Setting the Stage for Story: Structuring the First Act

All you need to write a story is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The three-act structure sounds simple enough. It’s a classic, literally, originating with the theories of Aristotle and still central to much of the structural writing advice that floats around today. But drilling down into exactly how each act should work—and how to make it work for you—gets complicated fast.

Recently, I’ve focused on becoming more intentional in how I deploy story structure, studying popular craft books and experimenting with their theories. This is the first in a series of blog posts discussing structural conventions and story beats in commercial genre fiction. In it, I’ll distill what I’ve learned so far and hopefully help demystify beat sheets and story structure.

Note that I’m focusing on these frameworks because they reflect the type of story structure I’m most familiar with. The same goes for genre fiction—this is my wheelhouse. There are other types of fiction, other ways to structure story, and other ways to think about the three acts. Your mileage may vary, and there are no absolutes.

Someone else’s method is just a theory you haven’t tested yet.

I’ll be touching on three-act structure, Save the Cat beats, Story Grid, and Hero’s Journey stages in this series, as well as a few notes from Romancing the Beat. I’ve played around with all of them to some degree. If you’re interested in learning structure, I’d encourage you to do the same.

At the same time, it helps to approach these ideas with curiosity and skepticism, in the spirit of experimentation. They aren’t the be-all and end-all of storytelling. In the end, they’re each just some guy’s theory about how to build a narrative.

Yes, all of them are guys and yes, I’m saying that Aristotle was also just some guy, so consider them accordingly. As you read, ask yourself what parts resonate with your creative process. Do these structural concepts inspire you and provide insight into any stubborn plot problems you’re wrestling with? If not, feel free to ignore them or put them in your back pocket until they do seem useful.

Despite what any one guide (or guy) might say, don’t take any of them as gospel. Keep what aligns with your own internal sense of how story works and discard anything that doesn’t work for you or bogs you down.

Structure is a tool, not an end in itself.

The idea of “acts” as a framework for story structure has its roots in the context of theater—Greek plays and now film. Beat sheet systems like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat developed as guides for Hollywood screenwriters. Not every convention of film works in novels, so keep that in mind when I mention beats and percentage milestones.

Structural frameworks should act as a tool, not a cage. When used judiciously, structure can help readers connect or invest in your story. However, they can easily become formulaic if you apply them too strictly, drowning out your story’s unique cadence.

Most novels don’t hew precisely to any beat sheet—nor should they. A novel’s structure serves the story, not the other way around. In fact, it’s better to treat all the beats, plot points, and structural models discussed here as guidelines, not rules.

Act 1: line up the dominoes.

With the disclaimers out of the way, let’s talk about what constitutes Act 1. Act 1 commonly refers to the first 20-25% of a novel—not the first third as one might think, but the first quarter. It sets up the characters, conflicts, and stakes for the rest of the book and often pushes the main character toward a dramatic choice or action at the end of the act.

A tabby cat with a blase expression knocks over dominos which push a toy truck to knock over more dominos and open through a gate that says "1."
Just look how much fun he’s having.

You can also think of Act 1’s overall structure in terms of inciting incident – turning point and complication – crisis – climax – resolution, as described by the Story Grid theory. Story Grid’s inventor argues that each act and scene are made up of these parts. He calls this the Five Commandments of story, but I think that’s far too prescriptive.

Interestingly, this five-part arc also corresponds closely to the five-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays. It may sound a little different, but it looks a lot like what happens within each part of the three-act model: a pattern of rising and falling action peaking at the midpoint of the act. The pattern builds and then releases tension repeatedly and to varying degrees throughout the story.

Opening image: first impressions matter.

Beginnings are challenging to write because they have a lot to accomplish. Save The Cat (again, rooted in film) describes the opening image as “the “before” picture of your hero (or world) that will transform throughout the story” and sets the tone for what’s to come. The Hero’s Journey structure calls this “the ordinary world,” the character’s normal life.

But “mundane” isn’t the right word for an opening scene. It’s also known as the “beginning hook,” because it pulls its reader in. It sets the stage for change over the course of the story.

An opening scene—ideally, the first page—performs multiple functions. It introduces or hints at the story’s premise, main character, and setting. It also nods to genre expectations, sets the story’s tone, and often establishes the voice and point of view that the reader can anticipate going forward.

Reader expectations matter here, especially in genre. For instance, SFF readers will likely expect speculative elements in the first few pages or even paragraphs. Capturing these readers’ attention requires the hint of some fantastical aspects, whether magical, technological, alien, or otherwise strange and unusual.

Winona Ryder in full goth mode as Lydia of Beetlejuice says "I myself am strange and unusual"
Some of us are just weird like that.

In romance, on the other hand, openings tend to focus more on the main character’s internal emotional state, stage of life, and/or relationship status. To me, a long-time reader of SFF, this can feel slow-paced. But romance readers want to get to know the protagonist and feel kinship with them—much like the progression of falling in love.

Even if you plan to subvert expectations, a story’s opening gives its reader an idea of what they can expect from the rest of the book. Whether you’re offering humor, dark themes, love, magic, or unease, or some mix, it’s a good idea to give them a taste of what’s in store up front—preferably from the very first lines.

The opening scene also needs to draw the reader into the story with emotional stakes that get them invested in what happens next. Especially if you are writing in a fast-paced genre, it’s a good idea to have some kind of conflict occur in the opening scene. It doesn’t have to be the main conflict of the story, but it can be related or lead into a higher-stakes dilemma.

Setup: lay the groundwork.

The setup, generally occurring in the first 10% of the story, isn’t just about background and world-building. Even more important is setting up the reader’s emotional investment in the characters and establishing the stakes. Setup that includes too much exposition risks becoming boring—there must be an emotional through-line that sets the stage for the rest of the story.

