Three-act structure; Act I (Beginning)

In the previous post, we looked at the concept of narrative structure and the three-act structure. This post is devoted to the 1st Act.

What is Setup or Act I?

Have you heard that agents/editors give a book’s manuscript only a 10-page-opportunity? For picture books, the chance shrinks to a few first sentences! It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? What if a good piece of story comes after page 10 or page 50? Forget agents/editors for a few minutes and remember yourself, buying books in a bookshop. How long did you spend browsing a book before making up your mind to buy it or to put the book back on the shelf? 50 pages? 10 pages? Or at maximum 1 page, if not the first paragraph? Why do we—editors and book-buyers—judge a manuscript or a book so quickly?

I suppose the base of this judgment is an unwritten rule; if a writer doesn’t know what to write at the beginning, most probably, she doesn’t know how to tell her story. Either she knows the craft or not!

Beginning or Act I or Setup, whatever you name the first one-forth of the manuscript, has one crucial task: it brings the readers into the story’s world and doesn’t let them leave. How is it possible? Many craft books have been published on the composition of the Beginning: introduce the protagonist, introduce the story’s setting, set the story’s conflict in motion, etc.

Obviously, these elements suffice to grab the reader’s attention. However, would they be able to keep the reader? Why do we read 50 pages of some books and not have any appetite to finish those books, whereas sometimes we cannot put down a book? We were hooked in, but why couldn’t the writer keep us in the story? I had this question for a long time until I read about the Story Question or the Dramatic Question. A Picture book or a multi-volume novel, what sticks us a book is the Story Question which should be established in the Setup.

Thoroughly understanding the Story Question is possible by understanding the Points Points.

What is a Plot Point?

During the analysis of the Narrative Structure, we always speak about Plot Points. What are these?

During the analysis of the Narrative Structure, we always speak about Plot Points. What are these?

Let’s suppose you want to write a memoir of your own life; you have a timeline of events. Events on your list can be categorized into two: the first category is events that changed your life irreversibly: the day you learnt to read changed your life; you are not an illiterate person anymore. The day you marry your spouse, even if you get divorced later. The day your first child was born; it added the layer of parenthood to your character. The second category of the events in your timeline are events that influenced your personality and your life experience, but they were not path-determining, like a memorable journey, changing workplace, etc. If you delete them from the timeline, your character is still understandable. In literature, the first category is called \textbf{Plot Points}, whereas the second category is \textbf{Points in the Plot}. If you want to increase the number of pages of your memoir from 100 to 300, you add more details or more points to the plot. However, the number of Plot Points stays constant, no matter the length of the book.

The characteristics of the Plot Points are:

  • They change the direction of the story
  • Influences the character development
  • no-return point; close a door behind a character

The million-dollar question is, how many plot points do we need? Answers vary:

  • Some say 4 suffice (Inciting Event, Plot Point 1, Plot Point 2, Climax).
  • Some say 7 would do the job (Hook, Plot Point 1, Pinch Point 1, Midpoint, Pinch Point 2, Plot Point 2, Resolution)
  • Some increased the number to 11 Plot Points (HookInciting Event, Key Event, Plot Point 1, Pinch Point 1, Midpoint, Pinch Point 2, Plot Point 2, Climactic Moment,  Resolution)

No worries, 11 is the maximum.  It is your choice to accept which answer. However, I believe learning the meaning of each of these phrases helps us understand our manuscripts better. They sounded complicated, but they are not. So far, we have looked at Hook and Inciting Event. Let’s look at the Key Event and Plot point 1 briefly and we are done with Act I. 

Key Event

The Inciting Event struck the protagonist. What would happen next? Think in causality. The character gets involved in the event (If the character is not involved, there is a substantial problem with the Inciting Event).

Let’s suppose the Inciting Event is proper. What happens next? There is a moment when the protagonist realized “this is gonna be different, there is no escape.” This moment is the Key Event of the story.

With an inevitable Inciting Event, the protagonist should face the Key Event. It is logical. Logical for the writer, not for the reader. From the reader’s point of view, the protagonist is still a stranger. She has only read a couple of the first pages of the book (or a few sentences of the picture book). How would the reader know how the protagonist …. the Inciting Event? We, writers, need to recognize that moment that the protagonist feels tipped with the Inciting Event and show this aha-moment to the reader. Depending on the story, you may need to zoom in to the Key Event to engage the reader emotionally, or you may briefly refer to it and pass to the next point of the story. Or, the Key Event might be so obvious that the reader gets it instantly.

What do you predict should be the next Plot Point? The protagonist got the message (Key Event), and now she should react, and this is Plot Point I. We are almost done with Act I.

