The following is taken from a lecture by Elana Johnson, who in turn used information from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.
When I was in a college music class, we learned that there were these complex rules that composers of each time period followed when writing music. As these rules changed from Classic, to Romantic, to Baroque, the composers began to follow these new rules. You could dissect their music and see that they actually did follow these extensive set of rules. What the teacher went on to explain is that the composers at the time never thought about the rules; they were simply writing music. It didn't occur to them to do what they did because the rules dictated that they must - they simply composed.
Well, like it or not, no matter how imaginative and creative you are, when you write a story you follow a set of complex rules as well; you just don't realize it. Just like the composers mentioned above, you write your story. If you go back over what you've written you'll see that indeed, these structure points are all there.
So, to begin with:
All good books have 3 Acts, 2 "Break Into" Points, and 15 Beats. These beats make up the complex rules that writers follow when they write a good story. And beats are critical because they are the turning points in the story which make it satisfying to the reader.
The first Act is outline below.
ACT 1 -
This is the beginning of the story where certain things take place, including the first 6 Beats.
During Act 1, we are introduced to our main character and the world he lives in. The author will let us know about several (possibly 6, though the number may vary) things that need to be fixed, either
in the character or the world he lives in.
I like to think of Act 1 as the point at which the main character is a mass of clay. He could be or do anything at this point. All we know is by the end of the story he will be fully formed, whereas right now
The following also lists the approximate page numbers where these beats occur in an average 330- page book.
BEAT 1 - OPENING IMAGE (p.1)
This is the starting point where we get a snapshot of our main character, and other characters that play a part of his life. He is unaffected, at this point, by the events the story is about to force on him.
It is here that you introduce your main character and world he lives in. As part of that you have to help the reader learn the rules of this world. It may be a bit slow at first, but don't worry, this beginning is necessary.
BEAT 2 - THEME STATED (p.15)
Every book has a theme, some sort of moral it will address through the telling of the story. It is as this point the theme of the story is revealed. Usually, it isn't the main character who expresses it. It will be someone else, like his best friend, or a parent. They'll make an off-hand comment like,
"Be careful what you wish for,"
not knowing of course that they are subconsciously placing the theme into the mind of the reader.
BEAT 3 - SET UP (pp.1-30)
Not only is this section (roughly pages 1-30) where you will use exposition to explain things, this is also the part of the story where several other things get "set up."
Things That Need Fixing:
This is where you will identify (not necessarily in so many words) the things about the character, or the world - that need fixing. It could be items your main character needs to overcome. It could be weaknesses of his which need to be made strong. These things are up to you, but these "6" things (more or less) are the set up for what you are promising the reader he will see taken care of through the course of your tale.
Main Plot or "A Plot":
This is also the section that makes up your "main plot" or your "A" plot. We find out how your characters see the world. How they act with each other. Also where they come from, why they do certain things, who their parents are, etc. Perhaps introduce some things which will motivate or dictate some of their later actions.
Make Promises to the Reader:
It is at this point that the writer should be setting the reader up for many cool, exciting, interesting and wonderful things that are to come. Make your promises to your reader here. It's important that expectations be made, and of course, finally, realized.
BEAT 4 - CATALYST (p. 36)
The "Catalyst" is the element or event in the story that propels your main character into a new world. In the Wizard of Oz it would be the tornado. In your book it could be just about anything: someone's death, the loss of a job, viewing a meteorite hurling toward earth, discovering that your dog can turn invisible....whatever. It changes things forever. It shatters the world that your character knew up until that point.
In the case of Harry Potter, it is the letter from Hogwarts. For Spiderman it is when he is bit by the spider. There is always some event that changes things.
BEAT 5 - DEBATE (pp. 36-75)
This is the part of the story where the main character has to decide what he's going to do with what happened to him. Should he move forward into a strange new world, or not? He debates this within himself, he looks at the angles. The writer lets us see the process, and the pain of the process. As you can see from the page numbers recommended above, it may take some time to go through this process. And it can be interesting... you can really open up your character in this section.
BEAT 6 - BREAK INTO TWO/ (The Second Part) (p. 75)
This is the moment the main character decides to leave the old world for the new one. It is a distinct moment, there is an act of some sort that defines this decision. We see it happen, it cannot be subtle.
The decision to move into this new world must be the character's; he can't be forced into it. The decision to do so must be his and his alone.
This "break into 2" is where the main character moves on and begins his journey.
Okay, that's it for Act 1. I'll have Act 2 posted soon.
Mark Jay Harris