Act 1: Lists and Discussions

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I am hard at work on Act 1 of a new story that I am jokingly calling SHARKS.
I have roughly plotted out the story for Acts 1-3, and am now getting serious about Act 1, using two strategies:

Lists Help Me Plot

Creating lists is a helpful way for me to explore possible scenes and remind myself what needs to be included. My first list is a rough idea of the scenes that need to be included in the first act.
I need a scene that:

  • captures interest, while introducing the setting and main characters, A and B
  • sets up a minor conflict, a sort of running gag
  • A meets C and the result is joining a club
  • Club meeting
  • set up another subplot, one with parents
  • Club goes on outing which reveals a global danger to A
  • A and B try to warn someone about the danger, but are rebuffed
  • A and B are determined to save the world, even if the world doesn’t want to be saved

Does this list seem unfocused and boring to you? It does to me. But it’s a start. These ARE the scenes that I need, but I need to inject conflict and put more at stake in each one. And listing is a help here, too.

Scene 1: Introduce A and B and the outcome is that they don’t like each other.

A good opening strategy is to introduce two characters with a minor conflict that creates a distance between them. I know these guys must work together closely, which means they can’t get along smoothly, there must be conflict. OK. What sort of conflict? For me, that can depend greatly on setting. So, I create a list of possible settings; the general setting is Seattle and Puget Sound, but I need to know a specific setting for a scene, which is grounded in a particular place with particular actions.

  • Coffee shop
  • School
  • Beach
  • On a ferry
  • Bike rental shop

Discussions with Myself Help Me Plot

Which brings me to the second strategy, and that is a discussion with myself about these options. Some of this is internal, but some of it is actually typing the conversation with myself. How do I know what I think until I write it?

Here’s an example of what I might write to myself:

I’m thinking the coffee shop is a good idea. A comes in and B is working there.
Immediate questions: How old is A? Is this a MG or a YA? If a MG, can he be wondering around on his own and ordering 5 cups of coffee? Teen, yes. 12 yo? Not so sure. This story isn’t YA, though, so it needs to be definitely MG. So the coffee shop must be very close to his grandparent’s house. And he’ll need a steady income, an allowance or something, or he can’t buy that much coffee.

If I use the coffee shop for the opening scene, it is 3 blocks from A’s grandparent’s house; he gets a generous allowance from his parents (Dad is Dr., mom is ambassador, so they can afford this). His first week in the Seattle area, it is plausible for him to become so enamored with coffee that he orders five cups in one morning; that also set up conflict with grandparents for later because he will be wide awake all night. The time change from his move, combined with caffeine could heat things up. I like this possible cause-effect relationship between scenes.

On the other hand, do I want school scenes or not? If so, I need to introduce it early: which is more important to the overall story, a coffee shop or a school yard. Can I reuse the coffee obsession later and have the coffee shop come back? Maybe the “club” meeting can take place in the coffee shop. What else could happen here?
If I use a school setting, I’ll need to pick out a specific one in Seattle: do I want to spend time researching a specific school? Because I would have to get this right. What is the important thing here? A school setting or will a coffee shop do?

In other words, I am trying to figure out who, what, when, where, why, the basics of a good scene. I am trying to think through the implications of each element. If character A is buying coffee, what does that mean about him? His age, access to cash, location, passions, etc.

I don’t want to just start with something, just jump in willy nilly. Instead, I want to think through the implications of what I am planning. It’s called plotting!

I will repeat these lists and discussions for each scene. Some things I keep in mind (yes, another list):

  • Conflict on every page: what conflict is possible in a coffee shop; what would be a funny conflict, a sad conflict, an enraging conflict, etc. Is this truly worthy of a full scene?
  • Cause-effect relationships: I need to see connections from one scene to the next. What will carry over from one to the next in a direct or indirect way?
  • Building toward End of Act I: The end of Act I is a sort of climax that sends our characters and plot into the fray with commitment and a sense that they can’t back out, the only way out now is to go forward. How can I foreshadow, build in progressions, connect scenes, etc. in such a way that there is a high point at the end of Act 1?
  • Don’t give away too much. While I want to foreshadow, to prepare the audience for any plot twists later, it needs to be subtle.
  • No back story. In Act 1, I will NOT stop and give any back story! If I feel compelled to write something about that, I will write it, but hold it in reserve for much later in the story when it can have an emotional impact. This act will stay in the immediate action and progress without flashbacks.
  • Emotional Arc. While I am plotting the action, I must also keep in mind the emotional impact on the characters, especially the protagonist. How are these events affecting him/her and where is s/he on the emotional arc of the story?
  • Timeline: From scene to scene, what is the time jump? Can I tighten that in any way, or can I plan better scene cuts? As is, there’s a long time gap between the initial club meeting and the outing. How can I shorten this gap or create a scene cut that quickens the pace?

I expect to go round and round on this, trying one thing and then another. I expect to write some sample scenes or so, trying out the voice, the setting, the character interactions, etc. I expect it to be messy for a while. But in the end, there will be a stronger plot for Act 1 of SHARKS. I hope to have a short paragraph for each scene to guide the writing process.

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2 Comments
  • Beth MacKinney
    May 25, 2012

    Can I just say that your blog is my new favorite. So much great info in each post! Thank you!

  • Kirstie
    May 25, 2012

    I use lists too, you can reshuffle the order fairly easily and I’m also a big fan of ‘to-do lists’ in general.
    That’s such good advice to keep Act 1 free of back story. I’ll try, but I think I’ll probably still end up letting a few snippets slip past.
    Also, that picture looks like it was taken outside of Osaka Castle, is it? The moat, cherry blossoms, railing and stone work are what look familiar and lead me to think it’s there.