Setup is often described as the “status quo,” the character’s everyday world. I don’t find that to be the most useful definition, however, because the setup can’t be dull. It doubles down on the opening hook to reel readers in further and hold their interest for the long haul.

A picture of a brightly colored octopus, with text THESE FISH PUNS ARE KRAKEN ME UP
Sea what I did there?

To me, setup is about establishing a character who is missing something, who wants something, whose fear or love will move them toward something or hold them back. It builds strong tension between inertia and a need for drastic action or internal change. It turns over the fertile ground which the story requires to grow.

The setup, therefore, must introduce those needs, wants, shortcomings, and priorities. What does the character lack in their life? Who or what do they care about? What is their fatal flaw or emotional wound? Who are they when the story begins and how will they need to change to meet the challenges you have planned for them?

The Save the Cat best sheet also includes a setup beat which states the story’s theme. This beat theoretically occurs around 6%, about halfway between the opening and the inciting incident, though this can really vary. Often, another character will express the theme, “calling out the hero’s deeper flaw or spiritual need for change.”

The statement of theme may amount to a single line of dialogue that hints at the way the story will go. It may even point to the solution for the character’s biggest problem—but the character likely isn’t ready to hear it. Even if you don’t end up using this exact beat, intentionally incorporating theme in your first act can foreshadow the story’s resolution and add depth.

The catalyst: a spark demands reaction.

Arguably the most important part of the first act is the inciting incident, otherwise known as the catalyst or the call to adventure if you’re on a hero’s journey. It’s where things start to get complicated, dangerous, and compelling.

According to the beat sheets, the catalyst or inciting incident occurs around 10-12 percent. That means the catalyst also falls around the midpoint of Act 1. Like the Act 2 midpoint, it serves to raise the stakes, fuel dramatic tension, and jolt the character into action.

I think calling this beat the “inciting incident” can be confusing. Sometimes the true inciting incident that caused the story’s events began long before it starts. This beat, however, is really about the moment that the main character gets embroiled in the thick of it, setting them on a path from which they can’t turn back.

Later plot points tend to feel less satisfying to many readers if they don’t develop from the consequences of the main character’s choices. The inciting incident, however, is just as likely to involve an external circumstance—even a random event—that changes the character’s course or requires them to act. It breaks through the status quo of their accustomed life and demands some kind of extraordinary response.

Hamilton sings "Yo, every action has its equal and opposite reaction."

In a romance, for instance, this often marks the point at which the two leads are forced into proximity or have their meet cute. In a mystery, it’s often when a body shows up—or, if the story started with a “body drop,” it’s when the detective gets called in to investigate. It comes with significant risks for the protagonist as well as potential rewards.

In other words, the stakes are high. The protagonist faces a crucial choice: between action and inaction, between two possible paths, between vulnerability and stagnation, between a rock and a hard place. There may be significant sacrifice required—if nothing else, of their status quo, as the story’s alchemy of change begins its work on them.

Debate: what choice do they have?

The catalyst issues an urgent challenge to the character. Most of the time, though, the character will have significant reasons not to take on this challenge. As the hero’s journey tells us, they may initially refuse the call. In a romance, they often decide the other main character is the last person they should pursue (Romancing the Beat’s “No Way.”)

It’s often a sequence in which the protagonist tries to avoid becoming the protagonist. They may move through one or more of the stages of grief, trying to bargain their way out of their dilemma, getting angry at the messenger, denying it’s happening at all, and mourning what they’ve lost or are about to lose.

They’re trying desperately to hold onto what they know, the world of the opening image, the self that is due for change. This is a great time to put your character’s “fatal flaw” on display. They also may encounter warnings about the cost of indulging that flaw, of failing to change.

Save the Cat calls this beat “Debate.” It makes up the second half of the first act, from around 12-20%. Typically, it hikes the stakes of the central dilemma further by showing that the protagonist’s initial reaction to the catalyst may have severe consequences.

It’s also a time to demonstrate why this story centers on this particular character. After all, most people don’t choose to meet a call to action. Most of us see a possible adventure and run the other direction.

Sparks fly behind her as Taylor Swift says "I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative."
Big main character energy.

Your character may even start out the same way, a sensible sort who would like nothing more than to nope right out of the narrative. What then separates them from just some nobody, a walk-on extra, a minor character? What ultimately forces them to step up? Why is the story about them?

The debate explores the internal motivations that drive the protagonist to first deny and ultimately take up this new challenge. It also may add to the external forces pushing them in new directions or blocking their goals. In the end, however, it’s usually the character’s choice to act that sets them apart and makes the story interesting.

Break into Act 2: to be continued.

A character’s reasons for making this particular course of action are crucial. What matters to them enough to take the risk? What forces them to set out on the path to change? What do they stand to lose—or gain?

This raises questions of character agency: not choosing can be a choice, but is there a price for inaction? The consequences of refusing the call might well fall on someone or something they care about, pushing them over the edge into the very circumstance they sought to avoid.

The first act may well show the character as just someone who has things happen to them. The rest of the story tells how they become someone who tries to make things happen, and either wins or fails. That starts with the protagonist making a hard choice and crossing the threshold, stepping past the point of no return.

Homer Simpson drives over a bridge in a go cart and throws a match behind it, lighting it on fire
So long, Act 1!

When the character accepts their protagonist role with a choice that sets the plot moving, that shift marks the end of the first act. Save the Cat calls it the “Break Into Act 2.” It’s also called the first plot point, and it typically takes place somewhere between the 20 to 25% mark in the story.

Here’s where the fun (and games) begin. Or they will. For now, this is already longer than I expected, so more to come in the next part!

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