The First Act: Nailing Your Novel's Opening Chapters

Struggling to perfect your novel’s opening chapters? Kristen from She's Novel breaks down the first act!

Ready to discover the power of story structure? 

Now, don't frown at me.

I know story structure doesn't sound like the most exciting thing in the world. Well, not to everyone anyway. Personally, I'm kind of a structure freak, so I AM SUPER EXCITED FOR THIS BLOG SERIES.


Apologies. Got a little excited there. Back to business...

Over the next four weeks, we're going to break down the 3-Act Story Structure. But first, let's talk about why structure is so important. After all, one of the biggest complaints I hear about structure is that it's too rigid, that it makes stories sound old and recycled.

But that's not the case, not if structure is used well.

You see, a plot or story structure is not a plot or story in and of itself. It's the foundation of one, the basis. Think of it as the blueprint for a house: the same house can be decorated a million different ways to create a million different looks. 

See what I mean? Story structure is awesome!

But who is the 3-Act Story Structure for?

YOU. Haha, but seriously...

It doesn't matter if you're a pantser or a planner, a newbie or an old pro. A strong understanding of story structure is the key to writing a quality book, and it just so happens that the 3-Act Story Structure is the most popular structure used in film and literature alike.

And keep in mind that understanding story structure doesn't mean you have to outline or pre-write. If that's not your style, no problem. It's the understanding of story structure–and writing with structure in mind–that will make all the difference.

Have I convinced you yet? Yes? YES!

Obviously, the 3-Act Story Structure is broken down into three "acts". The first act, which we'll be talking about today, covers the opening chapters of your novel, up to the point where the main character begins the journey that will carry them through the rest of the book.

The second act is all about that journey, about the actions that the character takes to achieve their story goal and overcome the villain or antagonistic force that keeps them from attaining success.

Finally, the third act features the culmination of conflict at the climax of the story, as well as the resolution where all of the novel's threads of tension are wrapped up and released.

Now ready to get started with that first act?

Struggling to perfect your novel’s opening chapters? Kristen from She's Novel breaks down the first act!

The first act of the 3-Act Story Structure consists of three important hallmarks: the hook, the inciting incident, and the first plot point. 

These hallmarks make up anywhere from the first 15% - 25% of the novel, simply depending on how many scenes are needed to establish the main character's everyday life and their call to adventure.

If you don't already have a strong idea of how you want to open your novel, beginning with the final hallmark–the first plot point–and working backwards can be a great way to discover the perfect place to begin your book. 

(I often do this with my own books, by the way!)

But for the sake of clarity, we're going to work in chronological order today. Let's start with the hook!

Nailing your novel's hook...

The hook is the very first scene in your novel, and its purpose is just that: to hook readers into the story so they'll continue to read past chapter one. 

In order to be effective, a hook must do three things:

  1. Introduce the main character.
  2. Establish the main character's everyday life.
  3. Show the main character dealing with an everyday conflict.

These three items give readers a strong understanding of not only who your protagonist is, but also of what they're like–their personality, their shortcomings, how they handle stress, and how they need to grow.

Meanwhile, by introducing an everyday conflict–something that shows that the protagonist is not satisfied or safe in their everyday life–you kick off your novel's forward momentum. You let readers know that your protagonist's life cannot go on as it is.

Something needs to break, and it is going to break very soon.

Need a few examples? Let's look at The Hunger Games, Pride and Prejudice, and The Fault in Our Stars:

The Hunger Games. Here, the hook introduces our main character Katniss, who is hunting in the woods in an effort to feed her family. As Katniss explains why she must do so, we learn about District 12 and the everyday struggle its citizens face just to stay alive.

Readers get the hint that something is about to change when Gale interrupts Katniss's hunt, and they begin to speak of The Hunger Games and the opportunity it provides to feed their families.

Pride and Prejudice. In P&P, readers are introduced to Lizzie Bennet, the second daughter in a family of five daughters and no sons. The family is a happy one, loving balls and books and music and dresses, however... 

Mr. Bennet is beginning to worry that he will die before he can financially secure his children, and Mrs. Bennet wants her daughters married ASAP to prevent that financial ruin. Fortunately, a young and wealthy gentleman has moved into nearby Netherfield Hall.

The Fault in Our Stars. In TFIOS, readers meet Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teen battling cancer. Her everyday life is a constant struggle, not only against cancer, but against the depression and self-doubt that keep her from ever wanting to leave the house.

As the tension grows between Hazel and her mom, Hazel knows that she's going to have to give in and start attending a cancer support group.

