Mastering the First Act

Writing a novel – tougher than it sounds, right? Too often, I read WIPs (works in progress) and find the author seems unclear of how to structure the story towards key outcomes. Mastering structure is a great place to start in making your journey easier and I want to look at the elements of Act 1 today.

K.M. Weiland has some fantastic resources and her book Structuring Your Novel is essential reading. To give you a flavour, let’s cover some basics that you may find helpful. Now debate will rage as to the ‘right way to write a novel’. However, the classic three act structure is a sensible, tried and tested method. While these is no magic formula to crafting a bestseller, there absolutely is a formula to the three act structure. Let’s first think in terms of word count:

Act 1 should be the first 25%

Act 2 should be the middle 50%

Act 3 should be the final 25%

So for ease, a novel of 100,000 words would have 25,000 in Act 1, 50,000 in Act 2 and another 25,000 in Act 3. Yes, it sound formulaic, but at least it gives you some parameters to work within. Okay, so what needs to happen in each act?

Act 1 sets up the story, the key characters and the main source of conflict. It also involves a change of scene or location. This should lead the reader into Act 2, where we see the protagonist work through those conflicts. Act 3 is the resolution and conclusion. Act 1 is critical to get right and I’m going to illustrate the elements from Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast (2017).

The movie starts with a prologue, showing how a spoiled and selfish Prince is cursed by an Enchantress. She turns the Prince into a hideous beast and transforms his subjects into household objects. The Enchantress’s spell causes the people outside the kingdom to forget about the castle and everyone living in it. The Beast is left with a magic rose. If he can earn the love of another before the last petal falls, the spell will be broken. Otherwise, he will be doomed to forever remain a beast.

Then we get to the story proper where, in the village of Villeneuve, there lives a young woman named Belle. She lives with her father Maurice – a music box maker – and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the townspeople. She is, however, doggedly pursued by the narcissistic Captain Gaston (whom she has no interest in). Maurice sets off to another town to sell his music boxes but ends up by accident in the forgotten grounds of the Beast’s castle. When Maurice tries to pick a rose for Belle, the Beast calls Maurice a thief and takes him prisoner.

Soon after, Maurice’s horse returns home alone and Belle knows that something must have happened to Maurice. The horse leads Belle back to the castle, where she finds Maurice in the dungeon. Belle meets the Beast and offers to take her father’s place. The Beast agrees to the exchange and he lets Maurice go. Belle promises her father she will find a way out of there.

And so ends Act 1, which is exactly half an hour in length – 25% of the total running time. We’ve been introduced to the main characters and their motivations and the source of conflict (Belle needing to escape) has been established. We also see a clear change of location for Belle, from Villeneuve to the Castle. In this particular story, we have an insight into the antagonist’s goal. He needs to fall in love and be loved, and yet his source of conflict is his hideous appearance and uncontrollable temper.

Beauty and the Beast provides a great example of how to establish a strong first act and ties in well with the themes explored. Belle is an outside, and so is the Beast. Belle is not interested in outward appearances (such as the handsome Gaston), and so she is not repulsed by the Beast.

In your own story, think very carefully about the overarching goal of your protagonist. You need to establish this clearly in Act 1 and introduce the story’s main characters. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist’s initial goal alters, so long as it remains faithful to the core themes of the story.

If you’re struggling to move your story along, try focusing solely on Act 1 and outline what you need to deliver within that section. Think also about the amount of words you have to play with in that Act – aim for a few thousand less, because you will inevitably need to edit down in subsequent drafts. Have fun with it and see structure as a means to keeping your story on track.

Jez Fernandez Written by: