Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Act one: Disturb the equilibrium

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 14•15


If you don’t understand the underpinnings of fiction, you’ll likely  suffer and bumble when you try to create it. Without some knowledge of the why, when and how things work, your story has little chance of success. Writing something as complicated as a novel without a plan is like building a house without an architectural diagram. This might have worked in the old days of one-room log cabins, but these days with wiring, plumbing, central heat and other necessities, a plan is a must.

Act 1 is essentially the set up  of your novel, novella, or screenplay. It establishes the story world, the tone, introduces the main characters, and starts off the central conflict. But more importantly, it features an event that kicks off the story called the inciting incident. Stories start with trouble so begin your tale by disturbing the equilibrium in your story world. This event should be a threat.  Openings always feature the ordinary world  being disrupted and someone (not necessarily your protagonist) being thrown off balance by this action.  So forget ‘once upon a time.’ This inciting incident is a catalyst or springboard that starts the story moving along because the ordinary world has been disturbed. It’s the sparks the action and sets the trajectory for the story. Once things are catapulted off balance, this state of imbalance will continue until the climax when it is somehow restored, however shaky and strange.

Also, and this is important, someone must be under stress or thrown off balance. No Prim-Reaping-Day-the-hunger-games-30109977-200-200stress, no tension, no reader sympathy. In The Hunger Games, Prim, a naive and sweet 12-year-old, is chosen to represent District 12 in the annual deadly games. In a few deft lines the reader has learned that Prim is hardly up to the gruesome battle to the death since she still climbs into bed with her mother on nights she’s frightened.

In John Green’s The Fault in our Stars we learn that 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is depressed and has terminal cancer.  At her mother’s urging she attends a support group for kids with cancer.  And she doesn’t want to go.  In the opening scenes of Shrek we see the ogre as an uncouth slob living peacefully in his beloved swamp….but then….Lord Farquaad settles fairy tale creatures there disrupting paradise, stressing him out, and destroying his ogre version happiness. Lord Farquaad promises to remove the fairy tale creatures after Shrek rescues Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded castle. Notice how the stress comes from outside the protagonist.

Start with a threat–even your character meeting her true love should represent a threat. Or to quote an old bit of wisdom,  ‘shoot the sheriff on the first page.’

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