Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 8 – The Act I Choice

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Shortly after a story’s inciting incident, the protagonist must make an important decision: either keep living as she always has, or become involved in the story’s main conflict. This choice, in terms of the three-act story structure, marks the transition between Act I and Act II. Some writers also call it the “point of no return” – because after the protagonist makes this choice, her life won’t be the same. Sounds like a scene that’s brimming with themes, doesn’t it?

Today’s installment of Developing Themes In Your Stories will focus on how we can consciously nurture themes in the Act I choice. This post also features brainstorming and writing activities that can help during the writing process.

What is the Act I Choice? How Does It Differ from the Inciting Incident?

We already explored the inciting incident back in May. The Act I choice comes later in the story, and comprises the following elements:

  • It typically occurs around the 25% mark, and signals the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II.
  • It shows the protagonist becoming fully engaged in the external conflict.
  • It further establishes the protagonist’s story goal.
  • It raises the stakes and underscores why the story goal matters to the protagonist.

It’s easy to confuse the inciting incident and the Act I choice, since they occur so close together. However, while the inciting incident invites the protagonist into the main conflict, the Act I choice is her RSVP. It shows the protagonist committing to her involvement and taking the first step out of her comfort zone. In other words, it’s her internal response to an external change in her status quo. And like with the inciting incident, it has the ability to reflect a story’s themes.

Identify Your Inciting Incident First

Before determining how Act I ends, it’s essential to figure out which scene represents the inciting incident. You may have already done this if you read our recent post on inciting incidents. If you haven’t, now is a good time to catch up and prepare for the upcoming activities.

Remember that the inciting incident acts as a story’s springboard. This is where the plot begins by opening the protagonist’s eyes to the main conflict. It shakes up her world by triggering her fears or desires, often by threatening something or someone she cares about. This event will lead the protagonist to make the choice that later establishes her story goal.

It’s also possible that the protagonist might cause her own inciting incident. This can happen in more character-driven stories, where the protagonist grows as a result of an earlier mistake. In such cases, the inciting incident is that mistake, because it jump-starts the rest of the story.

With that in mind, here are the inciting incidents for the novels we’ll follow in this post. The Hobbit uses the more recognizable external event, while Veronika Decides to Die takes the character-initiated approach:

Hobbit coverJ. R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit, meets the wizard Gandalf, who invites him on an upcoming quest. Bilbo initially refuses, claiming he’s not the adventurous type.

Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die:
Veronika, a 24-year-old librarian who’s dissatisfied with her life, attempts to commit suicide by overdosing on pills.

Activity #1: Review the first few chapters of your WIP. Which external event serves as the story’s inciting incident? How does it draw the protagonist into the main conflict? If you need help, check out Part 6’s exercises on developing an inciting incident.

Give the Protagonist a “Point of No Return” Choice

The Act I choice presents the protagonist with two options. One is her safe option, which would allow her to remain in her physical and emotional comfort zone. The other is her story option, one that thrusts her into an unfamiliar situation but is the only path to her goal. No compromise exists here; the protagonist won’t get what she wants by staying put. Thus, she’ll have to decide whether she wants her goal badly enough to take that step.

With any decision, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. In the protagonist’s case, consider the consequences of her Act I choice. What might happen if she picks her safe option? What might not happen? How do these answers change for her story goal? It’s OK if the latter scenario frightens the protagonist more than the former. In fact, it’s supposed to scare her, or make her feel a twinge of dread or reluctance.

Keep in mind that the Act I choice is a direct result of the inciting incident. A character wouldn’t run away from home without having a reason to do so. By ensuring that the inciting incident causes the Act I choice to happen, you’ll also ensure that the story’s big picture begins to develop a logical, natural flow. You’ll see that connection in Bilbo’s and Veronika’s Act I choices below:

Veronika Decides to Die cover (1)The Hobbit:  After another visit by Gandalf – and 13 Dwarves – Bilbo must decide whether to stay in Hobbiton (safe option) or accept the Dwarves’ offer to join their quest to Erebor (story option). If he stays home, he’ll continue living as he always has without putting himself in danger. But if he goes off to Erebor, he could have the journey of a lifetime – but he might not survive it, or return home the same as he was when he left.

