Think of this as a “checklist” or a “wishlist” for the first act of a novel—something you can look at and pick the things you like to help you make decisions about the plot and story. Mixing and matching these checklists can even help you make up new stories in the future!
I hope you enjoy!
- Sympathy for Main Character
- Villain appearance or mention
BY THE END OF ACT I
The protagonist should have displayed the following traits before the end of ACT I.
- Their virtues
- The start of their arc
- Their base personality
The antagonist should have displayed the following things before the end of ACT I.
- Their type
- Igniting the plot
The following information should be given to the reader by the end of ACT I.
- The stakes
- The consequences for not achieving the stakes
- Why the protagonist can’t ignore the stakes
A “hook” is what separates your story from others, gives it a dramatic twist, or ignites the reader’s imagination. It’s typically the reason someone would read further and should be apparent in the first chapter. Most hooks are dramatic action that leaves the reader wondering what the consequences of said action will be.
Common hooks in stories include:
- Finding a dead body
- Being trapped in a location
- Setting the rules of a game or contest the protagonist wants to win
- Making an “all-important choice”
- Participating in a coming-of-age ceremony
- Being in a fantastical location
- Establishing a mystery
- Fighting (or other high-octane events)
- Family members on their death bed
- A significant change in the status quo
- Explaining a risky plan
SYMPATHY FOR THE MAIN CHARACTER
The first chapter should endear the main character to the reader. Even if the main character is a douche, the situation they are in (or the circumstances they are dealt) should be positioned in such a way to elicit sympathy from an average reader.
Common tricks to gain sympathy include:
- The Main Character (MC) is poor
- The MC has a disability
- The MC is being bullied
- The MC is thrust into an impossible situation for which there is little hope of winning
- The MC is hard working, but isn’t acknowledged for it
- The MC has a family that doesn’t love/care for them
- The MC has lost something important to them
- The MC’s lover is gone/dead
- The MC has a fantastical goal but it seems impossible to achieve it
- The MC saves a cat
- The MC cares for or protects weaker individuals/children
- The MC beats the crap out of some bad people
- The MC struggles to do something ordinary and laments the fact they aren’t “normal”
The villain should appear, or be mentioned, before the end of ACT I, even if the reader doesn’t understand it/they are the villain.
The MC should be good at something, and it should be something the reader can admire. These traits don’t need to link with the sympathy traits, the virtue should just be apparent—it’s what makes your MC unique and special.
Common virtues include:
- Being highly intelligent
- Being honest
- Being hard working
- Being the best at something (magic, chess, card games, etc.)
- Being brave
- Being loyal
- Being wise
- Being optimistic
- Being charitable
- Showing humility
- Showing kindness
- Being funny/sarcastic
The protagonist should go through an arc in a story. They start at place A, go through some troubles at place B, and eventually end the story at place C. Typically this means improving (a shy kid becomes confident) but it can be a slow spiral into something negative (a curious character is driven insane).
Common arcs include:
- Becoming an adult
- Overcoming shyness and becoming assertive
- Discovering the truth
- Redeeming one’s self for terrible past actions
- Developing true love
- Shedding one’s naiveté
- Dropping an arrogant demeanor after learning humility
- Overcoming self-doubt
- Harding to overcome the harshness of life
- Slowly being driven to madness
- Losing all hope for humanity
- Letting go of all material and worldly desires
- Falling from grace
PROTAGONIST BASE PERSONALITY
A protagonist has a virtue and a base personality. By mixing these, it becomes easy to see the hundreds (nay, thousands) of character possibilities. For example, a shy (personality trait) intelligent (virtue) person is much different than an arrogant (personality trait) intelligent (virtue) person. Same goes for a whimsical (personality trait) brave (virtue) person and a jaded (personality trait) brave (virtue) person.
Common personality traits include:
The type of antagonist determines the story, since the antagonist is often the catalysts for all the events. Therefore, antagonists can be virtually anything from the weather to the main character themselves.
Common villain types include:
- Someone evil (think Voldermort from Harry Potter, or Sauron from Lord of the Rings)
- Their evil actions are what set the story in motion and are typically over-the-top and absolutely destructive, why would you ever side with them?
- Someone understandable (think Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones, or Allie’s mother from the Notebook)
- Their reasonable actions are what set the story in motion and are typically justified when viewed from their perceptive. These villains are sometimes in competition with the main character (so they both want something that only one of them can have)
- Organizations (think Big Brother from 1984, or the people running the Hunger Games)
- The organization is all-powerful, and through their everyday actions, they set the story in motion. These villains are typically cold and inhuman and control the situation in which the main character is thrust
- Internal Weakness (think Elizabeth and Darcy’s struggles in Pride and Prejudice)
- The main character sets the story in motion by failing at some level, or hindering their own happiness. This type of villain is typically reserved for character studies, high drama, and low conflict tales (think romance or straight drama)
- Nature/Technology/Circumstance (think about the woods from A Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan, or the robots from iRobot, or the island from Lord of the Flies)
- This villain is often not malicious and simply acting out its programming or nature in such a way that sets the story into motion. A volcano doesn’t explode to kill people, it just explodes because that’s what volcanos do, and the main character must deal with the situation regardless
ANTAGONIST IGNITING THE PLOT
The antagonist needs to be the one that sets the plot into motion. Their actions directly shape the conflict the main character must overcome.
Common ways the villains ignite the plot:
- Kidnapping someone
- Killing someone
- Throwing the MC into a death game
- Attempting to kill the MC
- Attempting to control the MC
- Competing with the MC for a limited resource (be it love or a magical item)
- Stealing something
- Generally fucking with the MC because they don’t like each other
- Exploding (in the case of volcanoes)
ACT I ENDS ON THE INCITING INCIDENT
The inciting incident is the point of no return. Something has happened that cannot be ignored. Harry Potter entered Hogwarts to begin his boarding school life. Katniss officially became a member for the Hunger Games. Ned Stark moved his family to the capital to become the Hand of the King.
The inciting incident should appear anywhere between 10%-25% into the novel, and should be the gate into ACT II. Consider it a threshold—everything after the inciting incident is new and different and things will never be the same.
And that’s my entire checklist for all of act I! I hope this helps some of you see how the puzzle pieces of a novel come together to form one big picture. :3