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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Act 1 - Light Your Story on Fire

There is so much housekeeping to do in Act 1, that once you're writing, it's easy to forget that you still have structural work to do. You have to establish your characters, you have to establish your setting, and you have to establish your tone. So before you even get to that point, let's take a look at the outline and see what needs to be done in the framing:

Act 1
-Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident is the very first event that begins the series of events that will make up your plot. It is the spark that starts the fire. Without it none of the events that follow would ever have occurred.

In a murder mystery, which is the simplest example, the inciting incident is the discovery of the body. In Field of Dreams the inciting incident occurs when Ray hears a voice ("If you build it, he will come.") in his cornfield. In Star Wars: A New Hope the inciting incident is Luke's discovery of Leia's urgent message.

How is the inciting incident different than the plot point at the end of Act 1?

If the inciting incident is the spark, the end of act one is the first gust of wind that turns your spark into a fire. It builds on the inciting incident and propels your reader forward with a clear sense of the story's direction.

At the end of act one, your reader should know the overall plot of the story and the goal of the main character - whether it's find the killer, build the baseball field in the corn, or rescue Princess Leia, your reader should have some sense of which direction the story is moving. Of course there will be twists and turns - your story would be boring without them - but at the end of Act 1, your readers should at least see some of the path ahead.

In Field of Dreams the inciting incident is the first time Ray hears the voice, but Act 1 ends with his choice - his choice to plow under his corn and build a baseball field, his choice to follow the direction of the voice. In Star Wars: A New Hope the inciting incident is Luke's discovery of Leia's message, but Act 1 ends only after the death of his aunt and uncle and his decision to go with Obi-Wan to rescue Leia. If it were not for the death of his aunt and uncle, Luke would not be able to leave the farm. Their death is the plot point that propels him forward and allows him to pursue his hero's quest.

As you think about your inciting incident, don't think of it as a burden or something mechanical that has to be in place. Instead, think of it as your first opportunity to engage your reader. When you're sitting down to write your query letter to an agent, this is the moment you're going to describe. This is what happens that RIPS your main character from his normal life and THRUSTS him into something unusual, something that makes your reader want to join him for the journey.

When the first invite to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry arrives for Harry Potter, it's the first letter he's ever received - AND IT WON'T STOP COMING. That's the level of build and excitement that should be your goal as you think about your inciting incident. And your Act 1 plot point should be as loud and declarative as the pounding of Hagrid's fist on the door of a small shack in the middle of a storm. Let that be your inspiration as you sit down to your outline and think about your story.

So now you have your fire. Next we're gonna turn it into a blaze.


Jay said...

This is really helping me out. You've got a lot of great points and you illustrate it very well. Good stuff! Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

Dang it! Why don't you teach? Something tells me you'd make people make great writing.

mernitman said...

This is really good -- clear and succinct and useful -- so I echo randika's thought.