The first act of a story performs several central functions. Syd Field refers to this act as being governed by the setting-up process. It introduces readers and audiences to the world of the characters and their roles in it. It contains the inciting incident and the first turning point. It establishes the mood and genre.
But it also poses the central question the story must answer by the end of act three. This is something that the writer might easily neglect to emphasise in the hurly-burly of setting up the tracks the story needs to ride on.
Asking and Answering the Central Question
In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger writes that once the central question is raised, usually within the first fifteen minutes in a film, and certainly by the first turning point in any story, everything that follows it is in response to it.
In Jaws, the question is “Will Martin catch the shark?”. In Witness, it is “Will John Book get the murderer?” In my novel, The Level, it is “Will the hero mange to get back his memory and escape the asylum?”
In a story with an up-ending the answer to the central question is usually “yes” and favours the hero.
Sometimes, however, in a more ambiguous or ambivalent tale, where solutions are not as clear-cut, the answer can be “yes” and “no”. In The Level, for example, both the hero and reader discover that the hero’s identity and capacity for escaping his confines, are inexorably linked.
Linking the answer to some unexpected deeper revelation that has been withheld until that point is a powerful way to bring the outer and inner strands of a story together at the climax. The technique offers a symbol crash to the drumroll of the final act.
The first act poses the central question of the story that is answered at the climax of the third act.