Hello everyone of the internet!
There are tons of things every story needs (a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot, a resolution, rising action, and some good writing) but sometimes it can be difficult to organize it all into a coherent narrative.
Fortunately, when you write a novel you don’t have to search around in the darkness, reinventing everything. Most people have done the legwork for you–all you need to do is follow the established pattern.
However, if you’re one of those people asking yourself “what goes where?” this list if for you. These are the must-have for an opening act of a novel (roughly the first 10-15% of the story).
1. The Hook
The hook should be in the first chapter.
Imagine every reader who reads your novel will be asking the question “What makes this book different or intriguing?” The hook is your answer to that question. You want the first chapter to scream I’ve got interesting things going on in this plot! Keep reading, you’ll see!
If the reader never makes it past the first chapter, you won’t get to show them your awesome story, so this is one of the biggest choices as the writer. What will you hook them with? Action? Intrigue? A mystery? Suspense?
See how the novel EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS starts:
“I come from a family with a lot of dead people.
Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a stroke on a Saturday morning after breakfast last March. Six months later, Great-great-aunt Florentine died—just like that—in the vegetable garden. And, of course, there are all the dead people who rest temporarily downstairs, until they go off to the Snapfinger Cemetery. I’m related to them, too. Uncle Edisto always told me, “Everybody’s kin, Comfort.”
Downstairs at Snowberger’s, my daddy deals with death by misadventure, illness, and natural causes galore. Sometimes I ask him how somebody died. He tells me, then he says, “It’s not how you die that makes the important impression, Comfort; it’s how you live. Now go live awhile, honey, and let me get back to work.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. I’ll start with Great-uncle Edisto and last March, since that death involves me—I witnessed it.”
It’s intriguing, and tells you this is a story unlike the others you’ve read. You have to keep reading to find out the story, and at no point do you think “Oh, I’ve seen this all before.”
2. Investment in the Protagonist
We should be invested in the protagonist by the end of the first chapter.
How can the author create interest? The protagonist (of the “main character” hereon known as the “MC”) needs to have a virtue, a personality, and something that makes this sympathetic. All of this needs to be conveyed (without straight up telling, of course) before the start of chapter two.
For example, Harry Potter is introduced as a kind (his virtue) boy who quietly plays with fantasy toys and dislikes his obnoxious cousin (his personality) while his aunt and uncle are unjustly cruel to him (a reason for the reader to be sympathetic) and all of this is shown within the first chapter.
That doesn’t mean your character can’t have flaws (every good character has flaws) but you also don’t want the reader to think “I hate this MC. I hope he/she dies in a fire.” Because then the reader puts the book down and never looks at it again.
3. Mention of the Antagonist
Your antagonist should be mentioned, seen, or do something dastardly within the first act of the novel.
The antagonist is someone who ignites the plot. They are typically the reason the MC is in trouble, has to go on a quest, or is somehow harmed. Without the antagonist, you have no story, really.
And this goes for all types of antagonists, not just people. If the antagonist in your novel is a storm, the first act of the book should include lines such as “Did you see that hurricane on the news? Fearful stuff…” or if your antagonist kidnaps the princess, he should be seen doing so.
Again, even Harry Potter passes this test. Voldermort is mentioned right away, and Harry Potter is only in the care of his terrible aunt and uncle because of Voldermort’s dastardly deeds.
Mentioning or seeing the antagonist early allows the reader to anticipate the confrontation that is to come, and gets them excited to see the outcome. It’s important to have the intrigue and to keep the reader entertained at all cost.
Whelp, that’s it for Act I! Stay tuned for the must-haves of Act II and III in the future. In the meantime, have fun!