The Three Acts: Act One
Every story follows a pattern. There is a beginning, middle, and an end. If you look in a little more detail there are also key points that crop up throughout a story, even if the writer didn’t intend to put them there. They just happen by themselves.
Sometimes you read, or even write a story, and find the structure is lacking something, but it’s hard to figure out what. Usually that means one of the key points in the narrative arc is missing. The best course of action, therefore, is to go back to basics and look at what makes a story.
This series of three essays will be detailing the basic plot points that make up the three act structure, and identifying the patterns that naturally occur throughout a story. This essay deals with Act One.
The first act is where you introduce the characters and their situations. It is, fairly obviously, the beginning of the story. That being said, it does not have to occur at the start, but in terms of the overall narrative this is where the tale commences.
Every first act consists of four key elements, commonly referred to as the Beginning, the Inciting Incident, the Predicament and the Lock-In. Each is vital, as they all contain essential parts that will propel a story forward.
In any story you need to introduce the world in which the story takes place. This can be gradually revealed over time, rather than a massive exposition dump in the opening chapter, but as the writer of the story, and therefore the creator of the world, you need to know every detail. Frank Herbert, for example, opens Dune with the following fictional excerpt:
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.”
– from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan
From this short paragraph you can glean so much about the setting and the world (or worlds) in which this story takes place. There are political, social and theological elements at play; plus talk of the Muad’Dib, who we learn is a man from Caladan who belongs on Dune. The rest of the opening chapter slowly unpacks more information about everything covered in this opening section, but as a reader you have already learnt enough to gain a feel for the universe in which it exists.
Another major part of the beginning is to bring in the theme or themes that will run throughout the story. In the opening sequence of The Matrix you hear a phone call about ‘The One’, watch the camera enter into a screen of computer code, hear the dial-up tone of old-fashioned internet, and then are brought into a night-time world of Agents who possess supreme authority and are chasing a rogue woman using exceptional martial arts abilities. Every theme in the film is perfectly summed up in the first minute of screen time, setting the tone for the rest of the story.
Obviously you cannot introduce a story without also bringing in the main character or characters. This is where you create the status quo; the normal, everyday existence where they dwell. In Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, that is a world of Ikea furniture, photocopied work days and insomnia. For Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games it is a dystopian society where an annual game sets teenagers against each other, Battle Royale style, to keep some form of peace and prevent an uprising. The status quo does not have to be normal to us, but it must be normal to your characters. It is the life they live.
Introducing your main character or characters also allows the opportunity to identify their main weakness or weaknesses. The aforementioned Katniss Everdeen loves her sister and has a lack of respect for authority and the totalitarian rule, something we understand about her almost immediately. That, fairly obviously, comes into play later in the story, both getting her into and out of the main narrative arc. Neo, in The Matrix, does not commit to his job, or to life. This is shown in the scene where his boss chastises him for being repeatedly late. Neo also believes in the rules, even though he breaks them as a night-time hacker, as we see when he demands a phone call from the Agents or gets scared of heights. That ingrained belief in the rules holds him back in his character progression, much to the frustration of others.
The elements that make up the beginning can be held back until much later in the story, or can occur before we join the action. Fight Club starts near the end, then backtracks to fill us in on how the narrator got to that point. Even if you don’t spell them out on the page, or you reorder your story like Reservoir Dogs to hide the beginning later in the narrative, you still need to know what these elements are and how they apply to your tale.
The Inciting Incident
This is the moment that starts your narrative. It is the thing that changes the status quo, sending your character into the story proper. With the Inciting Incident you announce the conflict and bring in the main tension of the story. Without it there is no reason for the story to exist, no cause, no purpose. Every story has an Inciting Incident, even if it does not appear in the story itself, and each character has one that launches their character arc.
Continuing the example of The Matrix, the Inciting Incident for Neo is the moment that Trinity hacks into his computer and tells him to follow the white rabbit. That is when he steps outside his comfort zone and enters a different world, meeting Trinity and later making contact with Morpheus. The Inciting Incident for the story, however, occurs earlier, when the Agents acquire Neo’s name by tapping Trinity’s phone call in the opening moments of the film. That is what causes Trinity to contact Neo directly, puts the Agents on his path, and incentivises Morpheus to bring Neo out of the Matrix. It is also the moment that sets Agent Smith on his character arc. Both Trinity and Morpheus have an Inciting Incident, but it happens before the story starts, when they actually find the person they believe to be ‘The One’. As such, each one of the four main characters has an event that launches their own personal journey, and the story as a whole has its own Inciting Incident that creates the tension in the plot.
A different example would be The Bourne Identity. Here the Inciting Incident for the plot is the opening scene, where the as yet unnamed protagonist is shot on board a boat and falls into the sea. That causes the protagonist to lose his memory, kick-starting the narrative as the overall status quo is upset. Interestingly, this creates a new status quo for the protagonist, as he is now an amnesiac and so that is all he knows. His Inciting Incident comes with the discovery of a microfilm (or laser pen in the film) implanted under the skin of his hip, which gives him both a name—Jason Bourne—and the access codes for a Swiss bank. The name, and the code, launch him on his quest to discover who he really is, why he can speak several languages and fight like a professional, and find out what is in that bank. Later in the story we meet Marie. Her status quo is shattered when she meets Jason Bourne, her Inciting Incident, and so begins her journey.
Every protagonist needs something to work towards. The Predicament is their objective, their target. This is your opportunity to set the stakes.
The narrator of Fight Club wants to sleep. To sleep, he discovers, he needs to cry. To cry he must attend support groups. Marla Singer, another faker, also attends the groups, which means he can’t cry, so he can’t sleep. What the narrator really wants, however, is to escape. He just doesn’t know it.
Katniss Everdeen lives in a dystopian future. She wants, more than anything, to protect her family, especially her little sister. That is her Predicament, her objective throughout the first act. Then, the Inciting Incident occurs the moment her sister’s name is chosen to fight in the Hunger Games, which forces Katniss to make a decision.
This is the moment that occurs sometime after the Inciting Incident, where the protagonist makes a decision from which there is no turning back. They are locked into the plot, whether that is to rescue the princess or get away with murder.
For Katniss Everdeen, her moment of being locked in happens right after the Inciting Incident. Her sister’s name is read out, and to save her Katniss volunteers. She is now stuck with that decision, and she cannot go back on it.
When Neo takes the red pill in The Matrix, he too is locked in. Jason Bourne goes to the bank and accesses the safety deposit box, proving to the CIA that he is not in fact dead, but very much alive and potentially dangerous. That is the Lock-In, the point of no return.
The Lock-In serves two purposes in the narrative structure. Firstly, the protagonist is compelled to continue their journey, forcing them into action. Secondly, after the Lock-In, the story itself can move into the second act, as the first has been completed.
These four points will all occur naturally in the first act of any story, and although the order doesn’t always matter, their existence does. They can happen off the page, before the story starts, but they must be there. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has all four occur before the story begins, and we join the tale some way into the second act. They are all still there, though, hidden in thoughts and dripped into scenes and conversations. As the backstory of the man and his boy unfolds, we discover what sent them on their journey and why.
You may find when writing that you have already included these four points and not realised. Just make sure they are there, or else there is no reason for your story to be.
Next: Act Two
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.