Last time we talked about the hook for your book—from opening line through the first chapter. So, now that you’ve written a bang-up beginning and your readers have bitten that shiny lure, what needs to happen in Act 1 of your novel to make those first 50 pages successful?
A ton, actually. Because not only do you want readers to bite that lure, this is where you firmly set the hook.
Depending upon genre, specific things have to happen here. For example, if you’re writing category Romance, the chemistry needs to be palpable—even if the two characters involved initially hate each other. If Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, etc., the inciting murder must have already happened in Chapter 1, and this first section builds upon that.
But all novels, no matter the genre, have similar specs to get done here.
So let’s break down what needs to happen in those first 50 pages of a novel.
The Real Life of the Main Character.
This is where life as he knows it before the inciting incident, containing the main story question, occurs.
Which seems fairly contradictory, especially if we opened with a murder! But it’s not, really. If our protagonist is the detective on the case, we soon experience the argument he had last night with his wife, who is of course having an affair and thinks he doesn’t know. But then, he’s a detective, right? And with his own life spiraling out of control, we question (along with him) if he has the wherewithal right now to solve this case.
Because that’s crucial as well—your reader needs to question whether the main character is up to the task, as he questions himself.
Now, as a book editor, what I so often see here is a huge info dump of character background and traits. We get the entire backstory of our detective, the romance leading to marriage with the wife, etc., etc., etc. And if this were a published book, every reader on the planet has just gone onto more fertile fields (someone else’s novel).
Instead, we want to weave in that information as we go—through the entire course of the story. It’s great to learn a tipping trait late in—which causes our character’s actions to make so much sense. This adds layers and nuance as well.
So real life for the protagonist, in those first 50 pages, is real life today. With bits filtering up as we go.
The Call to Action.
Whatever your inciting incident is, it spurs the main character to act. Something has to be attended to. Something has to be done. The mountain is there to climb. The ship to sail. The mystery to solve.
This is why you have a book at all—it’s raison d’etre. The story question and the call to action, are what get your book going.
The Refusal of the Call
But, he doesn’t wanna do it. That thing with the wife has our detective emotionally spinning. Or, our intrepid mountain climber has broken his ankle, putting his planned trip up Mt. Everest in peril. Or, our stalwart reporter has been thrust together with the scientist studying climate change about which she is writing—and she can’t stand him. Or . . .
You get the picture. This is not only a plot point, but where big conflict comes in—and it’s a conflict that will carry through the entire story as well. It’s that part of the story question that will be answered in the end.
Accepting the Call
He kinda has to though, doesn’t he. Else we’d have a short story (and not a very satisfying one) rather than a novel.
But what makes him decide to take the plunge?
This can be accomplished in many different ways. Maybe our detective finds out that the wife’s lover is also the lover of the deceased. Maybe our mountain climber’s five-year-old daughter undergoing cancer treatment brags to all her friends about how brave her daddy is. Also, maybe the reporter stumbles upon corruption that only the scientist can dispute. Or maybe even an archetype of the old woman/man/voice of god pushes him onward.
The thing is, this has to be in direct proportion to the refusal. I.e., it has to be not only believable, but also carry the same weight as the refusal. Big refusal/big reason to accept.
From here we’re ready to cross into the meat of the story. The challenge has been accepted. The reader still has her doubts about the main character’s proficiency, but jumps along for the ride to see.
As a book editor, I can’t tell you how often by the end of Act 1 I have no clue what the story is actually about. We’ve rambled along on so much backstory, nothing much has happened in real time.
And, even though all this space was spent on backstory, I have no idea what the main character’s Achilles Heel is.
So in a nutshell, here’s what great authors accomplish in Act 1, those first 50 pages of a novel:
Your main character has been established along with his limiting foibles. Readers have a sense of who he is, and what his issues are. They question whether he’s up to the task, but want to find out.
Your plotline is set. By the end of this section, readers should know what the story is about, some of its main conflicts, and be eager to see what happens.
A lot to get done, yes. But you’re up to it! Now go write that fabulous Act 1.