Creative Writing Project: Write Act 1 | Dani and Steve Alcorn | Skillshare

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Three Act Structure


    • 3.

      Act 1 Checkpoints


    • 4.

      Project: Create Your First Act


    • 5.

      Next Steps


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About This Class

The Creative Writing Project series helps you complete a novel, short story or screenplay. Each class focuses on a specific step in the creative process, from brainstorming to publication. The goal is to get you published!

This class shows you how to write your first act, beginning with a hook to capture your readers’ interest, then developing your character’s backstory, and leading up to the trigger that will end Act 1. When you complete this class you will have a detailed, written plan for the first act of your Creative Writing Project.

The classes in this series include:

  • Creative Writing Project: Brainstorm Your Story
  • Creative Writing Project: Create a Character
  • Creative Writing Project: Structure Your Story
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Act 1
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Act 2
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Act 3
  • Creative Writing Project: Structure a Scene
  • Creative Writing Project: Create a Setting
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Great Dialogue
  • Creative Writing Project: Energize Your Manuscript
  • Creative Writing Project: Publish Your Book
  • Creative Writing Project: Market Your Book

Meet Your Teacher

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Dani and Steve Alcorn

Authors, Mentors, Online Instructors


Steve Alcorn is the author of many novels and non-fiction books. His publications include mysteries, young adult novels, a romance novel, children's books, history and non-fiction about theme park design, and the writer's guide How to Fix Your Novel.

Dani Alcorn is the Chief Operating Officer of Writing Academy, a writing instructor, and author of Young Adult fiction, screenplays, and a screenwriting handbook. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Northwestern University, where she majored in Psychology and Radio, Television, & Film.

Steve and Dani have helped more than 50,000 aspiring authors structure their novels. Many of their students are now published authors.

See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Hello and welcome to the creative writing project. I'm Steve Alcorn, your instructor and mentor. These classes air all about projects. They're all about creating your own original novel, short story or screenplay step by Step one project at a time. The ultimate goal of this course is by the time you've completed these projects, you'll be ready to publish. I'm the author of a number of novels, travel books, Children's books, nonfiction books about the theme park industry and the book How to Fix Your Novel, which tells you all about the techniques you'll use to structure and create your own original work of fiction. It's techniques that will draw upon throughout this class in order to achieve your ultimate goal of getting into print. So let's get started. The creative writing project. This lesson is about writing Act one. This is an overview. In this introduction, I'll describe to you what we're going to see in the coming lessons. First, in Key Concepts will look a classic three act structure. This is a structure that has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks because it works really well on nearly all fiction is based upon it then I'll introduce you to my Act one checkpoints. This is a simplified system that I've developed that allows you to use checkpoints to make sure that your dramatic structure act by act, will be correct. In the project section of this lesson, you'll have an opportunity to structure your own Act one and then in the final lesson, I'll show you some next steps to further your writing career, so let's get started. 2. Three Act Structure: We've all heard about three act structure, but it's kind of a vague term until you actually look at it graphically or analyze it from a classical standpoint. And it's also a little bit vague once you know that there are three acts and the action rises throughout three acts, which is probably what we were taught in high school. That's about the extent of it. And it doesn't seem like a particularly useful tool to apply to our own writing because we don't really understand what goes into each of these three acts. So over the years, in order to help my students, I've broken down the three acts into much more specific pieces that make it a lot easier to step by step, structure your story. And so the projects in this class that deal with story structure will help you to write each of those three acts one at a time and will begin in this lesson with Act one. But first, let's have an overview of what's in all three of those acts, so breaking it down a little bit finer. I've created nine checkpoints. Thes nine checkpoints divide themselves up evenly, three per act and they help guide us through the process. And now when I draw the chart that shows the rising action, the amount of tension that readers or viewers feel as they go through your story, you can see that it's a little bit more complicated than that original diagram that just showed rising action. That then fell off in Act three. And what actually happens is that we start with things on Lee at a high enough level to make them interesting. But they gradually get more and more involving as we move through the first act and then throughout act to. We want to ramp things up, but we need to give our readers a little bit of respite. We need to let them relax occasionally or else the constantly ratcheting up tension will just be too much for them to be able to struggle through. So we give them a little breaks after each setback happens throughout a long struggle period in the middle of the second act and then suddenly the character changes at the end of the second act, and with this change they can start to solve their problem. But the action still increases until some climax point, and then the drop off after the climax is actually really quite steep. It doesn't trail off gradually. It takes us back down to a very satisfying level. It might be at or even below where we started, but it certainly well below the frenetic pace that it's built up in the prior acts. So as we go through, the three acts in details will be using these nine checkpoints and this is what they look like. There are three in each act, and we begin with a hook that gets reader's attention and some back story so that they can figure out what's going on and a trigger that attacks that protagonists flaw that we talked about in earlier lessons that enact to the character begins in crisis because of that flaw . And then there's a long struggle. This is one of the hardest things to write because it is a lot of plot. It's hard to keep people interested in all these setbacks, so we'll devote particular attention to how to do that. And then finally the character realizes what's wrong with themselves in this epiphany at the end of ACTITUD and decides that they need to change specifically by overcoming their flaw. That brings us to Act three and now, at last they can make a plan that they couldn't make before. Until they overcome that flaw, this plan might or might not work. They might have to go through a few different plans or different versions, but ultimately, if they've in fact changed, then there will be a climax. And in the climax they will succeed. And that brings us to the ending where we wrap things up. So that's three act structure, and now we'll take a look at in detail Act one. But first, how long is it? Well, it's a long as it needs to be. In fact, all of the acts are as long as they need to be. It doesn't really matter. I've seen books where Act three was a page long. I've seen books where Act three was most of the book. It depends upon the emphasis. It's the order that matters, not the lengths. Similarly, those checkpoints US nine checkpoints. I mentioned most of them. It doesn't matter how long those are, either. They just need to be long enough to fill in the acts that they're in. But there are a few exceptions. The trigger is going to be a sharp shock. As we'll see, it's one specific event that happens. It's just a moment, and the crisis that follows it is also a moment that's an internal moment. And as we'll see in the structuring lesson about seen and sequel, how to write a scene that that's actually the second part of the scene that was the trigger . So there's actually a scene that is spanning that act, one to act to transition and both pieces. Both of those checkpoints air really quite short. Similarly, at the end of the second act will see that the epiphany is going to be quite short, another internal moment. That's in response to something that happened at the end of struggle. So the struggle is typically the longest of all the checkpoints because it's the middle where most of the stuff happens in a novel or a movie. Are the checkpoints in chronological order? Not necessarily. For one thing, we start with the hook and then we cover back story. Well, it sounds like backstory is always about the past, and often it is. But sometimes the backstory section is just enough so that readers can figure out what's going on now, and we never really talked about the past. But usually there is a past that the character is dealing with, and they'll remember it or they'll talk about it. And so those sections might not be in order. But similarly, you can rearrange a lot of the different order that things happen as long as you keep the checkpoints themselves in order. For example, common technique is for the hook at the very beginning to actually be something that happens near the end, and the person is reflecting back on all the events that happened. This is called book ending, when the hook and either the ending or maybe the hook in the end of the struggle are the same point in time. So we flashed back and all of act one and act to and sometimes more happened in the past, so chronological order is not required. It's also sometimes the case that the scenes in the struggle are rearranged out of chronological order in order to create some sort of an interesting interplay between them that can get very confusing. So you have to be careful about doing that, and it's probably attacked Nick Best left to experts like Margaret Atwood, who can get away with it very easily. And then what about prologue or an epilogue? I haven't mentioned those in my three act structure. Well, the fact is that prologue and epilogue tend to be ways to fix something that is structurally wrong with a story. If we don't have enough information at the beginning of the story than it's tempting to write a prologue that is basically an information dumped that tells us about something that happened or something that happened in the past, Um, for example, in mysteries, often the mystery will be from a single viewpoint of the detective. But they'll be this prologue where the crime is committed and it's from the viewpoint of the victim or the antagonised or something. That's kind of a cliche. It can be done their successful books that do it. But wouldn't it be more effective to have the detective right at the beginning of the story come upon the crime scene and okay, so he wasn't there, But he could still imagine what happened based upon the evidence and by keeping your readers right in the detectives viewpoint. I think you bond them better with the main character and get them more involved in the story. Instead of having this piece tacked onto the beginning. That has nothing to do with the character. Similarly, EPA logs are often apologies. I remember the book Cold Mountain, which I thought was a really good book. It had kind of a sad ending that I probably would have done differently. But then after the ending, there was this epilogue of the people doing things a few years later, and I found it a great disappointment. I just wanted the book to end. I didn't need to check back in and see what people were doing. I could imagine that part myself. I felt it was an apology by the author for having a sad ending before that, and if he didn't like the sad ending, he shouldn't have made it sad. But I don't think we needed an epilogue to try to apologize for it. So those are the important questions that I get most of the time about the three act structure, and since we've handled them up front, we can now dive right into exploring acts 12 and three. So, for starters, let's undertake the exploration of what's in your act. One. I'll see you there. 3. Act 1 Checkpoints: Now we're ready to take a look at what's in your act. One. As we saw, there are three sections. We start with a hook. Its purpose is to get readers interested. And then there's a back story. This is probably something that happened in the past, but it could be just filling readers in on what the current situation is so that they can understand the context of the hook. And finally, the third checkpoint in the first act is the trigger, something that attacks the protagonists flaw. Now let's take a look at each of these checkpoints in detail. We'll start with the hook. What are we trying to accomplish here? Well, we're trying to get readers hooked into the story interested, and a good way to do that is to establish a least one story question. And the most obvious story question is, what the heck is going on? So it's fine to start in the middle of some action. We call that in media race, and it means in the middle of things, so there's no need to establish a foundation, set the scene, have the character enter and have stuff begin toe happen, just start with it happening, and then we'll figure out who it's happening to and what the situation is later on. That's by far the best way to get going, so you can begin with action or you could begin with dialogue. But in the process, you want to raise additional story questions if you can. For example, why is this happening? Not just what is this happening and what is the outcome going to be? And perhaps things are being referred to that. We don't completely understand the contact stuff like what happened before and what will a person do about this? What sort of a person are they? These are all good story questions to raise, and if you think about any movie or book that you've read, probably by the end of the first couple of pages, you've already got a couple of questions in mind about what's going on that you'd like to see answered. And that's what keeps you reading. So make sure that you begin with your protagonist because we want to make sure that your readers are thoroughly bonded to the protagonist. We want them to become the protagonist as they read, and the way to do that is to start with the protagonist. The worst thing you can do is to start with someone else. Have the readers get bonded to that character, want to know what happens to that character and then drop that character and have the protagonist enter. And it turns out that character has no important role. Readers will spend the whole rest of the book, or at least a much of the book, as they bother to read, wondering what the heck happened to that character we started with. They seemed interesting, So make sure you start with your protagonist. Choose a starting point as late as possible. Ah, lot of my students want to write essentially a biography, and they start with the character being born and they end with the character being died dead and that that worked fine for the world according to Garp. But unless you're a master storyteller, you can't really maintain dramatic tension across an entire life, because an entire life tends to not be all that interesting. So stories air much better when they are about a short life changing episode, and that episode might only be a day long a week long a few weeks long. A few months? It's probably not more than a year if you think about the Harry Potter books. Each Harry Potter book takes place across the school. Year begins in the fall, and it ends in the spring. And that's the timeline for the entire book. And in fact, the Harry Potter books, if they weren't structured around a school year, could even take place across an even