Requiem for a First Act (in D Minor)

Many, many years ago, I decided I wanted to write a story about a woman who had been, basically, an urban fantasy heroine before being forced into retirement by an injury that impeded her ability to kick ass. During the years of her ass-kicking career, she was too busy saving the world and trying to stay alive to invest time and effort in her love life. (Yes, this is absolutely personal commentary on urban fantasy’s swerve to multibook paranormal romance, which irks me from multiple angles.) Now that she’s back in the mundane world, blending in includes dating and looking ahead to settling down and white picket fencing and whatever “normal” people do here. Her UF Heroine days are over; it’s time to become a Contemporary Romance Heroine. However, she’s struggling to acclimate. Her coworkers are scared of her. Her mother is flaking out. The dating pool is ugh. A cop is on her ass about a murder that occurred at the same time she disappeared to Fantasy World, for which she is his primary suspect. And then a handsome stranger who’s obviously Not From Around Here shows up and offers her a quest back in Fantasy World. She refuses The Call, circumstances conspire to force her to embark on the adventure, and Act II sends her back to Fantasy World, where she falls in love with Handsome Stranger while saving the day. The End.

I still like the idea, but after writing the entire first act as above and dipping a toe into Act II, I discovered a fatal flaw in the execution. I spent the entire first act, a quarter of the book, describing the mundane world and how the heroine functions (or not) within it and interacts with the characters populating it, as per usual. And then we turn the page into Act II and she leaves all that behind, never to return.

Which means we have to describe a new world and how the heroine functions (or not) within it and interacts with the characters populating it. Again.

Act I is for establishing things you need to know to understand the story to follow. Of course it should be interesting and have a sense of forward movement, but it’s understood the tale is just getting warmed up and a more sedate pace is forgivable while readers absorb necessary information. This is the act that sets the baseline norms for the characters and the world they live in so readers recognize the difference and feel the significance when everything goes to hell.

Act II is where everything goes to hell. This is the dive into the plot. This is the ocean of bad decisions and antagonistic forces and learning experiences and just enough bright spots to stave off despair so the characters don’t quit. This is the 1000-meter freestyle through sharks and jellyfish and the occasional dolphin that thinks the protagonist is a pool floatie, and the pace needs to move with ever-increasing urgency toward the climax.

I had written myself into a situation where I had to redo much of Act I’s prep work right in the spot where the story ought to be surging forward. Not only did the forward momentum grind to a halt, but it was redundant because we’d already been through this entire process, in a different location with different people. 

It couldn’t be avoided. This is where 75% of the story was going to take place. This world must be built.

But it was so, so, so bad.

On the bright side, the problem was obvious. (Knowing something is wrong but not being able to isolate the cause is awful.) On the hurl-myself-into-the-abyss side, it wasn’t a problem that could be gently tweaked into correct alignment. The portal fantasy premise and an effective launch into Act II couldn’t coexist in the same story. One had to go, and the portal bit was way more expendable than crucial story structure.

Buh-bye, Mundane World and mom and cop and coworkers and bad dates. We are now officially all Fantasy World, all the time.

If only this was as simple as chucking that bad first act into the trash. Everything about the heroine’s origins also had to be trashed because the world from which she originally originated is no longer in play. Her Fantasy World name can’t be Mary Davis. Her sly references to Mundane World that go over Fantasy Folks’ heads, gone. What she believes is her motivation (settle into a “normal” life) no longer applies.

Looking at just the amount of character correction necessary, the abyss was mighty tempting.

What saved this story is a massive outline that emphasized the functions of each scene. If one function of a scene is to establish what the heroine’s average day is like, I can do that just as easily for a swamp-dwelling fugitive as a receptionist in a hair salon. If one function of a scene is to show her bristling at being “mothered,” it doesn’t have to be her actual mother encroaching on her boundaries. If the function of a scene is Handsome Stranger showing up where he’s not welcome or pursuers cutting off the heroine’s options until she’s forced to accept the quest she doesn’t want, I can find other ways to fulfill those functions.

I lost all the words I’d put into the original first act, but the function-based structure was sound and transferred remarkably easily to the new plan, considering the magnitude of the adjustment (i.e., throwing out an entire world). Having to worldbuild only once fixed the problematic start to Act II but also decluttered Act I because there’s now unlimited room to scatter worldbuilding details as relevant. No time will be wasted comparing and contrasting two different worlds, one of which will never be revisited so who even cares? Otherwise, nothing substantial changes after the heroine embarks upon the quest because none of that was involved in the two-worlds problem, which is a stroke of phenomenal luck.

So… what began as a devastating failure led to a solution that much better serves the story I want to tell, which has nothing to do with a retired urban fantasy heroine trying to make it in the mundane world, as it turns out. I’m inclined to flog myself for screwups and wasted time, but if you squint really hard, maybe you can find something inspirational in this anecdote about salvaging something worthwhile from wreckage.

Insert comments below. By submitting a comment, you consent to have your personally identifiable information collected and used in accordance with this site's privacy policy, as stated on the Info page. All links go to moderation; non-spammy ones will be approved.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.