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Writing Your First Act with Confidence

What it looks like to know the subtext of every scene

These past couple of months found us helping Authors write their stories with a confidence unheard of prior to the advent of our application, Subtxt. Compiled into a package we call Your First Act, this rapid session of brainstorming meetings leave the writer with an extensive and detailed outline for every scene within that key first section of any story. The feedback is sensational and the process helped us refine many of the tools and features of Subtxt.

While testimonials are nice, you may be wondering what the final result of Your First Act looks like once at the end of our work together. As an example, let’s take the First Act of The Shawshank Redemption and explore how it would appear if written with Subtxt. We’ll focus on one Throughline (there are four in every complete story) and see what thematic content Subtxt suggests in order to tell the story of one man’s journey out of hopelessness.

An Overview of the First Act

If you remember, Red (Morgan Freeman) begins the story pretending everything in his life is OK. He tells the review board he’s a changed man and that he’s ready to leave the jail. Sensing his dishonesty, they reject his appeal and send him back into circulation.

Opening up the Main Character Throughline of Shawshank in Subtxt we find a plot progression that supports this initial conflict for Red:

At the Act level, we see a conflict of Being, or "temporarily adopting a lifestyle", shrouding Red’s initial development of character. His first foray into conflict comes as a result of him pretending to be something he is not. And that sounds about right.

Illustration Prompt

Opening up the Storybeat to learn more, we find a prompt asking:

How do you, as Author, see Red finding conflict in impersonating someone?

It’s always important to think of structure and subtext from your perspective, as opposed to the point of view of your characters. There will be plenty of time to dive into their heads later; what you want to do now is focus on the story you want to tell. This is why this Illustration Prompt asks us how we see conflict appearing in this Act (Red might see it differently).

Clicking on the bold part of the question (impersonating someone) we find a window open with an entire list of alternate illustrations.

Scrolling through the list we find a bunch of different Illustrations that somehow seem to connect together thematically. In this example, no matter what selection we make the central idea behind our choice will remain a conflict of Being. Whether we choose "acting as a surrogate", "faking it until they make it", or "pretending to be interested", the subtext of the scene remains the same: conflict from temporarily adopting a lifestyle.

This ability to alter the Storytelling of a Storybeat while maintaining the original intent (the subtext) of a Storybeat, is one of Subtxt's key and most powerful features. Authors can instantly adopt the structure of their story to the story that exists within their imagination--without losing the benefit of writing mindlessly.

For now, we find the closest one matching Red's problems in the First Act: pretending everything is OK.

The Subtxt Code

Directly beneath the Illustration Prompt, we find the hidden code of this Storybeat. Consisting of four parts, this message enlightens Authors as to the particulars of this part of the story in relation to every other part of their story.

The first part is the Method of Conflict for this Storybeat. While easier to understand in this context of Being as it ends in "-ing", the Method always describes the process of conflict running through this part of the story. Red creates conflict by being a certain way that runs counter to his true nature (pretending to be something he is not).

The second part of the Subtxt Code is the Modality of Conflict--or what this Storybeat looks like within the story. Whether an external Situation, a difficult Activity, a complicated Mentality, or a fixed Standpoint, the Modality clues the Author into what they should write about when it comes to this particular Storybeat. In this example, Red makes things more difficult for himself by doing things that keep him incarcerated (lying to the review board, selling contraband, and looking the other way).

The third and fourth parts of the Subtxt Code split the difference between space and time. Didn't think you were going to get a little bit of relativity theory while writing a story, now did you? 😊

While covered in greater detail in our article, How to Classify the Atomic Elements of Story Structure, the third component (marked with a particle "dot") describes this Storybeat in terms of Space and the fourth component (marked with a wave "~") illustrates this Storybeat's relationship to Time. Both offer clues and insight into how to shape and craft the Storybeat to work with the flow of the narrative (Red's activities represent a tendency towards psychological inertia, or resistance, while signalling an opportunity for growth).

Illustration and Summary

Put all four together, and you have a comprehensive understanding of the role this Storybeat plays in the narrative of The Shawshank Redemption.

Once you have the Illustration written for a Storybeat, the time comes to take your first step away from structure. No one gets a medal for writing great story structure, and the sooner you begin to depart from the accurate--yet sometimes pedantic--elements of narrative structure, the sooner you begin to breathe life into your story.

Click the button marked "Summary" at the bottom of the Storybeat to replace your initial understanding of this Storybeat (the part that read "a conflict of Being") with something that summarizes the full purpose of this Storybeat (where it now says "Untitled").

"Red acts the part of an institutionalized man" sums up most of the conflict for Red personally in the First Act, and will help us later on down the road when managing several Storybeats at once.

And that's just the beginning.

