In traditional story structure theory, the ACT 1 is made to set up the world and host the inciting incident, the ACT 2 is made for the main quest and sequence of obstacles, and ACT 3 is made for the resolution.

Is it possible to completely skip ACT 1 and begin a story right in the second act, where heroes are already in the middle of the quest? I'm not just talking about medias res. I'm talking about making implicit all the background and establishing scenes, and to summarize them in memories or tales. I would like to write a novel which shows the heroes' quests rather than "wasting time" with all the "normal world" to be created and then destroyed.

For instance, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring would begin with the hobbits marching to Bree, and the reason why they are doing so would come out in their conversations, in their memories, and so on.

The movie Dunkirk for instance gives all the context for granted, and proceed to a full-feature of action and resolution.

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    I fail to see how you're not describing in medias res . That technique is starting the story in the middle (because that's the interesting part) and filling in the "beginning" of it as needed. Oct 13, 2017 at 13:59
  • Roger Zelazny explicitly did this, after learning from editors that he was explaining too much. Worked like a charm for him...
    – docwebhead
    Oct 13, 2017 at 16:19
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    Possible. This obviously is.
    – Strawberry
    Oct 13, 2017 at 16:33
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    A note to consider, it probably makes a big difference if your world is familiar to people already. Dunkirk disposed of some (but not all) world building because people are generally familiar the large sweep of who was involved in WWII, what they were doing, etc. Depending on your world, that may not hold for you.
    – Beska
    Oct 13, 2017 at 17:30
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    Quentin Tarantino comes to mind, for one...
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 14, 2017 at 6:12

4 Answers 4


I think you're mixing up two things here: Story structure and plot.

"Acts" don't describe what happens in your story - they describe what purpose these parts of your story serve. "Plot" would be what happens in your story.

Plot vs. Story Structure

Traditionally, a story consists of a protagonist who wants something, then encounters a conflict (something's preventing him from getting what he wants), then makes several attempts at overcoming that conflict and eventually resolves the conflict in some way or another. If you want to follow this story structure, you need a few ingredients:

  • a protagonist
  • something that your protagonist wants
  • something that prevents your protagonist from getting what they want (the antagonistic force).

These two (what the protagonist wants and what opposes them) make up the conflict.

At the beginning of the story, you usually want to introduce your protagonist as well as what they want. As readers, we need to know this in order to understand the conflict. Plotwise, you can do this however you want: You can introduce your protagonist as he's attending his uncle's birthday, or you can introduce your protagonist as he's marching to Brea. But the structure is the same: The reader gets to know the protagonist as well as what he wants (to destroy the ring he inherited).

Skipping parts of plot vs. skipping parts of the structure

This is probably all common knowledge to you. What I'm trying to make clear is that sure, you can skip the plot and action you would traditionally put in the first act, but you're going to have a much harder time to skip the structure stuff you need to set up in the first act: Who's the protagonist, what do they want, why would we even care, what is opposing them?

Doing this setup in flashbacks is absolutely possible, although you might want to read up on the pitfalls that come with flashbacks (flashbacks can actually disrupt the story way more than a traditional first act with all its world setup would and make it way more boring).

I haven't seen Dunkirk but I'm pretty sure it didn't skip the first act. From what I read at Wikipedia, it seems to do all the neccessarry setup: Introduce the protagonist(s) (I'm guessing mostly Tommy), what he wants (to go back home) and why that's so hard. What might be confusing you here is that the "old world" is already a not so peaceful one: They are at war, soldiers are dying every day. Then comes the inciting event where they decide that evacuating from the beaches of France is neccessarry, which marks the shift to the "new world". I'm very certain the Act I stuff is all there, you just need to find it.

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    "Plot vs story structure" is probably what I needed to have cleared. Thanks, that helped a lot!
    – FraEnrico
    Oct 13, 2017 at 12:54

No, you can't skip it, but Yes, you can start the first act in full motion.

What you are describing is not "skipping the first act". It is impossible to skip the first act because it really isn't up to you, the writer, but something that happens in the head of the reader or viewer.

We all start cold in a new story with new characters. Many videos start with full space flight action without naming characters. Or consider "That Seventies Show", the pilot episode begins with a bunch of teens smoking and getting high in a pot circle, all we are given is "Eric's Basement" as the setting. We are not told their names, which (if any) is Eric, etc. We are introduced to Hyde by another character we don't know laughing at a joke and saying his name, "Hyde!"

It is possible (and in my view desirable) to just "drop a camera" into some kind of action and start recording (in a book a metaphorical camera).

Consider this the opening of a story:

John pressed his back to the brick wall at the corner of the building and listened, but heard nothing. with the shard of mirror held in his left hand, he crouched and angled it to see if anybody was in the alley. Shit. There was Jackson, leaning against the gray metal door at the end of the alley, a gun in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, his head bobbing in rhythm to some unheard music. John pulled the mirror back and sat squatted against the wall, his head against it. He put his hand on the hunting knife he'd just taken from Bobby, the only weapon he had. You are literally going to bring a knife to a gunfight. What's the plan, dumbass?

