Filling Up Those Boxes — Part One

Now that we’ve explained the four parts in your book, let’s fill them up. If you need a quick review, you can read through them again: The Setup, The Response, The Attack, and The Resolution.

Now, I said it would be easy to fill up those boxes once you understood them, so here’s what goes in box one. This should fill up about a quarter of your book and it has five things to accomplish. These things should be taken care of before your first plot point appears. If they appear after your plot point, chances are your story will be found wanting.

So, what are these mysterious things?

What’s the hook?

If you don’t capture your reader early, they may not stick around. Usually, the earlier you hook your reader, the better. The hook is not the plot point. It might be the inciting incident or it might not. As long as it captures the reader’s imagination and makes them want to find out more, you’re good. The hook should be emotional or intense. It promises a rewarding experience if the reader just keeps turning the page.

Who’s that interesting hero over there?

That’s right… introduce your hero. We want to get to know him or her. Within the first two or three scenes, ideally. We’re dropping in the middle of their lives … are they happy? Fulfilled? Working in a dead-end job? Stuck in a loveless marriage? What are they hiding? What are they afraid of? What? We want to know.

What’s at stake?

Once that plot point drops at the end of part one, everything we’ve come to know about our hero will be in jeopardy. Does he have a daughter he truly loves? Does she dream of a future with her one true love? Whatever it is, it might be gone once the plot point comes. Stakes are super important. The plot point will change everything, challenge our hero and all they hold dear. If the stakes aren’t worth it, there is no story.

Duh duh DUH… foreshadowing!

What’s coming up? Can we sense some kind of change in the wind? Foreshadowing does just that, whether you choose it to be sudden or subtle. Whether it’s something ill or good, foreshadowing can make the reader thunk themselves in the head and go, “Of course! I should have seen this coming when that thing happened on page 36.” Foreshadowing shouldn’t necessarily be understood at the moment, but it becomes clear as crystal later. All we know is we knew something was coming.

Preparing for Liftoff

All the scenes in part one need to unfold so they lead to the first plot point. This includes their pacing, their focus, and their context. If we need to understand how jet propulsion works, this may be a good place to lay the groundwork in some manner… but make it part of the story.

Keeping these things in mind will fill your part one and keep it on track toward your first plot point.


The Setup

Welcome to the first part of our little series on story structure. Remember those four boxes we mentioned last Friday? Today we’re going to fill up the first one. Box One. Knowing what goes in this box will make your writing easier, it will satisfy your readers, and it will make your work far more marketable.

The first quarter of your story is the setup. This is where we learn the stakes, the backstory, we empathize with your characters, we get a taste of what’s to come. This is where we meet Billie Jean and find out her neat, tidy corner of the world is going to implode. While I fully encourage you to begin the story as late as you can, the first plot point doesn’t arrive until the end of Part One. You can have an inciting incident that sweeps her along for the ride, but don’t confuse it with the first plot point. More on that later. Right now, we want the reader to care about Billie Jean and what happens to her. The more we care about Billie Jean, the better. We need to empathize with what she has at stake. What does she need or want in her life? What does she face before the main conflict arrives? This is what will affect how much we care about her when the caca hits the fan. And why should you care how much we care? Because the more we care, the more effective your story is.

Now that we’re falling all over ourselves with caring, our dashing heroine gets hit in the face with the first plot point, and the reader gets rewarded with meaning. Ta da! Cue the angelic spotlight from the ceiling. The antagonistic force has come into play and either the main character, the reader, or both are hit straight in the eyes with what’s happening. Before this, we don’t know what it all means, even if we’re scared out of our wits or if we find it arousing.

So, what’s the difference between an inciting incident and the first plot point? An inciting incident is definitely something big that happens. It’s huge and dramatic. It can be a game changer. It can also be part of the set up. While a plot point can be all those things, it also defines the changes and the path the character takes. An inciting incident creates an obstacle, but the plot point gives meaning and implications to the hero’s journey.

So, the setup has to bring your character to the transition point. We do that using scenes. This part ends when Billie Jean realizes she needs to step up. Part one has revealed something new… a decision, an action, an obstacle that has created a situation that must be addressed. It may be challenging or scary. She has to accomplish something. If she was already working towards this accomplishment in Part One, the plot point alters it somehow or clarifies what is at stake or the nature of her challenge. Alternatively, the first plot point can be completely unexpected; a moment in which everything changes.

At the very end of Part One, the first plot point, the reader gets the first full look at the antagonist. That doesn’t mean everything is explained about the antagonist, but now the reader gets to understand what his or her desire is and how he or she opposes our hero. Conflict. This is where the story really gets interesting.