Structure And The Novel – The Opening Act

By Susan Mary Malone

We’ve talked about how the opening of a novel—both the beginning line, and the first chapter—works to hook your reader. So now you have a sensational start, and you’re speeding into your story, full steam ahead. So far, so great!

While thinking in terms of novel development playing out in three acts, now let’s discuss the opening act of your drama.

Usually this is the easiest for writers to effect. Creativity is soaring (or you wouldn’t be sitting there writing in the first place), your characters are vivid in your mind, and you know where they’re going (at least for now!). Hopefully you’re banging out paragraph after scene after chapter, and smiling once you’re done.

But what, exactly, does this opening act need to convey? How do you fashion this so that the middle section (which trips up virtually everybody) flows smoothly and keeps moving your tale along? Because how a book author sets up this first act will dictate the story’s movement, and whether one hits those dreaded sagging middles or breezes right through.

First off, we have The Entrance. This is “real life” for the character, as it is now. Although we’ve opened the book with some event, we need to know through it or immediately after what regular life is like for our hero, before the cataclysm hits (whether this cataclysm is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, or hopefully, many of the above!). As any book editor knows, this is where we weave in some character background, and the people and conflicts with which he begins. In Lonesome Dove, we literally meet our heroes doing what they’ve been doing since their glory days ended: Gus drinking whiskey and Call working and both finding what excitement they can by stealing horses and cattle in Mexico. Inertia has waylaid our guys, and it appears that their heydays are well past them.

Then in our book development, we have some sort of Call to Adventure, whether this is internal or external (or again, hopefully both!). This “Call” is what propels our hero out of his comfort zone, and is and will forever be the “Story Question.” You have already established right off the bat what the Story Question is to begin the first scene of the book, and now, with the combined understanding of what Hero’s life was like before, as well as his conflicts, we get the bigger picture. This is your main point of the story. Throughout the entirety of the book, each scene has to have a piece of this main Story Question. With our cowboys, this Call to Adventure is a literal one: Enter Jack Spoon with a crazy notion of the land of milk and honey, which is Montana, and a scheme to make big bucks via a cattle drive to establish a ranch there.

But of course, as in any good story, our hero doesn’t want to take the bait! He Refuses the Call. Your character will give a laundry list of excuses as to why he can’t accept the job. This brings up the polarity, the duality, of the character, and raises the question of whether the hero can actually master this test. You want to leave doubt in the reader’s mind at this point. Is he up to the task? Our guys here are split; Cap’n Call is right ready to load up. Gus, on the other hand, always the voice of reason, is quite content to stay. As Call says to him, “All you want to do is sit on the porch and drink whiskey.” This brings up an interesting conundrum to our theory, as Gus and Call are opposite sides of the same coin, the duality playing through as they interact. And Gus senses that Call’s vision will not end well.

Just about the time we’re thinking our intrepid hero is way out of his league, we have the build up to our first major plot point. In other words, Hero gets some help! At this point, he meets the mentor. Here some wise voice comes in–the wise old woman archetype, etc., although we can also learn from fools, and it can even be the intuition. This speaks clearly, with no ego in the way. It gets Hero’s own ego out of the way so that God’s voice (or however you perceive a higher power) can speak to him. In other words, we have given him an offer he cannot refuse. In our model, our cowboys are a bit long in the tooth for such an adventure, no matter how adept they were in their Rangering days. But Call has the fever. And when he nudges Gus with promises of a still-wild country, with no bankers or lawyers, Gus can’t help but load up for the drive north. Wouldn’t you?

Which leads into our first major plot point: The hero Crosses the Threshold to a new world. He’s committed to the journey—whatever that journey may be. Our Western heroes here head north toward Paradise, and into the unknown.

This is the end of Act I. It fashions the transition from one world to another. In myth and metaphor, the character would go through an actual gate, often with a guardian in front of it, and have to pass some test to do so. The hero is stepping into the brink of the unknown, and some have to be kicked through it! As Gus, Call, the hands, and the cattle begin driving northward, they cross the Red River—their threshold to the new world. But it’s not without great cost—they lose one of the hands, setting the tone for the rest of the trip. As Gus says (in the film version) once this is done, “I-god, Woodrow, but this is a bad start.”

Once you successfully navigate through Act 1, you’re left with a dizzying amount of possible conflicts and trials, which will play into our poor hero’s Achilles’ Heel, and keep your momentum going well through Act II. As with our Lonesome Dove travelers, crossing that river allows the real story to begin, and our plot to thicken. Hopefully you, at this point as the writer (or with help from your writing coach), have set up your story so that readers have a sense of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there; whether this will go well, badly, or all of the above.

And in the end, everything weaves back to this beginning. Call’s final words in the film version, after all that he’s lost, to a reporter’s question about their famous drive, is “Helluva vision.” And we know exactly what he meant.

About Susan Mary Malone


With a BS in Political Science and minors in English and Journalism, Susan Mary Malone’s professional background includes working as an editor, columnist and reporter for newspapers and magazines. In business since 1993, her edited books have been featured in Publishers Weekly, and won numerous awards.

Her clients include NY Times Bestselling author Mary B. Morrison, and Essence Bestselling author Naleighna Kai. Other notable edited books include: The Things I Could Tell You (Jeremy Woodson was nominated for an NAACP Literary award); O’Brien’s Desk (a Publishers Weekly Spring Pick to Watch); Ida Mae Tutweiler and the Traveling Tea Party (made into a Hallmark film), among many others.

With many published works to her credit, Editor Susan Mary Malone applies her skills at editing books to her own book writing, and those of her clients. Susan’s success as an award-winning book author of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as her short stories, is highlighted in the list of her works to be found at: http://www.maloneeditorial.com/Malone.htm

She also participates as speaker at many literary conferences, including the Harriett Austin Writer’s Conference (at the University of Georgia), the Blue Ridge Writer’s Conference, the SouthWest Writer’s Conference, and the upcoming Golden Triangle Writer’s Conference, among others.