Source of Conflict

Just beneath the area where you illustrate a Storybeat, you'll find a color-coded section with a curved top to it. This bow-shape is meant to represent the dividing line between Storytelling and Subtxt. What lies above the wave is how your Storybeat appears to your Audience and is known as Storytelling. What lies beneath the surface is what this part of your narrative means to you and your understanding of your story.

In some respects, this section is more important than the actual Illustration as it represents the driving force that underlies your Illustration. It is, quite literally, the subtext of the Storybeat.

Writing a Source of Conflict is a difficult task. You want to make sure write an inequity and not simply copy what you wrote above in the Illustration section. And while there are a series of articles to help guide you through the process (The Justification Process, sometimes you just need a quick hint to get you going.

Tap the "?" mark help icon to the right of this section to open up some clues towards how to write an effective Source of Conflict.

Like we said, it's not the easiest thing for those just getting to used to knowing the substance of the subtext of their story, but understanding how to write these effectively will drastically improve the quality of conflict in your work.

Don't feel like you have to write something here in this section. If the Illustration is good and you feel great about how the Storybeat plays out, you can leave this section blank. Remember, no one gets a prize for great structure, so if what you have feels right move on to the next step.

Because you still have a bunch of Scenes to write for this Act.

The Scenes of an Act

Every complete Act consists of four Scenes. These Scenes tell the "story" of the Act in question. For our example with Red in the First Act of The Shawshank Redemption, we look to tell the story of his growth through Being (temporarily adopting a lifestyle) into Becoming (transforming one's nature) in the Second Act.

Tapping the "Scenes" button located at the bottom of the Storybeat, Subtxt looks to the Premise of the current story and then generates the four Scenes needed to effectively tell this first Act-level Storybeat of Being.

In order to tell the story of Red working through Being in the First Act, we would need to write four Scenes with these hidden codes:

  • Knowledge - Situation - Potential - Growth (1)
  • Ability - Activity - Resistance - Expansion (2)
  • Desire - Mentality - Current - Transformation (3)
  • Thought - Standpoint - Power - Transcendence (4)

Note that each Scene takes one of the Modalities of Conflict and illustrates it. This is part of what gives an Act that sense of completeness. Once you have looked at all four Modalities within the context of Being, there really is nothing more to do than to move to the next Act of Concern (the Second Act of Becoming in this case).

In addition to adding these structural codes to your initial Storybeat, Subtxt generates four new Storybeats for each of the corresponding scenes:

While similar in nature to the initial Storybeat, these are marked as Scenes and incorporate their "parent" Storybeat into the understanding of the Storybeat. Note how each Scene in this section added "while Being" to the end of its indicator of conflict. This is to remind the writer that this Scene does not exist in isolation; every Storybeat works in context of the Storybeat above it. Scenes relate to Acts, and as we will see later, Beats relate to Scenes. Think of them as Storybeats within Storybeats.

The more you can incorporate the parent contextual Storybeat into the Scene in question, the more rich and connected your story's events will be in the final result.

The Subtxt of a Scene

Opening up the first scene marked "A conflict of Knowledge while Being" we find a similar interface to the one we encountered for the Act-level Storybeat of Being.

Starting with the Illustration Prompt, we change "being dogmatic about something" to an Illustration more appropriate to where Red is at during his first Scene with the parole board.

Again, everything listed in the pop-up window sounds the same ("being a know-it-all", "knowing what something is", "knowing a secret about a group"), and to be fair there are a couple that would work just as well as the one we selected. But there is something about "holding to be true" that speaks clearly of the kind of conflict Red imposes upon himself.

In short, he "knows" himself to be a changed man and that know-ing is what causes him trouble. Skipping the Source of Conflict for now, we dive right into the substance of this Scene and illustrate it as a Situation with a Potential for Growth.

And then we summarize it by titling the Storybeat "Red Knows He is a Changed Man."

Knowing that this first Scene is supposed to be all about Red's overconfidence in something, we could conceivably shuffle off to our favorite writing app with a pretty good idea of what we should write about. We know Red will come from a place of personal truth, and we know the review board will counter with their own "knowledge." The Scene would definitely be richer than if we just tried to come up with something about Being, but there's still this sense of where to begin.

Luckily, Subtxt has your answer.

The Beats of a Scene

In the same way that an Act breaks down into four Scenes, an individual Scene breaks down into four individual Beats. These Beats tell the "story" of the Scene in question from beginning to end. And as you would expect, Subtxt offers you a unique insight into the makeup of each of those components.

Tap on the button marked "Beats" at the bottom of the Scene Storybeat and Subtxt generates the necessary information consistent with the meaning and intent of your story.

These four Scene Beats strike a strong similarity to the four Scenes of our initial Act. They each consist of one Modality each, and they tell the story of a potential conflict that grows to a place of transcendence (or transition).

