“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
– Opening line, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Monday, July 9, 2018
The Opening Act: Setting the Stage
As simple as a beginning this may be, it prompts the reader to move forward, to find out just what a hobbit is, why it lives in a hole, and so forth. For whatever may come next, if that first line does not convince the reader to move forward, they won’t read the rest of the book. This is how the opening act has to start. The first line needs to prompt the reader to move to the second, just as the first chapter has to prompt the reader to read the second chapter. But there’s more to the opening act than that.
In the classic three-act structure, the opening act has a few, very specific features. First and foremost, it needs to establish the setting and all the important elements required to get things rolling. We don’t need to know everything about our protagonist, but we need to discover the parts necessary in the run-up to the inciting event.
The inciting event? A critical element of the first act is the inciting event –the event that spurs our character’s journey. While the writer clearly knows what makes this the pivotal kickoff of the adventure, they need to inform the reader about why this is important to the character. If the inciting event is our protagonist’s wife leaving him, then the writer needs to offer elements that reveal why this is such a shock. If the main character saw his wife’s departure as inevitable, is this really an inciting event? The writer needs to show how the main character was deeply in love, how his world orbited around her, and he saw them together forever. That makes her sudden departure a big thing that catches the reader's attention. The writer can decide whether to show the reader if there were hints of an affair, if the husband had been blind to obvious signs of trouble, etc. But when the event hits, the reader should be left thinking, “Wow, that actually happened!” And they read forward.
The other critical element is the “call to action.” This is usually the event that puts the hero into motion, even if reluctantly. We see that the hero is taking a decision that will force them down a new road and an uncomfortable journey. As they take that step, we take it with them, marching proudly toward act two. This call to action does not have to send them heading directly toward the main arc, it only has to put the character into motion. Returning to the Tolkien theme (this time to the Lord of the Rings saga), Frodo’s call to action was not setting out to destroy the ring. His first step was a simple one – finding assistance for a mission he did not fully understand. And they marched into act two.
While the critical elements – introduction, the inciting event, and the call to action – are the bread and butter of act one, the order is not. Depending on the genre, the author’s desired mood, and all the supporting elements, we can play games with the order. In fact, some genres are defined by such tweaks.
In the classic thriller genre, tension and action are demanded as early as possible – from the first sentence if it’s a good one. Therefore, a thriller would kick off with the inciting event. In the above example, the first page could start with the main character coming home, bouquet of roses in hand, to find a farewell note on the table, or divorce papers and a half-empty house. Granted, a thriller usually has higher stakes than just divorce, but the point is still the same. The thriller should always have the reader thinking, “What will the main character do?”
However, works of suspense make the reader ask a different question – Why? Why did that happen? Why would such things happen? In our jilted husband case we have that same situation, but shifting the parts around. If we lead with our husband walking into a therapy session, trying to figure out how things went wrong, we see him at the call-to-action phase and ask “Why is he there?” Then we discover the inciting event and the blanks start filling in. Again, the main story doesn’t have to revolve around this man and his therapist – but this is the first step on his journey, and we follow it. And the suspense demands the reader to ask, “Why?”
And circling all of this is the information necessary to set the stage. Thrillers, suspense, whatever – information needs to be salted in throughout the beginning. With those genres that start with more pivotal plot elements, our information can be introduced through very targeted descriptions. In the thriller example, the bouquet of roses quickly and efficiently informs the reader about the man’s love, and that’s the most important piece of background information for that scene. We don’t need to worry about height, weight, eye color or any of that right now – we need to know his devotion and how his world has changed.
Once we have that information, and our protagonist is committed to the journey, we march toward act two… (which will be posted Friday)