Some of you know that I’m a pretty critical reader.
Some of you are chuckling at my gift for understatement.
It’s been many years since I started reading fiction with the intention of learning how to write. The longer this goes on, the more I learn. The more I can see. The more OMFG pickier I become.
To the point where I’m actually a really good editor. Not only can I see snags, but I can see what to do about them and make suggestions.
To the point where I’m so jammed up about doing anything wrong that it’s hard to work.
But that can be for another whiny-ass post. This is about something else, actually.
[insert audible relief sighs here]
I’m reworking some of the first act of Heroes Under Siege this week and it’s getting better, so I wanted to talk about something I learned about Act 1.
Back to me being the super critical reader.
I hate the beginnings of lots of books.
Not the first lines or the first scenes, but the slog-fest that the first few chapters become. And I’m not just talking about self-pub here, there are plenty of trad books that leave me wondering when we’re going to start getting this story started.
But Susan, according to the rules of story architecture to which you claim to ascribe (OMG, whose butt am I talking out of right now?), the story really doesn’t become The Story until the First Plot Point at the end of Act 1. Act 1 is setup and introduction of all the elements we need to know about. What. Do. You. Expect?
There are a lot of things that can and do go wrong in Act 1– with some regularity, but one of the things I long for when reading is to feel like I’m being led by a competent hand. And that’s something that may be hard to explain.
Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s not happening. Like those books where information just keeps getting dumped on you because it’s important to the author that you know this stuff so she can use it later. But the author hasn’t found a way to make it important and interesting to you now, so you kind of want to claw your eyes out and go all stabbity on the narrator.
Or when you find yourself aimlessly wandering about through descriptions and scenes of actions that don’t seem to connect, and you’re thinking, OMG what the hell does this all mean and is this EVER Going Anywhere??
So a few months ago I was reading Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. There was a first act that really pulled me right through. I remember enjoying it so much that I actually said to Kait, “This. This is how it’s done.”
Wait? How was it done?
So I had to sit back and think about that, and there’s a device which I think worked…
(First there was a prologue. And it was an excellent prologue. Attached me right to those characters as a children. Great job there. But that wasn’t what pulled me through act 1 so easily. That was just a part of what was done right.)
The characters had a goal from Chapter 1.
See, I think this is the thing that I responded to.
But wait! You can’t go introducing the story goal in chapter 1! That doesn’t happen until–
I didn’t say story goal. Did I say story goal? Pipe down.
In chapter one, years after the prologue, the main character, Alina, is on the march with her military unit. They’re going to a place where they can cross the Fold in order to get somewhere else, and this crossing will be fraught with danger. (And, as Tigger says, you just can’t argue with a word like fraught.)
So I knew where we were going! I don’t know why that would be such a relief to me, but it just was.
In terms of structure, I’d say that the crossing of the Fold contained the inciting incident. What happened there, what Alina did there, started a sequence of events that led to the First Plot Point and dragged her into the next phase of the story.
Despite knowing where we were going (wherever the crossing point was) and why (to cross the Fold because the leaders said we have to), I still had plenty of questions to keep me interested in the story. I was getting a lot of worldbuilding information, but because there was already a story going on, there was something to hang that on, so it wasn’t just floating about in the atmosphere.
A novel is often comprised of stories within a story. This “getting to the Fold” mini-plot was a very small portion of the whole, but it grounded all the introductory material, gave it a purpose in the now of the reader.
So. There’s something I saw and why I think it worked. If your act 1 is like Alice’s slow fall down a rabbit hole filled with floating worldbuilding paraphernalia, there’s an idea for you.
Now get off the Internets and go write something.