be kicked off the team–regardless of skill–since he was failing a class and he plagiarized a major paper in order to boost his grade and stay…the seed of doubt will be there. It doesn’t matter if Bobby threw the game or not; he has to battle his way to innocence and prove he didn’t do it. Now THAT would make for an entertaining story.
The trick it to show just enough of the character’s background in order for the reader to feel invested, but not enough to where the reader feels suffocated. Also note that if you have background to show that doesn’t fit with the initial introduction (like Bobby hitting a home run), it’s fine to add it in a bit later. I wouldn’t have Bobby be thinking about the paper that he plagiarized as he’s running the bases. I’d have him think about it as he’s gazing at his trophies, contemplating everything he had to do in order to be where he is today.
The Rules and Laws of Your Story
Basically what this means is that you orient your reader with the normality of your story. Is it in the mountains? Is the climate dry? What planet is it on? What’s the temperature? The point of this is to know every way in which your setting can be different from your readers’ and tell them so. This also goes with any governmental style you want to have and any other big changes. Magic is a big one now-a-days. Is it allowed? Are there different types? The list goes on.
The reader must know where the story is taking place and how it differs from the normal world within the first act. Think about it. If you had invested 50 pages of your life into Bobby’s world and you knew how things worked and what was expected from the setting and the people, you’d be upset if Bobby could suddenly make fire dance on his fingertips. If magic had not been mentioned before, the reader will not be expecting to see it. And if the reader doesn’t expect to see it, odds are that the sudden changes would dissuade your readers from continuing.
This comes at the end of Act 1. This is the one thing that sparks the conflict for the rest of the book. Bobby’s inciting incident would be when he is accused of throwing the game for $20,000. This must come at the end of the act, though. You don’t want to start the conflict without knowing who all will be reacting to it, and you don’t want to start the main action without having established what is or isn’t normal for your story.
Always remember that the characters must feel strongly about the incident in order for the rest of the plot to have meaning. What’s the point of a story about Bobby who, let’s say, breaks his bat? Unless the bat was meaningful to him, he’s just going to get a new one without fuss. What is at stake for your characters in order for them to care? Is their life on the line? The lives of their loved ones? Do they have a prideful vendetta? It’s all up to you, and if you’ve given just the right amount of history and have successfully enticed the readers, they will care about the incident just as much as the characters do.
Everything you create up until this point should be designed to not only show the readers the characters, but should also have them invest themselves in your writing with clear perceptions of what is accepted and what is not.
I know it’s taken me a while to get this written, but here it is. I hope it makes up for my absence for the past couple weeks.
Thanks for reading!