The first act of your novel is where your readers will be introduced to the major characters and learn about the problem that the protagonist will be faced with. Most of your subplots will be introduced, and all will be at least hinted at. If it doesn’t get a lead in your first act, it shouldn’t turn up in your story at all.
So, your first act should introduce the following seven basic elements:
- Main Characters – All of these obviously don’t have to be introduced in the first five pages, but all major players should appear for the first time in the first act.
- Setting – Where is your story taking place? In a novel, there are frequently several different locations, and if travel is going to happen, this change of setting should be noted somewhere in the first act, even if it doesn’t happen until later. For example, if your protagonist, normally from the backwoods of Wisconsin, is going to end up finding themselves in New York in Act Two, talk about the upcoming trip and change of setting in the first act.
- Atmosphere – What is the tone of your book? What is the pervading feeling amongst your characters? Is there a lot of tension? Are you writing about a utopia or a dystopia?
- Time – When is the book happening? Make sure your audience is aware of this – don’t write a book that takes place in the Victoria Era and forget to indicate the lack of motorized travel and constrictive clothing until the end. You don’t have to devote pages and pages to this, a simple, “I was born in the fourth year of Victoria’s reign’ will do.
- A routine or way of life – More time needs to be devoted to this if you are writing out of time or culture. People writing science fiction or high fantasy will have the most words dedicated to this, but establishing a routine helps reader’s identify with your characters no matter where they are, and also creates something to be shaken up with the inciting incident, so this should be introduced as early as possible.
- Backstory – Do not. Never. Don’t even think about writing forty pages of exposition. You will murder your novel in cold blood if you spend time writing out how the characters got to be where they are before the current story began. Unless you are writing your novel in flashbacks, stick to the present day. That said, it’s important for backstory to be revealed because it can provide valuable insight into your characters’ motivations. Hint at it. Gesture to it. Have something remind a character of a particular life-changing event. Pace the revelations throughout the first act and force yourself to keep them under 150 words if you can.
- The antagonist – Your protagonist may not actually meet the antagonist face-to-face until later in your story. They may not even know who the antagonist is. But somewhere in the first act, you need to point readers in that direction. Suggest a darkness building, or a cosmic conflict, or something. What you don’t want is a first act where everything is going the protagonist’s way, only to ruin it all halfway through the book.
Remember, everything that happens now is setting up what happens next. So you have to know what happens next.
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