Veronika Decides to Die:  After waking in a mental institution, Veronika is told she only has days to live due to heart damage from her failed suicide attempt. She then must choose whether to quicken her dying process (safe option) or embrace the little time she has left (story option). If she makes another suicide attempt, she’ll die on her own terms, as she had wished. But if she makes the most of what’s left of her life, she “might end up convinced that life was worth living” (45), but she also might be more reluctant to confront her death when it comes.

Activity #2: Using your answers from Activity #1, develop an Act I choice that occurs as a result of the inciting incident. What two options (safe and story) does this choice offer? How would the safe option allow the protagonist to stay in her comfort zone? How would the story option give her what she wants but force her into the unknown? Finally, what are the consequences (positive and negative) of each option?

What Does the Protagonist Decide – and Why?

Now comes the moment when the protagonist must make her decision. The funny thing is, you already know what she’ll choose. So the real question is, why does she choose her story option?

Sometimes it depends on the story’s context. The protagonist might want the story option because it’s more desirable, such as an opportunity to change her life or protect an object or person she loves. Or, she might view her story option as the lesser of two evils and be more reluctant to choose.

So, why not ask the protagonist for yourself? Pose the question “Why do you want the story option more than the safe option?”, and see what her response is. Chances are it will relate to her story goal, and to the fears or desires elicited by the inciting incident. New ideas or emotions might sneak in as well. All of these factors will be crucial to remember as the protagonist transitions into Act II.

What do our example characters decide, and why? Let’s see:

  • The Hobbit: While Bilbo is pushed out the door by Gandalf so he can catch up with the company, he likely would have chosen to go on the quest anyways. Hearing the Dwarves’ stories the night before had awakened his curiosity about the world beyond Hobbiton (18). He was also surprised by his disappointment when it seemed like the Dwarves had left without him (32).
  • Veronika Decides to Die: Veronika chooses to live her final days more fully. This comes after a reflection on her life, from her willingness to live passively and by others’ expectations, to how that monotony led to her suicide attempt. After making this choice, Veronika slaps a man who had angered her – an act that, as she proudly realizes, isn’t something she had done before in her life (45).

Activity #3: Write down the reasons why your WIP’s protagonist chooses her story option. Why does she want it more than the safe option? How does it draw from the same fears, goals, and/or desires that were triggered by the inciting incident? Does it introduce anything new to her dilemma? Consider all thoughts or emotions the protagonist may have at this time.

Determine Any Emerging Literary Themes

Fears, desires, goals, reasons for one’s decisions – everything about the Act I choice draws on the ingredients of DIY MFA’s working definition of “theme”. Knowing these pieces up front will be immensely helpful as you dig for themes arising from this plot point.

Reflect on the activities you’ve completed so far. What high-level concepts does your Act I choice illustrate? Do the safe and story options highlight opposing ideas? What other themes might enter the picture now that the protagonist has left her comfort zone? Be open to other questions that might help you explore every angle of this event.

Here are select themes that emerge from our two sample Act I choices. What others would you add to each list?

  • The Hobbit: Courage, home, adventure / exploration
  • Veronika Decides to Die: Death / mortality, life, happiness

Activity #4: Revisit your answers for Activities #2 and #3, and list any themes you identify from the Act I choice. How do the choice’s options show conflicting themes that the protagonist might continue to grapple with as her story continues?

BONUS: If you’ve completed the Inciting Incident brainstorming activities, compare your answers to its Activity #3 to your answers to Activity #4 above. Do any of the themes match?

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.

Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she’s working a YA fantasy novel and has previously been a tea reviewer and freelance music journalist. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

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