Have you been reading Dragon Rider? If so, what do you think?
I love that book. It was my first novel. The first one I actually finished writing anyway. And although I can see many mistakes and things I would probably do differently, I’m still very proud of it.
So, one of the reasons I put it on my blog is so that we can tear it apart and see what we can learn from it. Today, I’m going to talk about the first act of the three-act story structure using Dragon Rider as a foundation.
If you want to read it, parts one to seven of Dragon Rider are in the first act of the novel. Don’t worry though, you can still gain loads of information from this article without reading it. So, here goes:
Five things you need to do in Act One of your story:
One – Set Up The Ordinary World
In my previous post, five reasons why the three-act structure is for you (see it here), I gave a rundown of all the parts of writing a story with three acts.
Act one is basically the beginning of the story, the part where the hero is inactive or, to use the posh word, in stasis. Stasis means a period of inactivity or equilibrium. Our hero is inactive, going about her business as she usually would until she is called into action when a triggering event happens. Basically, act one is setting the story up for the action that follows in acts two and three.
One of the first things you need to do in act one is to set up the ordinary world (as Christopher Vogler puts it), the place where the story begins. The ordinary world is the place where our hero is inactive. It has to be different from the special world the hero crosses into. It has to be in contrast to that special world. This allows for character and story development.
So in Dragon Rider, Drake is in Devilsgate rounding up criminals for the bounty money. He’s surviving day-to-day just waiting for the opportunity to get his revenge on the man who murdered his father. He’s working on his own.
Two – There has to be a Call to Adventure
The hero has to be presented with a challenge, a quest, a reason why she must act. This is a trigger point and there’s usually a trigger point towards the end of act one that throws the hero into act two. The trigger point moves the story along.
This is often accompanied by the hero’s refusal of the call to adventure. The refusal can be an internal one where the hero expresses reluctance to go on the quest because of fear. Sometimes the refusal doesn’t come from the hero herself but can be expressed by another character.
In Dragon Rider, Drake, our hero, is asked by an old acquaintance, Willow, to help them find a magical book for a friend. In return, that friend will protect Willow and The Lost Souls (the group of orphans she lives with) from the purge. Drake is unsure and expresses his reluctance to help but agrees to meet the friend, Funestus Black.
When Drake meets Funestus Black, he expresses his reluctance to go on the quest again. Drake finally accepts the quest when he learns that the book they need to find is also being hunted by the very man who murdered his father.
Drake has no choice but to go on the quest; it is now beyond his control.
Three – You must set up the character of the hero
The first act must set the character of the hero up effectively. We have to see our character; the flaws, the weaknesses, her desires and what drives her. This is because our character needs to be changed by the quest she endures. We need to be able to see the difference in character at the end of the story. We need to be able to see the contrast between the character presented to us in the ordinary world to the one at the end of act three.
Of course, in tragedy, the protagonist doesn’t change at the end of the story and this is why it’s a tragedy. The main character remains unchanged but we still need to set the character up effectively so that we, as the reader, can see that they haven’t changed.
Act one must raise questions about our hero; can he put aside his pride to help? Can she learn to overcome her flaws to achieve the goal?
Four – Set up the tone of the story
Right from the get-go, the reader needs to know what type of story it is. Is the story a fantasy? Is it a comedy? Is it dark? Or is it light-hearted?
The beginning of Dragon Rider is set up to be dark and mysterious. We meet our hero, Drake, skulking in the shadows, waiting to meet an informant. It begins like so;
“A scream exploded somewhere in the distance but broke off before it reached its terrifying conclusion. Another life sucked dry, thought Drake, as the bitter smell of blood rolled in on the mist, along with the dead leaves and the smell of decay. He pulled his black hood over his head and slunk back into the shadows like a black panther stalking its prey, his vivid green eyes alert, his body pumped for action.
There was movement in the alleyway opposite, a slight rustle of paper, a scraping sound. He stopped breathing momentarily, his hands curling into tight balls at his side as he listened harder. Had his senses failed him, were the Shadow Walkers really that close?”
It was deliberately written to be dark and tense and to show the tone of the whole of the story.
Five – It’s good to set up the theme of the story
There will be an underlying theme or message to your story. This is an idea that runs through the whole of the novel. The message could be, for example, “crime doesn’t pay,” or “love conquers all”. It gives the story cohesion.
Dragon Rider is set up from the very first page to be about revenge;
“It is said that a man with revenge in his heart should dig two graves; one for his enemy and one for himself. Perhaps this is true, but I’m not ready to take to my grave. Not yet.
I ask you; what do you do if there is no justice? If the law itself is rotten and corrupt. What then? Should we let those who do wrong get away with it, turn the other cheek to their crimes?”
Dragon Rider is about revenge. The message of Dragon Rider? Revenge is self-destructive;
“All I know is that now I have my revenge. Fenrik is destroyed and for that I am grateful. But I will never be healed. The hatred, the need for revenge has kept me alive for far too long and now it pulses through my veins like my lifeblood.”
I hope this helps when you’re beginning to write act one of your novel.
Is there anything else you’d include?