Storyfix is proud to bring you a 10-part tutorial on the fundamentals of story structure.
Today’s post is #3 in that series.
#3 — Five Missions for the Set-up (Part 1) of Your Story
At this point in our journey we encounter a paradoxical cart and horse moment. Because Part 1 of story structure is all just a set-up for the arrival (and beyond) of what connects Part 1 to Part 2 – the infamous Inciting Incident, or as it’s known in the movie biz, Plot Point One.
It is the most important moment – or milestone – in your story.
It’s challenging to discuss one without the other. Which we’d do if space wasn’t an issue on this venue. So allow me to go over the structure and content of Part 1 first – because it comes first in your story sequence – with the understanding that it will make even more sense (tomorrow, as a matter of fact) when we rip into a definition of the much-fabled First Plot Point.
Because one cannot succeed without the other.
The Seduction that is Part 1
An understanding of the four parts of story structure provides a contextual mission for each scene the various parts contain. All four contexts are different – setup, response, attack, conclusion – which means the context of the scenes is unique to the part in which they appear.
You wouldn’t go to a basketball camp wearing shoulder pads, and you wouldn’t go to a rock concert in a tuxedo. So it is with your scenes.
Which means, you don’t throw plot twists and character arc into your first act.
Two words define what Part 1 is all about: set… up. Everything you write here, every scene, is either an introduction of a character – the hero/protagonist – or a situation that later becomes a proverbial can of worms.
But you’re only prying open that lid here in Part 1. If you pour out too many worms, they’ll eat away at your story and render it out of balance.
Part 1 has five missions to accomplish. All of them must be accomplished before the first Plot Point makes an appearance. If you address them after that point your story will tank like… well, a tuxedo at a Stones concert.
Setting a Killer Hook
It’s well known in screenwriting circles that you have but 10 pages to hook the reader. Who, one imagines, is a wannabe writer/director working for peanuts between shifts at Bob’s Big Boy in Pasadena, and has a stack of scripts yeah-high that need to be covered by morning.
The same is true of novels. The best stories offer the reader – an agent who hasn’t eaten in a Bob’s Big Boy since the Reagan years – something they can sink their teeth into in the first 25 pages or so. That something is the hook.
What is this wondrous little tease? Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s visceral, sensual, emotionally resonant, and makes a promise of an intense and rewarding experience ahead. It can relate to the landscape of the story ahead, rather than the story itself. Or not, that’s your call.
Example: In The DaVinci Code, the dead priest found in The Louve has left a message scribbled in his own blood. Smells like a plot point, but it’s within the first few pages. It’s a hook, and a good one.
Something gets our attention early. Tickles us. Intrigues us. Seduces us. Makes us want to hang in there until the promise of that moment is fulfilled.
You need to deliver it somewhere in your first three to four scenes.
Introducing Your Hero
Your hero must enter the story early. Long before the arrival of the First Plot Point, which occurs at about the 20 t0 25th percentile of the stories length. Or, after about 10 to 14 scenes.
We need to see the hero in her or his pre-Plot Point life. What they are doing, what they are pursuing, what their dreams are made of. In the movie Titanic, for example, Leo Dicaprio boarded the doomed ship (that’s context) to pursue a new life. We invested in that dream with him, which lent gravity to what happens to him later. Robert Langdon (who looks a lot like Tom Hanks) was just a simple professorial symbologist when he was summoned to solve the crime of the millenium in The DaVinci Code.
As your story opens we drop in on the lives of its cast, especially the hero. We see them in lousy jobs and complicated marriages, in failing health and with frustrated plans. We see them wistfully dreaming of better days to come. We see them giving up. Or maybe starting over.
Or maybe they’re happy as hell. At least for now. Because Plot Point One is just around the corner.
And while we’re at it, we readers need to recognize something of ourselves. We need to empathize. We don’t necessary need to like the protagonist all that much, that can come later when their inner hero emerges to win the day. Or not.
Most of all, we need to get a sense of what the hero’s inner demons are. What is their backstory, what are the worldviews and attitudes and prejudices and fears that define them and hold them back? What are their untapped strengths, their unwitting secrets? These are the things the hero must later, when squaring off with the antagonistic force, be forced to acknowledge in order to step up as the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion.
It’s called character arc, and it begins in Part 1 of your story.
It is critical that somewhere in the first part of the story we come to understand what the hero has at stake. The reader may not understand in this at the time, but when the plot turns and trouble arrives we feel the weight of those stakes in the mix.
And lest I remind you, the purpose of the First Plot Point is to set the story on its ear. To begin the real story at hand. The First Plot point changes everything we’ve just learned about the hero’s plans. They now have a new objective, a new need – survival, rescue, justice, wealth, whatever – as they are launched on a new quest, all of it in opposition to an antagonistic force that just dropped into their life… right at Plot Point One.
I saw a great movie yesterday in which the First Plot Point was so quiet I almost missed it. It was a love story – 500 Days… see it soon, it’s a perfect structural model to study – and the deliriously happy hero heard his true love mention something vague about not being sure of her future. Changed everything. Hello Plot Point One.
Stakes cannot be undervalued in storytelling. The more the hero and others have at stake as they pursue their new goal, the more tension the story will have.
Foreshadowing Events to Come
Somewhere in the first of the four parts we must sense impending change. Often that change is a dark turn, but not always. But even if it’s the dawning of a wonderful opportunity, the first Plot Point identifies some opposition to the attainment of that goal. And we need to feel it coming.
Also, it isn’t just the First Plot Point that is foreshadowed here. You can, and often should, foreshadow the major events of the story to come, as well. The best foreshadowing is not recognized as such when it occurs – in 500 Days you could tell, especially in retrospect, that the girl wasn’t into it as much as he was – but only in retrospect when something in the story harkens back to that moment.
The Fifth Mission – Preparing for Launch
The other Part 1 goal: the pace and focus of the scenes need to unfold in context to, if not directly pointed at, the First Plot Point. A sense of foreboding or shifting winds needs to accelerate to the point at which everything suddenly – or subtly – changes.
If you approach the first part of your story – the first 25% of your novel or screenplay (roughly) a story in it’s own right – then you can focus on its conclusion (the First Plot Point) with the same resolution that you’ll naturally bring to bear on the story’s final outcome.
Tomorrow’s post: #4 – Defining the First Plot Point Milestone.
All prior entries in the series are available in the Pages section.