Plot Point I

Plot Point I is the reaction of the protagonist to the Inciting Event. Reaction is not necessarily a constructive positive decision: a kid in the new school faces bullying (Inciting Event) and decides to escape, rather than defend himself or herself. This is his reaction. It is important to notice that by speaking about Plot Points or other terms of Narrative Structure, we are NOT concerned with morality, righteousness of the events. Our only concern is the functionality of that event in developing the plot (Righteousness and the story’s message are the subject of the Story’s Theme, not the Story’s Plot).

Plot Point I marks the real start of the story when the Protagonist has to leave his/her usual world/mindset and faces the adversity, created by the Inciting Event: a new sibling, a new school, losing a beloved one… you name it.

Both the Key Event and Plot Point I are the first showcase of the Protagonist’s personality. Your reaction to an event is different than mine because we have got two different life paths, we suffered from different emotional wounds and benefited from different sets of talents and skills.

If the Protagonist is not a fully-developed distinctive character in the writer’s brain, the story falls flat in Plot Point I, and it is time to say goodbye to the reader. This is when we lose our appetite to read farther than page 50 or so! Because the Story Question didn’t set up well and has NOT engaged us: would the Protagonist succeed to do so and so?

Plot Point I is the last point in Act I. It is the moment that the referee blows his whistle and the football play starts, which we call Act II or confrontation.

Confusions about Plot Point I & Examples

For a long time, the difference between the Inciting Event and Plot Point confused me; I was not able to point it down in my manuscript. Usually our ideas for a new manuscript lay the cornerstone of the Inciting Event. But, when the Protagonist is not developed uniquely in our mind, his reactions do not appear clearly in the story and the Inciting Event and Plot Point I get scrambled together.

The Inciting Event is not a personal event to the Protagonist. There is an important caveat point here: you as a writer should have planned for an inciting event that matters to the protagonists, but the reader wouldn’t be in contact with that depth until the Key Event and Plot Point I. I didn’t recognize the different until I tried to write down each point in one succinct sentence, and I failed! Because of my half-backed Protagonist, the manuscript lacks Plot Point I!

In many stories, the Key Event and Plot Point I are barely inseparable; they are the sides of one door and happen even in one scene or on one page. As a reader, you don’t need to acknowledge the difference. However, as the writer, we need to do so.

Picture Books are short. Hence, different Plot Points in them are not easily separable. So, I start the discussion from Harry Potter and the sorcerer stone and Shrek I. Next, we look at picture books.


In the movie Shrek 1,  story began with an ogre—Shrek—living alone outside the village. Lord Farquaad expelled all fairy-tale creatures from the village. The command, on its own, has nothing to do with Shrek. However, it mattered when, first, the donkey and afterwards all those expelled creatures occupied Shrek’s swamp. Thus, this marks the Inciting Event.

 

We see the scene in which Shrek was dining alone, opened the door of his home and his swamp was totally occupied. This is the moment that Shrek realized Lord Farquaad’s command ruined his quiet life. This revelation moment is the Key Event.

Shrek didn’t give up. With the donkey, he goes to the village to meet that lord, to pursue him to withdraw his command. The lord promised the swamp back provided Shrek rescues Princess Fiona. Shrek accepts the condition. This scene has the three characteristics of the Plot Point I:

  • (a) the protagonist reacts to the Inciting Event.
  • (b) protagonist leaves his Normal World—his swap—and went to an unknown journey.
  • (c) determines the Plot Goal—Shrek needs to rescue the princess.

Shrek went off to find the castle in which princess Fiona is poisoned and Act II began.


In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the story begins with Harry as an ignored orphan, living with his aunt’s family. A letter, which he was not permitted to open, interrupts his miserable life. Letters after letters are pouring into the house, from nowhere. This is the Inciting Event.

Harry doesn’t understand what these letters are about until Hagrid arrives in a stormy night. He explains not only the contents of the letter but also Harry’s biggest mystery; he is a wizard, born from wizards parents. This aha-moment is the Key Event and engages Harry in the story through the Inciting Event.

The trip to London, the shopping scenes in the Diagon Alley, finding the platform 9 3/4 are only points in the plot, not the Plot Points. When Harry gets on the Hogwarts Express and embarks on an unknown journey, the Plot Point I. Look at the characteristics:

  • (a) Harry reacted to the Inciting Event— an acceptance letter from Hogwarts.
  • (b) He leaves his normal world—Muggles world—to an unknown place.
  • (c) the plot goal is pinned down; Harry wants to discover wizardry.

 

 


One the next blog post, we will continue with examples of Act I in picture books and discuss the Story Question in detail.

Looking forward to your comment and happy.


Published on July 9, 2021

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