Tips to Writing Your Novel’s First Act

“Writing is a dangerous profession. There is no telling what hole you may rip in society’s carefully woven master narrative.”
– Danielle Orner

Most people have a dream of writing the great American novel. They desire to be known as well as Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Nicholas Sparks–all who have built literary legacies through their love of words. This is a wonderful dream to have, and one that may be successful if done properly. When writing a novel, it’s important to follow a specific layout. For instance, make notes of the following:

HOOK: This is what grabs your readers and pulls them into the story. It’s often the first line but no longer than the first paragraph. In most novels, it may reveal character and action. There is a chance it may hint at setting, plot or the novel’s theme. If you choose to include dialogue, then that may reveal to the reader how well-educated (or under-educated) the main character is. And, the hook often tells the character what point of view the story is being told in, such as a first-person account (where the character is telling the story themselves) or a third-person account (where someone else is telling the story.) There are varying POVs in each of these, of course, so you’ll want to research that.

Before we move on, let’s take a look at the opening lines of the following novels. What do they reveal to you?

11/22/63 (Stephen King): I have never been a crying man.

Before I Go to Sleep (S. J. Watson): The bedroom is strange.

When I Found You (Catherine Ryan Hyde): Nathan McCann stood in his dark kitchen, a good two hours before dawn.

The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells): No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

 Moving on from the lead, you want to put your characters onto the stage. Introduce them to your reader through narration, dialogue, conflict or action. What are their motivations? What are their stakes? In essence, why should your reader care about them? If you’re writing your main character, keep in mind you’re going to have to throw trouble their way. Have them cross paths with an ex, have obstacles fall in the path to reach their goal. For instance, let’s say your character wants to buy a house. Have them lose a job, deal with a family member get sick, fight to get a loan (that every banker turns them down for) and then let a miracle happen. Why all this trouble, you ask? Because it keeps your reader up at night. It keeps them turning pages until the last juicy word in your novel. They’re going to stop reading if a character gets what they want when they want it and how they want it. Snoooze. 

INCITING INCIDENT. Once your character experiences the first big conflict–a tornado wipes out their house or a traumatic car accident–this is the inciting incident. It sets the domino effect into motion and triggers each conflict that comes thereafter. Normally, in real life, when our house gets mowed over by a tornado we rebuild. But, the stakes are high for your character. They may have to go live in a shelter or find another shelter with their child or pet. As long as they transform by the end of the story, your readers are rooting for them all along the way. And so should you.

BUILD UP. That’s right. Build up the action. Make it bigger than life. Your character may have moved into a new home. Make the roof leak or a pipe burst to show us their strength. Whatever your conflict is, make it 10x or 100x larger than life. If they have an have an accident, have them cling to life and then make a miraculous comeback to life. This will give your readers a happy ending of a character they have wept over and worried about for 300 pages. Show the readers why they should care. The buildup is your chance to double the tension of the story and create in-depth, compelling characters.

Finally, you’ve reached the first doorway. You’re reaching the end of Act 1 and about to enter into Act 2. Think of this plot point as an arch that leads the reader from one section to another. Let’s say your character was just in a bad motorcycle accident. At the end of the chapter, you may have left a cliffhanger of him being loaded into an ambulance with horrible injuries. Now, you have two options. You can immediately go to the hospital’s Emergency Room and show him there or you can show him in recovery. It depends on your story’s pace, your character and your conflict. But, don’t leave your reader searching for answers. If they last saw the character being carried away in an ambulance, don’t show them leaving the hospital. That’s a good way to lose your audience. Too many details are being left out.

Congrats! You have finished a third of your novel. Take a breath and then flex those fingers. We’re just getting to the good part of your story.

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