I’m writing this under the assumption everyone’s seen these three articles already, so be sure to take a look at them:
The inciting event(s.)
The inciting event should happen within the first 5% of the story. If you have multiple inciting events due to more than one POV character, a highly complex plot, or a “pre-inciting event” (i.e. something that catches the reader’s attention full force and shows them where the primary inciting event will likely occur so they can anticipate it,) then the events may stretch out farther than this. In general though, if you have more than 5k words before the character dives into their journey and the reader glimpses the plot as a whole, then something probably needs to be cut out or rearranged.
The set up.
Some books require a lot of set up in order for the character’s development or the plot’s beginning to make sense and hit home, while other books can have the set up built in after the plot starts rolling. Write out a list of what needs to be set up for your story and determine whether the reader needs to know each piece either prior to the inciting event, prior to the second act, or at some other point before the climax. All set up should be delayed until it’s needed, except in cases where it’s easy to work it into an already important scene.
If you don’t need it, take it out.
If that scene, that conversation, that action sequence doesn’t either develop the plot or relay something new and important about the characters in the long run, then it doesn’t belong in the first act. First acts, like first chapters, are there to show the reader what the book will be about and catch their interest so thoroughly that they can’t look away. That scene you’re attached to but isn’t really necessary to the story probably won’t be interesting to a still critical reader who’s only just learning about your story and doesn’t yet have the attachment to it that you do.
Something. Must. Happen.
While there’s many things you want to hold off on in the first act because they’ll hit harsher after some tension is built up, this in no way means that nothing interesting or important should be going on! Don’t leave your characters to a series of mild unemotional successes and quiet conversations simply because it’s still the beginning of the story. Hit them where it hurts, make them taste the failure that will soon all but destroy them, give them choices they don’t want to make. A novel length story can be a very long journey — don’t give it a slow, monotonous start by treating your characters too tenderly in the beginning.
Play with different starting points.
Think about the way the story would change if you started it at different points, with different characters, or in different locations. What does that do to the overall tension of the first act? How many scenes and chapters would you need with different starting points? Try plotting out “tension vs time” graphs. From there, which starting points give you the most consistent cycles of rising and falling tension with more rising than falling? (Remember to include both action-created tension and emotional tension in your graphs!)
Remember, this deeper look at your pacing through the first act can be done either during the outlining phase or after the first draft has already been written. For the first draft it’s always best to write your novel in whichever way helps you get the words on the page.
There’s a lot more information in the linked articles, so check those out!
Don’t forget to check out Bryn’s debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl!