Act I is what introduces the reader to the story. That is given. It must do something else, right? Of course, it does. Stories no matter how short or how long they may be, must have a solid beginning in order to keep the reader engaged enough to move into the middle. A lot happens in the beginning, but it is more than just a means to the end. It begins the journey that your plucky protagonist has to take in order to him to change–or not.
So, what happens in the beginning? Something must change in the protagonist’s life. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard that one before, but it is extremely important that something happens. What I wished I learned a little earlier was what that truly meant. I’ve seen in countless books on writing and sometimes it was explained, but the idea just didn’t seem to sink in for me. It wasn’t until I had written several beginnings to several novels that I realized exactly what it was.
It simply means that our protagonist was going on with his daily life (something you will have to show in your story) when Bam! something has changed his otherwise humdrum existence into something that sets events in motion that will eventually change his life. It really doesn’t have to be anything dramatic like being hit by a car or someone getting kidnapped (though that could happen). It could be something as simple as a lunar eclipse, something that signifies a change in the daily routine. In the darkness of a lunar eclipse, he had to move closer to a light to see a scrap of paper (another change in his daily routine, by the way) that forces him to bump into a stranger. The sequence of events that follow are the rest of the story.
By now, I’m also pretty certain that you’ve heard the terms Key Event and Inciting Event, or maybe not, if you were like me. It wasn’t until I really started taking my writing seriously that I understood their meaning. It might seem confusing, at first, because sometimes the two are actually the same thing. It really all depends on the story you are trying to tell.
In the above example, the bump into the stranger could be the Inciting Event which could lead directly to the Key Event or might lead to it a bit later. An Inciting Event is basically what gets the story moving. The Key Event is the one thing that starts the protagonist down that path of no return. See how it could be one and the same? Me neither…at first. It took me quite a while before I understood it. The Key Event could be the bump and the Inciting Event could have been the lunar eclipse because it really caused the bump. It all depends on the story.
Well now that I mention the Point of No Return, this would be a good time to explain it. Some call this the First Plot Point. Actually, I look at it as the crossroads where the protagonist is forced to make a choice. The best reference I can make is when Neo has to choose between the red and the blue pill. On one hand he can choose the status quo and do nothing to better his situation or he could take the new path. Each has its own consequences, but we all know that had he taken the blue pill, the movie would have ended and nothing much more could be said. That would be awfully boring. Don’t you think?
In the beginning of any story, be it short, long or epic, the beginning plays a crucial role in setting up the story and forcing the main character to make a choice that propels him into the next and longest section. Act II or the middle.