Writing Act I: The Beginning – How the Story Starts

act I: beginning
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The beginning explains who the story is about and how they got into the story-worthy problem situation. This part consists of five components:

(1) setup: the information needed to get the story rolling,
(2) mood/tone: give a sense of place, mood, texture and theme,
(3) the inciting incident: this problem gets the protagonist thrown towards the story-problem,
(4) The story-worthy problem,
(5) the turning point: the moment the story takes a new direction.

The beginning of the story has several tasks to complete.

First it has to present the story-world (tell the reader the setting and time).  Introduce your main character as quickly as you can. This gives the reader someone to care about. If possible, introduce other characters so your main character has people to bond with. Establish the tone (is it action packed? Is it funny? dramatic?) Lastly, it has to introduce the opposition. The protagonist’s world is turned upside down by the opposition. What (or who) is it that your protagonist must overcome? Who is responsible for the road blocks in the protagonist’s way? Lastly, it should still manage to do the most important thing as well, get the reader hooked.

The length

In total, Act I should take up about one-fifth of the book. You risk losing your reader to boredom if it takes longer than that to establish your main characters and the situation. Any longer than a fifth and the story drags on and on without really getting started.

The event sequence

First we see our protagonist in his ordinary world (however not-ordinary this world may be for the reader, it’s normal life for him.)

Then something happens that turns his world upside-down, disturbing the status quo. This event somehow poses a threat or challenge to the protagonist. This initial disturbance creates interest in the reader and it is a promise that the story will be interesting enough to keep reading. It is not the story-worthy problem yet.

Examples of initial disturbances:

  • A midnight phone-call
  • A letter with interesting news
  • The boss calls the protagonist into his office
  • The car breaks down in the middle of nowhere
  • The protagonist wins the lottery
  • The protagonist witnesses something horrific


Take these five to outline your act I

Step 1 – Think of a situation your protagonist could be in…

which directly leads into the final confrontation or crisis. (Not an idea, not a description, a situation.)

Step 2 – Think what your protagonist could be doing…

in the context of that situation, which would directly show, with little or no explanation from you, exactly what kind of person he or she is.

Step 3 – give your characters objects to be associated with, to carry, to use

In acting, these are called props.  Props can demonstrate some essential truth about a character without the need of blocks of description slowing down the pace.  A good prop is a kind of visual shorthand and can be worth a thousand words. Play with different ideas until you find the right kind of prop for your character.

Step 4 – Have your characters enter talking and doing…

in a significant and characteristic way. Descriptions of what they look like can wait, or even be left out entirely. Only describe things if they are important to what’s going to happen in the rest of the story.

Step 5 – think about the promise you’re making to your readers.

The way you open your novel sets the tone for the rest of the story. You can choose to write a high action intense novel full of huge  events(called a volcano opening), ripe for a screenplay or promise a more subtle unusual concept such as an interesting concept or an exceptionally unusual character. A volcano opening is sure to grab the reader’s attention (for as long as the action lasts).
Another way to open is through a revealing opening, promising something worth watching to come. It is simple and direct, free of description, explanation and hype. The situation speaks for itself. These kind of openings hook the reader.

If you are going to show a change from a pre-existing norm (contrast before/now, then/now) then showing the norm is vital. However, demonstrate the norm in the briefest possible way. A paragraph or two in a short story or a page or two in a novel. Do not start your novel with the norm, start with action first. You can also display the norm through characters by having a ‘normal’ character the reader can identify with and use to contrast against the more unusual character.

Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques