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Story Structure 101 – Act 1 Is The Reader’s Big Why

This is the first post in a mini-series, where I will highlight the main characteristics of the three main Acts of the 3-Act Story Structure to help you familiarise yourself with this powerful storytelling tool. It will be a sort of story structure 101. What you absolutely need to know to handle a story effectively and in awareness.

The 3-Act Story Structure is one of the most effective narrative structures and, I believe, one of the most powerful.
Straightforward and simple, the 3-Act Story Structure comprises a beginning, middle (with a big crisis) and end. This sequence is called an Arc.

Arcs are crucial in storytelling because they appear in different places and levels throughout the story. They give solidity, dynamicity and depth. – and complexity, becasue they may intertwine in very intricate ways.

Understanding the 3-act Story Structure will help you better understand the story mechanisms and grasp the unfolding of the events more securely.
Once this structure becomes second nature to you, you’ll be able to build any kind of story, even the more complex, without losing pieces or messing threads up.

Let’s begin!

What is the purpose of Act I?

Act I introduces the reader to the story and provides all the essential information about how the story stands when it opens.
It grounds the reader in that place and that situation. When the main character appears, the reader will be able to understand their desires, the stakes, the problems, the central crisis, and especially its magnitude.

Therefore, the main purposes of Act I are:

1. Introducing the initial situation

    In general, stories start in a place of balance. There’s a status quo that is satisfying for the protagonist, to the point they’d be happy to go on with that situation indefinitely. But there’s also a potential imbalance because something inside the protagonist is not quite at peace.

    This dissatisfaction or uncertainty allows the story to exist.

    2. Revealing the protagonist’s desires

      What is that potential imbalance that doesn’t allow the protagonist to really be at peace?

      A burning desire.

      The protagonist desires something – very much.

      Narratively, it’s called the object of desire, but it may not be an object at all. It may be “living happily ever after with their loved ones”. It may be achieving self-esteem. And, of course, it may also be an actual object, like a magical amulet.

      When the story opens, the protagonist either has or is close to achieving this desire or is in a position to achieve it eventually. If nothing changes, the protagonist will achieve what they desire at some point in the future.

      Note that desires may work backwards, too. The protagonist may be avoiding something. For example, they don’t feel like addressing a problem, and the situation allows them to do so comfortably.

      3. Revealing the antagonist

        But the situation will change. The balance (sometimes the lame balance) that characterises the story’s opening will be disrupted, creating the story.

        What disrupts the balance?

        The appearance of the antagonist.

        The most common scenario is that the antagonist desires the protagonist’s same object of desire.

        The protagonist and antagonist may be in love with the same person. Or the antagonist may get in the protagonist’s way to success — for example, the antagonist may sabotage the protagonist’s self-esteem by being bossy in the workplace. Or it may be that the antagonist forces the protagonist to face whatever they are avoiding. For example, the antagonist may create in the present a situation very similar to the past situation that gave the protagonist the trauma they need to deal with.

        Whatever the antagonist does, his/her action discontinues the balanced situation in which the protagonist has so far lived and forces them to take action to regain that balance.

        The antagonist’s first action against the protagonist is the first crisis — the inciting incident. That’s where the story arc begins.

        Before we go on, how can the First Act help you achieve all of this?

        Can you answer this question?

        Story Structure 101 – Act 1 Is The Reader's Big Why – Why should they read your story? What is their payback? Is your story a good investment of time? #creativewriting #writingtips Share on X

        How Act I helps the reader enter the story

        Pinterest Pin. The title reads, "Story Structure 101 - 3-Act Story Structure: Act I". The image is a cloud of words with a black background. The words are in different shades of yellow and orange.

        Never underestimate the importance of Act I. Readers will decide whether to keep reading or abandon the story based on how Act I makes them feel.

        If readers feel confused, uninvolved, or detached from the characters’ feelings and desires, they will probably leave the story and never return.

        If, on the other hand, they fall in love with the characters and want them to succeed, if they care for them because they are involved in the characters’ lives, misfortunes and yearnings, you bet they will do everything they can to see the end of the story as soon as they can.

        What can Act I do to facilitate this? How can we help the reader to care?

        1. Meeting the main cast

          Stories are journeys. Readers may encounter characters – including relevant ones – at any point along the way, but most of the main cast will be there from the beginning.

          Act I is where you get to meet them.

          ‘Meet them’ doesn’t only mean encountering them, learning what they look like or have been through. It means learning about their soul, about their intimate desires and fears.

          This moves the story and, therefore, is what the reader wants to know.

          2. Learning about the central conflict

            Conflict is at the heart of any story. It arises from the clash between the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s desires.

            But remember that it is an object of desire. It’s something essential, something life-changing, life-shattering. It’s something the protagonist wants to grasp and hold close to their chest.

            The reader will encounter the protagonist, the antagonist and their desires in Act I, and by its end, they will want to actively help the protagonist achieve their goal. That’s how they become invested.

            3. Grounding the story

              No reader likes things happening randomly out of the blue, especially if those events are crucial to the story’s conclusion. Every time readers encounter a new idea or change in the situation, their suspension of disbelief is tested. If the idea doesn’t pass the test, the reader’s investment in the story will shatter.

              Ideas and events should always appear logical and pertinent. They should grow organically throughout the story. This is the only way to make readers accept them, no matter how improbable.

              Act I is the perfect place to plant the seeds of what will happen in the rest of the story. If you plant the seeds strategically in a way that will make sense of all the subsequent actions, the reader will stay with you to the end.

              Story Structure 101 – Act 1 is an intro to the story and the characters (especially their motives and desires). It's were the inciting incident, the big crises of the beginning, lives #creativewriting #writingtips Share on X

              The structure of Act I

              All three acts tend to be split in two by the climax, a crucial crisis that characterises that section of the story.

              This is what it looks like for Act I.

              Part one – The story’s opening.

              What we normally call ‘the beginning of the story’ is most often actually its opening.
              The doors of the story open, and the reader sees the place and the situation for the first time, meets the characters and learns about their desires.

              The story’s opening is an introduction that often happens in a situation of balance and offers the reader a vision of the protagonist’s life as it is.

              Here’s the best place to introduce the setting and the most relevant information. Here, we meet the main cast and learn about their lives, personalities, and desires, which will expose their motives for action.

              But remember that information can be introduced in many ways, not necessarily linearly. Some stories open right into the action (in media res) and defer the information to later.

              Part two – The inciting incident

              This is the real beginning of the story.

              The inciting incident in the crisis that changes the setup altogether. It shakes the protagonist’s life and discontinues the balance of the opening.
              After this, the protagonist will only attain their desires if they do something proactively.

              From this moment onward, the story will continuously solicit the protagonist, forcing them to make decisions and change the course of the story according to their desires and their need to attain them.

              The inciting incident is the high crisis of Act I, its climax.

              After it, the story moves into Act II.

              How long should Act I be?

              There is no one answer to this. Stories may have long introductions or start in media res and everything in between. It’s mostly the author’s call and depends on the story structure.

              The genre may sometimes dictate whether a story starts in media res or with a long introduction (mysteries, for example, tend to start in media res after a murder has occurred). The complexity of the plot may influence the length of this Act.

              As a mere indication, Act I shouldn’t take more than 20% of the entire story. Exceeding that percentage may produce an unbalance. It also may create a sense of stillness and give the reader the impression that nothing relevant is happening.

              Again, as an indication, the inciting incident should happen around the 12% mark. That’s when the reader should have all the information they need to invest themselves in the story.
              The inciting incident is where the story begins, where things start to move. If it takes too long, the reader may lose attention.

              Act I may be the least exciting of a story’s three acts, but it is fundamental in making the other two involving, coherent, and unputdownable.

              A solid Act I will allow Act II and Act III to shine, moving crisply and without baggage. It will really make a difference.

              I hope this helped you make sense of Act I.

              If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below.

              I’ll see you soon to discuss Act II.

              If you want to start implementing what you’ve learned in this post, grab my free mini guide to building a solid 3-act Story Structure.

              Image of a book and a worksheet with the words "You can finish your story!" on them. The book is open to a page with the words "Create your story with intention". The worksheet has the following headings: Beginning, Act-Beginning, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution."


              • Vince Rockston
                Posted June 20, 2024 at 15:50

                This is very good but comes a bit late for me as my MS is essentially finished. It doesn’t follow a 3-Act structure; it has a prologue, 4 parts and an epilogue. But it’s historical fiction, verging on literary. Would you say the 3-Act structure is particularly appropriate for novels but not necessarily for other genres?

                • Post Author
                  Posted June 20, 2024 at 19:01

                  Hi Vince. Thanks so much for stopping by :-)
                  I would say that the 3-act story structure works fantastically for all stories based on plot (stories based on stream of conscience, for example, don’t really use this structure most of the time). But keep in mind that an essence of these structure also exists in other structures.
                  For example, I normally use the 7-part story structure, which is basically a more detailed 3-act story structure.
                  I suspect that your story in 5 parts would fall quite nicely in the 3-act story structure.
                  If you’ll read all three parts of my mini-series, I’d love to hear what you think :-)

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