Finding the inciting incident...

The second hallmark of the first act is the inciting incident.

Now, keep mind that one or many scenes may fall in between the hook and the inciting incident. These scenes continue to expound upon the main character and the story world, but it is the inciting incident that will tease readers with the first taste of where your story is headed.

An inciting incident is the moment in which your protagonist is first called to adventure, when they are beckoned–or perhaps dragged–on a new journey. This moment should take place roughly halfway between the hook and the first plot point, which we'll discuss next.

Before we dive into examples, it's important to note that protagonists don't always accept the call to adventure during the inciting incident. Sometimes they resist their new journey out of fear or disinterest, only to accept later at the first plot point.

Now that we have that established, are you ready for a few examples?

The Hunger Games. The inciting incident in The Hunger Games occurs when Primrose Everdeen, Katniss's sister, is chosen as a tribute for The Hunger Games. Katniss does not hesitate to volunteer herself as tribute in her sister's place, thus accepting her new journey.

Pride and Prejudice. In P&P, the inciting incident occurs when Lizzie meets Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball and they immediately take a dislike to one another. This incident sets the remainder of the story into motion, sending Lizzie and Darcy into conflict time and again.

The Fault in Our Stars. In TFIOS, readers get a taste of the adventure to come when Hazel and Augustus first meet at the cancer support group. After group, Hazel and Gus make small talk and decide to hang out for the afternoon at his parent's house.

This is when they share their favorite books and Hazel reveals that she has always wanted to speak to Peter Van Houten, the author of her favorite book, so that she can learn more about its ambiguous ending...thus sparking the story's adventure.


Defining the first plot point...

While several more scenes may occur between the inciting incident and the last hallmark of the first act, it is that remaining hallmark–the first major plot point of your story–that will launch your protagonist into the heart of your novel's plot–and the second act.

The first plot point, which arrives between the 15% - 25% mark in your story, marks the point of no return. Thanks to the events that occur during the first plot point, your protagonist now begins their journey, willingly or unwillingly depending on the circumstances. 

Keep in mind, a plot point is a moment of action that spins a story in a new direction. Your first plot point should certainly be no exception. A major change is about to occur in your protagonist's life, and it should show.

Need a few examples? Let's do this:

The Hunger Games. Katniss's life is forever changed when she is forced to leave behind her family for good and journey to Panem's Capitol to train for The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games is a prime example of a protagonist who is forced to engage in a new adventure rather than one who willingly accepts their call.

Pride and Prejudice. Jane is happily in love with Mr. Bingley when all of a sudden Bingley and his retinue leave for London with seemingly no plans to return.

This event twists the story by breaking Jane's heart and finalizing Lizzie's hatred for Mr. Darcy–the man she believes to have convinced Mr. Bingley to leave town.

The Fault in Our Stars. The first major twist occurs in The Fault in Our Stars when Augustus reveals to Hazel that he has tracked down her favorite author's assistant, who has set him up to correspond with the author, Peter Van Houten.

Hazel can hardly believe that she will now get to ask her favorite author the questions about his book that have tormented her for years. But when the author writes her back, he says that he will only answer her questions in person–a trip that Hazel can't manage thanks to her cancer.


Wrapping up the first act...

The introduction of the first plot point wraps up the story's first act by launching the protagonist into a brand new adventure.

But the three hallmarks of the first act–the hook, the inciting incident, and the first plot point–shouldn't be the only moments that occur during your novel's opening chapters. What additional scenes should fill out the empty plot between each hallmark?

It depends on the story!

If you know your hook, inciting incident, and first plot point, you likely know what events need to occur between those moments in order to move your protagonist from one hallmark to the next. 

That said, make sure to use these moments wisely by giving them as much purpose as possible. Work mindfully to include key characterization points and exposition details that will give readers a strong understanding of the story without weighing your novel down with info-dumping.

This certainly isn't easy.

Nailing your novel's first act is a process that will take time, so don't worry about mastering these tricky opening scenes in the first draft. Revisions, editors, and beta readers are your friends when it comes to finalizing an amazing opening sequence for your novel.

Let's chat!

Did you enjoy this first installment in our four-week mini blog series on the 3-Act Story Structure?

Barring any emergencies, a new post in this series will go live every Monday in the month of October 2016. You can see all of the posts in this series by checking out the "Related Posts" widget below.

Have any questions about how the first act of this story structure works or why you should be using story structure in the first place?

Let's discuss in the comments below!

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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!

Kristen is the author of the upcoming The Books of Maveryn series and The Astral Series, as well as several non-fiction books for writers.