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.

Speed-Writing Your First Draft: 5 Quick Tips

What’s the one thing that makes us write slowly or stop writing completely?


Fear of inexperience, fear of failure, fear of imperfection. Yet we know that to get better, we have to write.

To get a perfect draft, we need to edit, and you can’t edit a blank page!

How do you get past the fear and write quickly? Follow these five tips.

1. Get rid of distractions.

Turn off the TV and your internet (I use Anti-Social to block distracting websites).

Go somewhere where you can be either alone or undisturbed.

Be conscious about other distractions. If easily stimulated, write uncomfortably. You’ll write quickly to get it over with! I’ve written pages in the garage, crammed into the passenger seat of my car with my laptop.

Consider writing your first draft longhand! Writing by hand forces you to focus on the pen and the page. To write faster than Bilbo, however, read on.


2. Write recklessly.

Make adventure, discovery, and creation your goal. Be brave and take risks.

If you need a plan before you jump in, guns blazing, my 8 C’s plotting method demystifies structure while giving you plenty of freedom.

Remember the character + conflict formula for dramatic storytelling. Write as if your characters are in a video game. Ask yourself “What if ______?” and “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen right now?” Then write it.

3. Embrace the suck.

Go for speed rather than going for “good.” Writing quickly is about quantity, not quality. Save the slow, quality writing for revision. Pull a Buzz Lightyear—sure, this first draft won’t fly, but it can fall with style!


4. Don’t edit! 

Major editing before knowing your three acts and your theme is a waste of time—you won’t know what to cut, what to keep, and what to change.

If you have to, darken/invert the screen, type in white or pale gray, or type across the room with a wireless keyboard so you can’t read what you’re typing.

If you MUST fix errors, don’t dare edit until your scene is done! After you’ve finished the scene/chapter/book, you can go back and fix problems.

5. Just. Keep. Writing.

Write past the typos, the weirdness, the words-to-look-up.

Sure, switch tenses or points of view while drafting. Doing so helps you find your novel’s most natural voice! Revise later, once you’ve decided what works best for the whole story.

Make notes and comments in-text so you don’t lose your train of thought. I use three slashes (///) before and after these notes so I can find them easily while revising. Example:


(The fact that I didn’t fix “comepletely” is a true testament to my strong will.)

If you don’t know a word or fact, type TK—it means “to come,” but the “TK” combination isn’t found in common English words, so your find/replace function will filter out other words.

Do you have any other tips for writing quickly or recklessly? Share them in the comments!


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Manuscript Format Template (free download)


Have you read my posts on Formatting your Novel Manuscript? If not, read part one here and part two here.

I surveyed forty literary agents in October of 2014 to ask them which font they preferred for submitted manuscripts. The clear winner was Times New Roman. Many agents read pages on e-readers or mobile devices, and TNR is a web-safe, system-installed, serif.  Using TNR allows them to read pages without changing formatting first, but it is also an easy font to change.

Download the MS Format TEMPLATE.

Right-click the link above and “save as.” I saved it as a Word Document, even though I personally use Pages, so if there are any issues, please report them to me! Our PC isn’t working, and I don’t have Word on my Macbook Pro.

This template uses paragraph styles, which you can import into any preexisting document. Otherwise save a copy of MS Format TEMPLATE, rename it, and begin typing or pasting your manuscript.

Read through all of the instructions on the template, and save it as-is to keep as a reference. Do not type into the original TEMPLATE—type in a duplicate or copy file.

Copyright Notice:

This template was created by me for personal or educational use only. You may share it with others—simply give them this link or share the link on social media using the buttons below. You may not pass this template off as your own or charge anyone to use it. You may not upload the template to any website or blog.

Of course, you have full ownership of your own manuscript, whether you use my template or paragraph styles to format it.