Act One: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes (NaNoWriMo Week 2)


Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar

Two weeks ago I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Last week I talked about the five building blocks of a story as well as the three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

If you haven’t read last week’s post about goals, conflict, the 12 types of antagonists, and sequels, go do so now. Today I’ll build upon those, so even if you have read it, you might want to skim through it again.

Overarching Goal = Passion or Fear

Another way to think of your character’s overarching goal is to consider what they’re passionate about. Remember, a character’s goal is what drives them. Something they only feel lukewarm about isn’t going to compel them to keep going to the end of the story.

This passion needs to be established early on.

If you’re not sure what your character is passionate about, consider what they’re most afraid of.

Consider Toy Story. Woody is afraid of being replaced as Andy’s favorite toy. But he’s not just passionate about being Andy’s toy, he’s passionate about his position as Head Toy. When Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, all the other toys look to him for guidance and reassurance.

Enter Buzz Lightyear, the coolest toy ever. Now Woody has a story, he has conflict, he has something that will change his current life and force him to make decisions.

The inciting incident is a Change which introduces fear or risks passion. 


When your main character experiences this initial change, he or she is going to react. In my 8 C’s of plotting, I go into more detail about the reaction, so I’ll stick to the Toy Story example here.

Buzz arrives in Woody’s spot, and Woody tells him so. Buzz meets all the other toys, who are very impressed by him and compare him to Woody:

BUZZ pushes his button. “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!”

The toys all GASP IN AWE.

Hey, Woody’s got something like that.
His is a pullstring, only it—

Only it sounds like a car ran over it.

Buzz is delusional and thinks he’s not a toy but an actual space ranger. Woody is the only one who seems to notice this, driving a further wedge between him and the other toys. Even Woody’s girlfriend wants Buzz to be her “moving buddy.”

A montage shows Andy favoring Buzz and replacing all his cowboy-themed (Woody) decor with space-themed (Buzz) decor. Another montage shows all of the toys who once idolized Woody now enamored with Buzz.

Then Andy has to choose between the two toys, and he picks Buzz. Woody has been replaced.

Woody has had it. He confronts Buzz, calling him a phony and shoving him. Their altercation is interrupted by Sid blowing up a toy in the yard next door. (Now this scene is a Chekhov’s Gun. If you’ve planned your story ahead of time, you will include all the factors at play during the ending within your first act. If you discover your story as you write, you’ll go back during revisions and plant foreshadowing.) After Sid shows us the worst possible outcome for a toy, Bo Peep reminds everyone that they are moving away (more foreshadowing).


Next we have the Complication/Campaign. This step has a two-part name because it often starts with a complication and ends with the need for a new campaign or journey, which leads into Act Two. In a character-driven story like this, the complication:

  • is a bad decision, mistake, or accident
  • which grows out of the Reaction
  • and ends unfortunately,
  • resulting in the need to make new plans—the “campaign” of Act Two.

(See my 8 C’s post for other types and examples of reaction and complication, using the examples of The Fugitive, The Lion King, and The Hunger Games.)

In Toy Story, Woody actively but inadvertently causes his complication, which has its own mini-plot:

  1. Inciting incident: Andy’s Mom tells him he can bring one toy to the pizza restaurant—only one.
  2. Beginning: Woody is hopeful. He shakes the Magic 8 Ball asking if he’ll be picked. The 8 Ball says “Don’t count on it.” Woody throws the ball, which falls down behind the desk.
  3. Middle Part 1: Woody tells Buzz there’s a toy in trouble. He drives an RC car into Buzz to knock him behind the desk, but Buzz dives out of the way. There’s a chain reaction of bumps and knocks, which gets all the other toys’ attention, and
  4. Midpoint: Buzz is knocked out the window.
  5. Middle Part 2: Everyone reacts, including Woody, who didn’t mean for Buzz to fall out the window. The RC car tells the toys Woody did it on purpose, and the toys turn on him. Andy comes in, finding only Woody, and brings him into the van to the pizza restaurant.
  6. Ending: Buzz jumps out of a bush and onto the van. At the gas station, he confronts Woody. They fight, flying out of the car. They’re still fighting when Andy and his mom get back into the van. The van drives off, leaving Woody and Buzz at the gas station.

The Complication ends Act One and introduces the campaign or “ocean” of Act Two, which I’ll talk about next week! If you can’t wait that long, listen to this Paperwings Podcast on the subject.

Writing Act One

Ask yourself what your character’s immediate desire and greatest fear are.

In Tangled, Rapunzel’s passion is to see the floating lanterns. Her greatest fear is abandonment. If abandonment is her greatest fear, then her ultimate goal is to feel like she belongs in a loving family. See the 8 C’s of Tangled here.

Write your character’s fear and desire on a note and post it in your writing space. Refer to it every time you start writing. If you already know your character’s greatest desire or ultimate goal, write that down, too. Otherwise write it down as soon as you discover it.

Ask “What if…?”

Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. What kind of antagonist will introduce your character’s fear to the audience or reader during the inciting incident?

How can other types of antagonists drive your character to make the mistake that causes the Complication?

What impossible situation will your character find himself in—the “Ocean” of Act Two? How can you get your character there?

Moving On

Chances are, you have an idea of your character’s campaign or “ocean” when you write the Change.

The Change, or “inciting incident,” is what gives you a story. A character starts off with a sense of stability, something rocks the normalcy boat, and the protagonist is thrown into a sea of chaos. The boat gets shattered by a giant squid, the protagonist can’t swim, there are sharks in the water, and your guy floats on flotsam and jetsam until he gets to shore, where he finds a new stability. He kisses the sand, and the camera fades to black. —The 8 C’s of Plotting (underlined section suggests the “ocean” of Act Two)

If you’re already writing the ocean, consider what Preparation your character needs in order to survive the ocean and overcome her fear to achieve her greatest desire. What Problems will come her way? How can she win a small victory?

Next post: Act Two.

6 thoughts on “Act One: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes (NaNoWriMo Week 2)

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