As I understand it, when considering the Three-Act Structure, the first half of Act One prior to the Inciting Incident is used to show the reader the 'Ordinary World'.

In the story I am working on, I spend that first half of Act One to develop characters, and introduce the setting, showing the reader who the protagonist is... only to have that protagonist flee for his life and abandon his ordinary world for good.

My question is, is it good storytelling form to invite readers to invest in those characters and events, only to have them torn away?


2 Answers 2


My advice is to be certain these characters show up again, either as characters or as something else --like an idea, a value, a representation of those characters.

I always fall back to Luke in Star Wars as an example. We meet his aunt and uncle in Act I. They die and we "never see them again."

But their deaths meant something--their deaths were the inciting incident to allow Luke to finally leave and join the rebellion. And, the characters were brought back in the prequels.

There are many ways to give the reader some reason to feel their investment in characters was not wasted. It sounds as though your main character is ditching life and going for something else. I'd suggest playing with any of the following:

  1. Have the MC refer to those jerks he never wants to see again, throughout the narrative. This way, the reader feels like he is still getting some value out of learning those characters.

  2. Have the MC grow and change... and then halfway through the story throw one of those early characters back into the story... and flummox the MC. Make him question himself; his growth, etc. Because this person from his past has a big psychological impact on him.

  3. Continue the pattern. Just embrace your choice. I'm certain a story can be written where the main character keeps ditching life and people--and eventually the reader catches on and knows that the people in this 'episode' are just the latest iteration of what the MC will abandon.

  4. Don't name the people at the outset. Consider:

    James spent every afternoon with his mother. She'd insisted on it--and he'd always acquiesced. Until the day he didn't.

    That's very different from:

    James spent every afternoon with his mother, Mary Todd. She'd begged him to do so--said he kept her from falling into the dark night of her own despair, her burden so heavy, the deaths of her babes. It was too much for her to carry, she said, and so he'd always acquiesced. Until the day he didn't.

Any of these ideas might get you started thinking along new lines. In aggregate. they suggest that the thing to keep in mind is what you are telegraphing to the reader.

Anything is fair game, but play nice unless you want people to turn up their noses.

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    In this case, it is not so much that the protagonist chooses to 'ditch life' as you say, but rather is faced with a choice of flee or die. He chooses to leave, and the story then centres around his experience of learning to survive in the world outside. Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 23:26
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    @ArkensteinXII Then perhaps he regrets leaving those he loved, in the past. Having him reminisce about them, or having their wise words from his youth brought up in his thoughts and shaping his actions, can be a way to maintain those 'forgotten' characters. Obi-Wan, for example, was maintained as a force-ghost. You can maintain characters by having them impact the MC by virtue of their teachings. The MC's memories and decisions, as a result of those people in his past, show the importance of those people to the MC and therefore to the reader.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 23:56
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    Thanks for your replies, you've certainly given me something to think about! I wonder whether I've not given my protagonist strong enough relationships to the characters in question, in that they don't seem like good candidates for him to really care about going forward? The only character that really makes sense for him to reminisce on is his late father, who never appears onstage at any point since the story begins with the protagonist away from home (yet still within the world that he is familiar and comfortable with). Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 0:02
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    @ArkensteinXII I don't know your personal goals, but if the opening scene starts with people the MC doesn't care about, readers will pick up on that and might find the MC unsympathetic as a result. I think it's harder to write a challenging scene, in which the relationships have depth and resonance, but in the end this is a better goal than a simple plot-driven 'get the MC to leave home' approach. FTR, I've battled this particular demon myself. Having said that, simple tweaks like "His father used to say that it was important to listen to people" go a long way toward showing character.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 0:07
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    More broadly, @ArkensteinXII , you are free to make those 'extras' characters in their own right. Go ahead! Make them jerks. Or lovers. Or whatever you like--give them their due. I used to play two-bit unnamed parts in community theatre, and all of us extras were encouraged to come up with a fully fleshed story for our 'unimportant' characters. BECAUSE IT MATTERS. :)
    – SFWriter
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 0:11

There are successful books and movies that do something along these lines --Roots and Full Metal Jacket come to mind --so it certainly can be done, and done well. Memoirs and autobiographical fiction often do this as well. It's true to life that people may be an important part of your life "only for a season."

With that said, fiction is NOT reality, and part of the author's job is to impose a narrative structure that serves the reader. With that in mind, why not go non-linear? Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed interweaves two parallel narratives, one of the protagonist's early life and young adulthood on his home planet, and one of his exile in later life on a nearby planet. Although the two worlds are almost wholly separate, the characters in each stay alive in the reader's interest because of the structure. You could do this either directly and structurally, as she does, or through flashbacks, memories, dreams, allusions, and so forth.

I'm actually planning something similar in my current writing project. The protagonist's father dies at the very start of the primary narrative. But his relationship with the protagonist continues to evolve throughout the story, first through memories, later, through new information and stories the protagonist learns, and eventually, through the protagonist gaining a new internal understanding of his father.

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