The reader must be given characters. In the passage above, John is the hero, I don't have to tell you that because the focus of a story is on the hero. Jackson is the enemy, so used to guns he carries one thoughtlessly. John did not come prepared, he is using a broken mirror as a sight, not any spy periscope to see around the corner. We are urban; brick walls and alleys. John took a hunting knife from Bobby, and it is John's only weapon? He likely fought unarmed and won against an opponent armed with a knife, Bobby, who may be dead in the reader's eyes.

We don't have to know the stakes yet, they are high enough John is risking his life to accomplish something or get into a building, and he isn't thinking like a professional, and he is up against an armed gang or Jackson wouldn't be guarding the door.

When we say the first act "sets up the world", don't take it as a literal call for exposition. Action and dialogue can reveal the world to the reader gradually. But you will STILL have a first act, because that is reader expectation: In your writing each character will still have a first mention. You don't have to describe them or give their background, anything important about their background will be reflected in their actions, what they do and say. You can introduce the world the same way.

Everything important about the "First Act" is just what is important about storytelling and producing a story people will like.

(speaking roughly) It is readers that expect the first quarter of the book to introduce the hero, give us at least a glimpse or idea of the villain, set up the world and the problem and stakes for the hero to solve.

It is readers that expect complications, setbacks, and changes of direction and problems demanding sacrifice for the hero that make it seem they will fail.

It is readers that expect the hero to eventually take on the villain head first and prevail (or fail).

Do not take the ideas of what is in each act so literally. Consider the three act structure as a distillation of thousands of years of telling millions of stories.

If magic works, you MUST introduce that fact early in the story, so early that the audience knows magic works when they encounter the main problem. It is the main problem that delineates the first act from the second; not a page count.

The same goes for every other unexpected feature. If 13 year old Katy just won the Kung Fu Black Belt World Championship for her age bracket, you better tell us about it before she ends the story by single-handedly disabling the two grown men that kidnapped her. Because something that unusual would have to be practically in the opening scene of the story and be reinforced throughout it. It could be an exciting story if her skills were real and frequently deployed and she was still kidnapped and held against her will, and finally exploited a mistake they made to escape and lay waste to her enemies, but not if we haven't been told time and again this is who Katy is.

Think of the Act Structure as telling you what your audience will rebel against, what will make them put your story down. Think of is a generalization of what any storyteller must accomplish in the Beginning, Middle and End of any story.

Beginning with action instead of exposition is not a bad instinct and it can work. But you still must accomplish certain goals in the beginning of the story, or you just won't have a good story.

  • Impressive answer. Thank you, that helped a lot.
    – FraEnrico
    Oct 13, 2017 at 12:51

No, you can't do this. It is illegal and if you try it you will be arrested by the Literature Police.

Of course you can do it. You can write a story any way you want. (Well, barring libel and copyright issues.) The issue is not whether you "can" do it, but whether you "should" do it. And that's going to depend on the story and how you go about it.

If you leave out exposition, will the reader be left wondering what is going on, conclude that this story is baffling and incoherent, and throw the book against the wall in frustration?

I think there are basically 3 possibilities:

  1. You get the reader interested even though he doesn't fully understand the background. Then you fill in the background as necessary to move the plot forward, through conversations between the characters about the past, flashbacks, straightforward narration, etc.

  2. You create a mystery, and keep the reader wondering about the solution to the mystery, until you reveal it. Most mystery stories work this way. There's a murder or some other mystery, and then has the story proceeds we learn who the victim was, who likely suspects are, what their motives might have been, etc.

  3. You do neither and the story is simply confusing. The reader is left asking, "Wait, who is this Mr Brown and why was he hiding in the closet? Is this story supposed to be set in the present or in the 1800s?" Etc.

Like many things in writing, it's fine to do something unusual ... as long as you do it well.


If the story begins in the middle of an activity, it's fine to fill in the rationales behind that activity later, but there still has to be a reason why the story starts (and ends) when it does.

"Set up the world" sounds more literal than it needs to be. It could be as simple as introducing the protagonist. There will be an Act 1, even if it's as short as a sentence.

We all do this all the time. The inciting incident could be someone posting a question on a website (Act 1), the main quest could be the answers and comments (Act 2), and the resolution could be the original poster awarding the "best answer" star (Act 3). Questions of how the posters came to be looking at the website can be introduced later - if they're relevant to the story.

Readers expect a story to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It's down to the skill of the writer to represent that as a chronological order of events, a progression of thoughts, or any other way that takes their fancy.

  • P.S. - Give the star to someone else. Wouldn't want anyone to think I was that clumsy at fishing... Oct 13, 2017 at 11:20

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