Most writers either love or hate writing the beginning of their stories. Some feel intimidated by the blank screen or paper. Others are so excited to start their story that the words just start flowing.
Three Act Structure
All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. If you’re paying attention, you can tell when a story shifts from “set up” to “action” and then switching gears after the climax to the resolution.
- Act I: 25%
- Act II: 50%
- Act III: 25%
What’s more important than the exact lengths is that you hit all the goals for each act before moving to the next one.
For this writing prompt, we’ll be talking about the first act of your story, rather than opening lines. Writing the perfect opening sentence for your story really depends on having finished your entire story and knowing exactly what it’s about. It may just be the most difficult one to write in the entire piece.
(See the list of resources at the end of the article for suggestions.)
Beware of Backstory
Many authors believe that in order for the reader to care about their characters, she must know every detail about the character’s past. Thus, the first several paragraphs — the first chapter even — is backstory, a retelling of the character’s life thus far tied up in a nice bow.
What’s the problem?
- Why should the reader care about your character’s childhood if she hasn’t really met him yet?
- Summarized backstory is boring.
Better options for handling backstory include:
- Flashbacks. See our That Was Then writing prompt for more info.
- Dialogue. See our Say What writing prompt for more info.
- In bits and pieces. See this blog post by James Scott Bell about giving backstory in a strategic way.
Backstory is important; don’t get me wrong. You’ll want to get enough of your main characters’ histories conveyed to the reader during Act I, just don’t do it all in your first chapter before the story has even gotten started!
Five Act I Missions
According to Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering and the StoryFix blog, there are five missions for the first act:
1. Introducing the Hero
One of the biggest problem authors have with this step is saying too much and not letting the reader meet the hero throughout the entire story. The reader needs to get to know the hero in his normal, everyday life before all the bad stuff that’s about to happen to him.
She also needs to see the hero’s flaw, even if he doesn’t know it exists. The reader needs to identify with the hero somehow, to feel empathy for him. If the reader doesn’t care about your hero, she’s not going to care about what happens to him, and she probably won’t finish reading your story.
2. Hooking the Reader
The hook is what happens very early in the story. Something has to happen to bring the reader in. This isn’t the main crisis of the story, but it can be related.
Example: The appearance of Dobby at 4 Privet Drive in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The main crisis of the story hasn’t begun yet, but right away Harry has to deal with this strange little creature who is intent on making things difficult for him.
3. Establishing the Stakes
Throughout Act I, you have to show the reader what the hero could lose if the story goal is not reached. What makes it important for him to succeed?
Example: What will happen if the Chamber of Secrets is opened again? What could Harry lose? What are the larger stakes? Hogwarts could close, and then he’d be forced to live with his aunt and uncle again. Students are being petrified. How long will it be before one is killed? What will happen to Ginny if Harry doesn’t stop Tom Riddle’s memory?
Notice that in Act I, we don’t know anything about the Chamber of Secrets, let alone about Tom Riddle’s memory and Ginny’s contribution to the plot. But what do we see? We see Harry desperately wanting to get back to Hogwarts. We see him more comfortable in the magical world than the muggle world. We see him unhappy living with his aunt and uncle. We see how important his friends are to him.
J.K. Rowling doesn’t come out and say, “Look at all Harry could lose if he fails.” It comes out through the story itself. By the time the Chamber of Secrets is mentioned, we know full-well what’s important to Harry.
4. Foreshadowing the Conflict
Foreshadowing is hinting at what’s to come. During Act I, you should be foreshadowing the conflict that is about to come as well as events that happen through the rest of the story. Foreshadowing is tricky and sometimes best done in a revision, after you know exactly how your story will unfold.
Example: The Harry Potter series is chock-full of foreshadowing, some of which is very subtle. In Chamber of Secrets, we can tell something is off about Professor Lockheart right away even if we don’t know what. Although Ginny naturally becomes a larger character due to her now joining Harry, Ron, and Hermoine at Hogwarts, it also foreshadows her becoming not only a key character in Chamber of Secrets, but an important character to Harry in the overall series. A very obvious foreshadowing is Dobby’s warning to Harry.
5. Preparing for the Conflict
Act I is all about setting up the story. It sets the tone of the entire book, and every piece of it leads up to the final moment of Act I: the First Plot Point.
First Plot Point - the moment when something enters the story in a manner that affects the hero’s status and plans and beliefs, forcing her or him to take action in response. (Larry Brooks)
The First Plot Point is where your story shifts from Act I to Act II and the real story begins.
Resources and References
- Stein on Writing by Sol Stein (good discussion on opening sentences & more)
- Discussion about opening sentences at Write On Con.
- Storyfix.com blog and/or Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
- Plot vs. Character by Jeff Gerke
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Submitting Your Story
- Post it on a website such as fanfiction.net, LiveJournal, your blog, etc. Be sure whatever site you choose does not require users to login in order to read your story.
- Email the link to your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you don’t want to post your story on a website, you can email it to email@example.com. Please use DOC or PDF format only. If you wish to remain anonymous, please let me know when you send it (and don’t include your name in the file).
- Stories are due by 11:59PM PST on September 30th.