CLANKING OF THE CHAINS

HOW TO DEVELOP ACT 1

The first act is the most challenging. LAYLA describes her frustrations with ACT 1 from her blog, Be Not Afeard.

Act 1 can be daunting for anyone. You have a story that you want to tell, but where are the words? No where to be found, quite frankly. A few critical scenes pop up in your mind, but other than those, you have no idea where the story is headed. What do you do?

Here’s what I’ve found to work. Think about each of your main characters. Let’s say your characters are Adam, Braley, Cayla, and Daniel with Adam being your main character.

Since a novel is about the characters mostly anyway, this approach should be helpful. So we have our characters, now let’s think about the end-journey that we want each of our characters to make, individually.

1. We want Adam to slay the dragon.
2. We want Braley forgive her parents’ abandonment of her.
3. We want Cayla to overcome her indecision.
4. We want Daniel to become the rightful heir.

OK. So we have our end-goals. What is the responsibility of Act 1? Well, Act 1 is supposed to explain the conflict and show you why that conflict cannot be accomplished, to put it simply.

Think of a roller coaster. Act I would be the grinding sound of the chains right before the first drop. The clanking of the chains brings so much tension for what you know is about to come, but you can’t prevent it from happening. It’s the setup.

We have our characters, now we need to let the story structure dictate the development of that story.

Q1. Why can’t Adam slay the dragon?
A1. Because he doesn’t have the Sword of the Seven Rivers.
Act 1 will put Adam on a path to find the Sword of the Seven Rivers, which he may or may not find by the end of the Act.

Q2. Why can’t Braley understand why her parents abandoned her?
A2. Because Braley was left as an orphan and she had to fend for herself.
Now we know something about Brayley. She doesn’t want to forgive her parents for abandoning her.

Q3. Why is Cayla indecisive?
A3. Because she chose to make a decision that got her younger sister captured.
If the reader sees this in Act 1, then her indecision becomes real and experienced.

Q4. Why is Daniel not on the throne?
A4. Because his father cast him out of the kingdom at the age of ten, not wanting a weak and feeble king to rule.

These scenarios are the elements that make Act 1 the set-up. The reader must want to see how each of these characters will overcome the odds that you, the mean-old author, have placed before them.

Act 1 should end once each of these characters’ initial catalysts is on the table. So once these questions have been answered, then you can begin Act 2, which we will discuss tomorrow.

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12 thoughts on “CLANKING OF THE CHAINS

  1. Layla

    Great post 😀

    Character interviews would also be helpful in answering those questions; I discussed them briefly in yesterday’s post >> http://lalammar.net/2012/05/15/breaking-the-block/

    I think this is a good way to ensure that your setup isn’t bogged down with too many extraneous details since it’s really easy for authors to dump a bunch of exposition in that doesn’t really matter… By analyzing the MC and SC, we can keep things short and sweet.

    Thanks for the tip! 😀

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      Thanks, Layla!

      And yes, I agree. Getting to know you characters and their motivation will help with the deletion of the jargon. I know that I’ve deleted 30k+ words from the first book in the trilogy that I’m working on. I won’t have that problem with Book 2 & 3 because of the advice that you mentioned.

      Reply
  2. Ms. Nine

    Nice post. My challenge is deciding the first scene of Act 1 – multiple characters, where each faces a unique conundrum for dealing with a crisis. Who’s on first? Looking forward to reading Act 2.

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      Thanks, Ms. Nine. And yeah, that first scene is the hook. It’s so tough to have that opener that makes people hold tightly onto your book and not let go until 3 in the morning.

      Reply
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  4. Patty-chan

    Do you have a recommended length for Act 1? I’ve heard a novel is make it or break it by page 30 (not sure how what size pages we’re talking about…)

    Also, for Act I in general, could the author use a prologue and then the initial chapter to introduce the problem? In my WIP, I use the first chapter to introduce my main character and love interest, and hint at how he came under a curse (which he will spend the rest of the book learning the limits of and trying to remove). I spend the next chapter introducing relatively important side characters. Because this takes some time to do, I was thinking of using an excerpt from a later chapter as the prologue, to give the reader a glimpse at the drastic change the character will undergo.

    Reply
    1. William Stadler Post author

      prologues are cop-outs to me unless you really have no other way to delve into the back story. a prologue is a way for the narrator to grab the mic and freestyle, and many times it’s not fair to the characters.

      if you can allow the details to come from the other characters, then you will be creating a more compelling story – especially because agents will look at your first 5 pages which includes the prologue.

      my suggestion is that if you can’t find any other way to do it, then prologue it up. otherwise, create dramatic tension that forces the reader to scour your book for the details that you are holding back on.

      a recommended length for act 1 really depends on what you want to accomplish. there’s no hard rule. the hunger games has 3 acts – 9 chapters per act. collins does a great job at her set up, so it doesn’t matter how long her first act is. just make sure that if you spend a lot of time on act 1 that your act 2 better be balla’ because act 2 is what people want to see…act 3 is what people want to feel.

      Reply
    2. William Stadler Post author

      act 1 is what people want to know. act 2 is what ppl want to see and act 3 is what ppl want to feel…to reduce it to a one-liner

      Reply
      1. Patty-chan

        Yeah, I can see how a prologue would be cheating. Thanks for the tip about agents. And, looking at what I’ve assembled for my first 5 pages, it’s mostly introductions rather than tension being set up.

        Hmm… say if you were making a novel on Spider-man. If you know the beginning has to explain how he get his powers, the middle explains how his new found powers effect his relationships with others (including a love interest), and it culminates in a final battle with a villain, what would you include in the first 5 pages to draw the reader in? There’s not much tension if it’s spent introducing the characters, having the spider the bite him, and Peter having a funky spider-dream. Hence, I throw in a prologue to give a glimpse of a more experienced Spider-man using his powers. It doesn’t create a lot of tension, but it may wet the reader’s tastebuds enough for them to read on to see how the drastic change occurs.

        Reply
        1. William Stadler Post author

          if you were starting at the beginning with spiderman, then this is what i’d do.

          i would show how quirky peter is and show how he fumbles over relationships. show him getting rejecting by girls and by life, but then show why the reader should like him — because he’s a freaking genius.

          so he’s in his lab after a rejection working on something amazing, and he’s reaching on teh shelf for a beaker or something and BAM, he’s bitten by a spider.

          at first it’s nothing, but he has to miss school the next day – which he never does, because he’s so sick.

          now the way you write this could be really tense. but what you’re doing is making the reader like peter. that’s a different kind of tension, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that agents are looking for.

          if your character is not compelling, then you story will flounder.

          another approach would be to use flashbacks. show him using his powers in the first few pages, and then have him get captured or something like that. while he’s in the enemy’s grasp, he reflects on who he was. this is another approach, but remember remember remember — even in a flashback, the reader needs to feel the tension. this is not a time to interject a prologue — or what I’ll call an interlogue. this is time to still make the reader incapable of pulling your book down.

          Reply
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