shorter period of time. And that's because the thing that is of interest in those books is the moment when Harry changes. It's the epiphany when Harry realizes how he needs to be different in order to solve his problem. So don't start any longer before the epiphany. Then you need to, and don't carry on the story any farther than you need to after the result is achieved in the climax. So generally the timeline of a book could be quite short, and you want to start it as close to that time as possible. Now let's look at the next section, the backstory section. The hook is typically short. It might be a few paragraphs. It might be a chapter, a few chapters, the backstory section might be longer. The back story is what clues us into what is going on. We usually need to know a little bit of the history that brought the character to this particular point, and if we do, that can be conveyed through actual flashbacks, which are scenes written in the past or through memories which are similar. But they're sort of in the head of the main character or dialogue where the character talks about what happened. The least effective way to convey backstory is through exposition, because exposition is a form of telling rather than showing. Exposition is where you say, Well, John got to the spot because he'd made a mistake two years before. That's not very interesting. But if John says, If only I hadn't made that mistake two years ago, I wouldn't be here in dialogue. That's much more interesting. So try to make the back story interesting and back story with a lower case be can move us forward or backwards. But backstory with a Capital B is this particular checkpoint, and it's a collection of whatever is needed in order for us to understand what's going on in this situation. So if it's all in the present, that's fine. But if we need to fill in some of the characters past, this is a good spot to start doing that. You don't need to put all of the characters passed into this back story section. It's perfectly fine to put a little bit in here a little bit in later on, dribble it out through Act two even into Act three. If we still have some mysteries, some story questions, some things we don't understand because we haven't fully learned about the past yet. That's fine. It makes it a much more interesting read. Don't overwhelm us with information here. Keep things moving along so action so that we begin to understand the protagonist in her goal or the floor. The situation is good, too. That's a way to keep things moving. A lot of people, when they write the backstory section they wanted toe all the explanation. But sometimes just actions speak for themselves, and the way they act can make it clear what's going on. So try that technique as well. That brings us to the trigger. The trigger is a short shock. At the end of Act one, it's just a moment. It's an external moment. It's part of a scene. It's part of a structure that will call seen and sequel in one of the coming projects. And this is just a thing that happens, a specific thing that happens to the protagonist that causes them to be overcome by their flaw. It is not a time for the protagonist to make a decision. It is not a time for the protagonist to take action. It is specifically something that happens to the protagonist, which causes them to be overcome by their flaw. So if they lack self confidence, it's something that attacks their confidence, something that they think they can't do if they lack self worth. It's something that makes them feel worthless If they're insecure, it's something that makes them feel even less secure, like the deprivation of some resource. If they're stubborn than the way that it attacks, their flaw is that it's something where they should change what they're doing. But in Act two, they're going to refuse to if they're prejudiced, than it's something that attacks their prejudice, like encountering the person or thing that they're prejudiced against. If they're afraid to face the past than the trigger. Is the past being thrown up in their face like being forced to go back to one's hometown? So make sure that it's something that happens to the protagonist, not something that they're deciding or taking action with those hints in mind. Now, I'd like you to move forward to the project of this class, and I'd like you to try to structure your own Act one and post the results for us, so I'll see you there. 4. Project: Create Your First Act: Now it's your turn to create your first act. You know, just do that. I'd like you to open a document file and type in the Act one checkpoints as headings now beneath each heading right, single sentence that describes that check point drop on the descriptions that I included in the lessons of this project in order to figure out what you should put into each one of those checkpoints. But don't make your sentence too long or complicated. Don't add too much plot because it's just going to get into the way later on. So try to keep it short. Now expand each one of those checkpoints into a list in bullet form under each one of them . Make a list of the things that you need to bring that checkpoint toe life, where each of those bullets is a scene. So a scene is not quite the same as a setting in a play or in a movie that's more like a setting change. A scene is instead where the protagonist sets out to do something and it happens or doesn't happen. It's a particular event oriented thing, and so just make a list of all of those again try to keep them short. We don't need to know every single character, every little detail, every nuance of what's happening in the act quite yet. Now that will come in later. But anything that comes to mind just jot down 12345 words for each of those scenes to remind you and then you can easily rearrange the order and polish it up because you've been brief. So then, when it gets time to write your manuscript, you can enter in the text of the scenes in between those seen markers that you've just created and that guarantees that you'll stay on track because if the scene markers are in order than your scenes, they're going to end up in order. So follow the 1st 3 steps here right now and then Let's wait a little while on writing your manuscript and instead join me in the next class where we explore Act two and we'll put that together for you. Then act three and then we'll turn to how to write scenes and you can begin work on your manuscript. I'll see you there 5. Next Steps: thanks for joining me on this journey. I've enjoyed it and I hope you have to. Thing is one of a dozen different projects that are available through this series, of course, is if you follow all of these projects from brainstorming all the way to marketing, you'll be able to bring your idea for a novel, short story or screenplay to reality, step by step and project by project. In the meantime, I hope you'll follow us on Facebook and be sure to sign up for free writing tips. I look forward to seeing you there. Until then, happy writing.