Hey writer friends! It's time that we zoom in from the overall story plot we discussed in How toPlot... Anything! and dive into the first act.
The first act has a lot of jobs to do. Think of it like a working mom balancing a full-time job, raising kids, house upkeep, and a social life. Just like that mother, Act I must multi task, and also has a lot of pressure to get things right.
So what does Act I need to accomplish?
It needs to capture your reader's attention and keep them wanting to read.
It needs to introduce your main characters.
It needs to establish your setting, style, and point of view (remember those elements of fiction? If not, check them out here.
It has to push your protagonist out of their normal world and into the story world where they will either grow into a better person or if it's a tragedy... fall into the darkness.
How do you do all this? Well, it's a combination of all the elements of fiction, especially characterization and plot. Right now we are studying plot, so let's check out our four act chart again.
As you can see Act I is the turquoise color and has the following key things you need for the plot: a hook, a catalyst for change, and a cross into the new world. Today I'll talk about the hook and then give an example using our magician character from earlier posts.
You always find the hook at the beginning of the book. You may remember your English teacher in school telling you that you needed a hook for your essay, which would have been in the introduction paragraph, most likely the very first sentence. The same principal works with fictional works.
Writer's in the past would sometimes take pages and pages to introduce any conflict. They would show the characters in great detail before complicating their world. Today's readers want complications right away. In fact, it is best to start your book in what they called medias res. Medias res is a Latin term used commonly in the writing world. It translates to something like "in the midst of things." We don't need to make it too complicated, however. Your character simply needs to be doing something, or something has to be happening that will affect them sooner rather than later.
A lot of people mistake the idea of medias res to believe that you need to have guns blazing and dead bodies everywhere. And if you are writing a mystery or a thriller you often will, but you don't have to start that way for every story. The best way I can explain a hook to you is to tell you to watch the teasers of your favorite television shows.
T.V. has perfected this idea because it has to keep you hooked. Back in the day when commercials were non-negotiable (oh how you spoil us streaming services!) the show had to give you a reason to keep watching instead of flipping to something else in the commercial break. That's what the teaser is for. It's the very opening of a show meant to grab you, often coming before the opening credits.
For these examples, I'm literally going to do a stream of consciousness of what I think about when I am developing story. I haven't come up with any of this beforehand. So if it is a little disjointed, I apologize, but I think it will be helpful to see how a writer's mind works through these things. And remember, I'm just one writer. Other writers think and create differently. Totally awesome. You do you.
So let's come up with a hook for our story with the magician. If you are just joining us, we don't know a lot about this magician yet, only that they want to become the most powerful sorcerer in the world. We have named him Hank and we also know that he is going to head off to the library to find a spell. But all that comes after our hook. We need something to draw the reader in before we send him out on his adventure.
Okay. Well, a question I have is why does Hank want to become the most powerful sorcerer in the world? What is his inner motivation? It's all nice and good to have a goal but without a driving force behind that goal he will not get very far. Now I feel like trying to become the most powerful sorcerer can stem from a lust for power—remember Aladdin anyone? But I don't want that to be Hank's drive. I want him to be a little different. Hmmm... what if I gave him a really altruistic reason to have the goal? I like that. It will make readers like him, support his goal, and lead to potential conflict down the road. So now... I just have to figure out what it is.
I feel like something is going wrong in Hank's world that he wants to fix (he's being altruistic remember?). The problem is likely going to turn into an antagonistic force for Hank, since he wants to fix it. So we can do either a Hank vs. society, Hank vs. nature, or Hank vs. man. I didn't include Hank vs. self because I have already decided that isn't this type of story. I've never written a story with a really strong individual antagonist (I often think of big societal problems because of my background in history). I'm going to try having one terrible guy/or gal for this one.
Okay. So what could an individual do that could drive Hank to want to be the most powerful sorcerer in the world? This person, let's name her Sandy, has taken over the world and uses her magic to keep everyone in check. Hence, to free the world, Hank needs to become more powerful than her.
Okay. So Hank has to be personally affected by Sandy's magic. And that sounds like a great place to make a hook from. I think Sandy is one of those people who never wants to die. So I'm thinking that somehow she uses her magic to steal life from other people in her realm.... oh... I feel the juices flowing.
Hank was a lonely man for a long time. Then he finally found Ruth. Ruth and Hank were about to get married and live happily ever after when they got the message that they selected Ruth as the yearly sacrifice. The book is going to start with Hank standing in a crowd, watching as his love comes in front of Sally in chains. My readers won't know if Ruth is a prisoner or what. All they know is that something is happening, and Hank is really upset about it.
Maybe I'll make Sandy seem really caring. She will fuss over Ruth and ask her how her stay has been in the palace. Maybe she even apologizes to Ruth and seems really genuine... and then she will grab her by the throat, and start sucking out her life force! We will see Ruth age in front of our very eyes! She will become older and older until she falls into a pile of bones. Hank will cry out in pain, and Sandy will see him in the crowd. But at this point he's no one important, so she will quickly look away and tell her subjects that she will see them next year for the next sacrifice (nice, now we have a ticking clock... will Hank be able to stop her before she kills another?). We will follow Hank as he exits the palace. Maybe he will receive some personal possession of Ruth's from a guard—something he can grab onto when he needs motivation to keep going.
He's going to head home. We will show how sad his life is now. Maybe he has to sell Ruth's would-be wedding dress. At this point, he doesn't know he is going to go on the journey to become the most powerful sorcerer. Right now, he's just reacting to the hook, and our readers want to know what he's going to do next if we did our job right.
There! That's the hook. I realize I told you dead bodies don't need to be in the hook, and then I went ahead and put one in there... but I can't help it. I am a thriller writer through and through!
In the comments below give it a try! Come up with a hook in any genre that you want. I'd love to see them.
Come back next time to see what happens to Hank to help spur him on his journey when we analyze Act I- The Catalyst for Change.