  • Proven - Situation - Potential - Growth (1)
  • Result - Activity - Resistance - Expansion (2)
  • Process - Mentality - Current - Transformation (3)
  • Unproven - Standpoint - Power - Transcendence (4)

Together, these four Beats offer a cheat-sheet for writers looking to write an effective and compelling Scene. Not only do we know this Scene is about Red pretending that everything is OK (Being), and not only do we know that it should focus on what he holds to be true (his Knowing), but we also can see the path with which he works through this scene and grows from a personal point-of-view.

He begins with a Proven Situation: these guys are just going to reject me anyways. He knows what they're going to say so why bother. He then is met with questions where he refuses to give them what they're looking for (the Results they are after). That resistance then generates further conflict regarding his time spent at Shawshank and whether or not he believes it was good for him (Process seen as Transformation). And when that doesn't work out, the effect of all this work is a new attitude of suspicion and un-knowing (the parole board exhibits its power of Unproven and rejects him).

We know the context for the Act (Being), the context for the Scene (Knowing), and now we even know the actual Beats that spell out in great detail what should happen on the page.

And that's the magic of writing a story with Subtxt.

The Subtxt of a Beat

These four Beats work the same way the Scenes do within the Acts, and the same way Acts work within a story. However, as these Beats are integral to the actual parent Scene above them, they exist within the Storybeat rather than in their own individual Storybeats.

Again, you'll see the same pattern that exists in the larger Scene-level and Act-level Storybeats. An Illustration Prompt that you can adjust to suit the story and the hidden code that gives meaning and flavor to the individual Beats themselves.

And just like the four Scenes of an Act, and the four Acts of a story, each Beat consists of one of the Modalities of Conflict (a Situation, an Activity, a Mentality, and a Standpoint). Write all four into a Scene and you give that Scene a feeling of completeness and purpose.

The Importance of the Modalities in Scene Construction

Why write four different Beats? Many Authors gravitate towards one Modality over another. One Author might write every Beat as an Activity (most screenwriters), while another might write every Beat as an argument, or Mentality (pretty much every novelist). The problem with this approach is the same problem you experience when someone continues to hit you over the head with the same argument or same point over and over again. The experience is monotonous and in truth--skips over essential items necessary to incorporate within our human experience.

We aren't completely made up of Activities, nor are we just arguments over Mentalities or ways of thinking. We, like very story, consist of all four of these perspectives--which just so happen to sync up with the Four Throughlines needed to tell a complete story. By honoring the broad arrangement of structure at the macro level of story within the micro structure of the Beats of a scene we guarantee a feeling of completeness and respect to the human experience and understanding of the world around us.

In other words, make sure you have one of each in a Scene. 😊

Outlining a Scene with Subtxt

Adjusting the Illustration Prompts to match our understanding of Red's story, we then take to the task of illustrating the four Beats to give us a good idea of what the Scene should look like on the page.

It's worth noting that, even though these Beats are in Red's personal Main Character Throughline and illustrate his growth, they don't have to be driven by Red every step of the way. If you look down at the last Beat you'll see "Red is dubious of someone." And while Red may be dubious of the people he has to meet with (and even dubious of whether or not he'll ever get out), the suspect attitude at the end--the Unproven Standpoint taken--comes from the review board.

You can always use other characters to help illustrate any Throughline, even if it's the Main Character Throughline. The point is to get the Beat, or Storybeat, across to the Audience with the context intact (in this case, the personal Throughline). Who delivers the message/Storybeat isn't as important as a semblance of the context enshrouding that paarticular Beat of the narrative.

Finishing Off the Act

With one Scene down, all that remains is to follow the same process for the remaining three Scenes.

With conflicts of Ability, Desire, and Thought left in telling the "story" of Red Being a certain way (or posing as something), we quickly find a rhythm to the growth of his character in this First Act.

We follow up that first scene of knowing he is a changed man with another about how he's the guy who can get you anything (Ability). Not one right after the other (there are still three other Throughlines to contend with), but definitely there is a purpose to this order when seen in the context of Red posing as somebody he is not.

The Ability Scene is followed up by Red not wanting to risk the good thing he has going (by turning down Andy--that's Desire (or lack of Desire)). And then lastly, Red reflects on Andy's first two years in prison--a conflict of Thought that opens Red up to Becoming--or changing his mentality during the Second Act.

And with that, we know exactly what to write about when it comes to Red and this First Act of The Shawshank Redemption.

And you could do the same with your story.

Your First Act Complete

Our latest workshop package, Your First Act, is designed to quickly accelerate your development process. Sure, you can run through every Scene for every Throughline on your own with Subtxt--but if you would like professional assistance in helping you work through each Beat, then we are here to help you get your story off to a great start.

And who knows--you might just learn a thing or two along the way so you can finish off the other Acts all on your own. 😃

There is nothing quite like knowing exactly what you're going to write about before you start writing. Writer's Block is simply a lack of knowing where to take the story next...

...with Subtxt and Your First Act the path is clear.