How to Write an Interesting First Act
There are a lot of stories in the world and only so many hours in the day. Often, working with students, I’ll point to the Melbourne Young Writer’s Studio bookshelf and ask how many books they think are up there (I have no idea, but it’s a lot). I’ll then ask how likely it is that they’ll read all of them. With the exception of a couple of overly ambitious readers, most are comfortable to admit it’s unlikely they’ll get through even a quarter. So what separates the books that people read from the ones they don’t? Or more to the point, how do you make the start of your story interesting enough that people will want to see the end?
It’s a harder challenge than you might think. In the early part of any story you have to establish the world and the characters, find a way to make audiences care about or at least be intrigued by what’s going on and include the event that kickstarts the story and propels your characters into the next stage. If you’re a new writer then you also have to convince readers that your story is worthy of their time – no mean feat.
So what are the techniques we can use and the pitfalls we need to avoid if we’re going to start our stories in the strongest way possible?
In Media Res
I’m going to start by discussing in media res because this seems to be the most common get-out-of-jail-free card used by young writers insecure about their story’s first act. While traditionally in media res meant ‘starting in the middle of things’, nowadays it generally refers to the technique of starting with an explosive or mysterious moment from later in the story, before flashing back to how it all started. And look, plenty of very famous books, movies and TV shows have used this to varying degrees of success. On a base level, in media res is like a promise made to the audience – “don’t worry if things seem boring, they’re gonna get super exciting later!” For this reason, it’s essentially a cheat code that many, many people use to get away with having a dull or slow first act.
There are a lot of writers who look down on in media res, for various reasons. Some believe that a story should start when it starts, others believe that the technique is a cheap way to grab the audience’s attention without having to do the work of making your set up interesting. The truth, like anything in writing, is that good storytelling is less about what you do than how you do it. In media res can certainly be cheap and tacky (see: Twilight). It can also be electrifying and thematically appropriate. Ultimately it’s up to the writer to really interrogate why they’re using it. If it’s only in place to make up for a slow first act, then I would argue that you still have a big problem to solve, because while you might grab the attention of some people, others will see right through what you’re doing and move on to a book that finds a cleverer way to get your attention.
Very, very few people start reading a book with no clue of what it’s about, but I still believe you have to give the audience an idea of what they’re in for from the first page. You can’t, for example, start a dark thriller with a scene of goofy comedy, or a domestic drama with an explosive car chase. Some of the best book openings ever not only give you memorable and catchy first lines, but an immediate sense of what’s to come. A Series of Unfortunate Events, for example, opens with the now famous ‘If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.’
This is fantastic because it immediately tells you that you’re reading something dark, self-aware and with a sense of wry humour. It also tells you in one line, without the need for an explosive flashforward, that there will be ample trouble and strife to come.
The book doesn’t stop there however; throughout the whole first chapter there are regular warnings and suggestions, moments of foreshadowing that sit comfortably side by side with the establishment of the characters, their traits and their ordinary world. This means that the reader is engaged on a level that goes beyond just watching dominoes being set up to fall. Unfortunate Events’ excellent prequel series All The Wrong Questions gets even more direct in its first line and following paragraph; ‘There was a town, there was a girl and there was a theft. I was living in the town and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it. I was almost thirteen and I was wrong.’
I love this opening. It’s so clean and direct in telling you what to expect from the noir pastiche of the series, but beyond that it keeps you guessing; of all the characters we meet, which is the girl in question? How is she connected? What is our main character wrong about?
Of course, these are cases in which the foreshadowing is less shadowing than stating. Other books find subtler ways to hint at what’s to come, whether it’s the unexplained glimpses of magic and intrigue in the first chapter of Northern Lights or the indication that Alex Rider’s recently deceased uncle was up to something dangerous in Stormbreaker. It’s often astounding how much the barest hint of mysteries or circumstances outside the characters’ knowledge can work to draw an audience in while you’re doing the more mundane task of putting everything in place for the fireworks to come. This is a harder balance to pull off than the blunt force of in media res, but if done well it can be a whole lot more engaging.
The above is not necessarily a recognised literary term, but for the purposes of this article it’s the one I’m using. A teaser, to me, is a glimpse of the world your character is about to step into before we actually see what the character’s day to day life is like. Consider how every James Bond or Indiana Jones film starts with the end of the previous adventure, a few minutes of exciting action that tells us who we’re dealing with before Bond goes back to MI-6 for briefings or Indy does his day job at the university. Without stealing a moment from later in your story, this allows you to be clear on what kind of story you’re telling while still keeping everything in order.
But a teaser doesn’t even necessarily have to feature your main character. Star Wars, for example, opened with the capture of Princess Leia by Darth Vader, a glimpse of the epic conflict playing out before we meet Luke Skywalker living his boring life on Tatooine. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, likewise, doesn’t begin with Harry’s miserable life in the cupboard under the stairs, but with the Dursley’s growing awareness that something strange is going on followed by the introduction of the magical world via Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid delivering baby Harry to his relatives.
It’s worth considering that a danger with this technique is that you start with the audience ahead of the main character, which can be frustrating especially if we already have information that it takes the protagonist a long time to learn. The trick, then, is to be careful with how much information is given; enough to intrigue the audience and to hint at what’s to come without creating a scenario in which we have to wait for the character we’re following to play catch up.
Writers complain a lot about endings being hard, but in truth the real challenge is beginnings. After all, even the worst ending won’t matter much if readers don’t get to it. In the end, the only sure fire way to know that you have the right approach to starting a story is to interrogate what best suits the tale you’re trying to tell and to know that you’ve settled on the approach you have for the right reasons.