A First Look at Deconstructing Act Zero

Less Act, and more Backstory, Act Zero sets the foundation for justification.

The Algonkian Author Salon, a "multi-faceted novel writing program," delivers a comprehensive look at the "Six-Act" Structure. While this might intrigue those familiar with the Four Act structure found in the Dramatica theory of story, the Six-Act Structure presented is still, indeed only a Four Act structure.

Act "Zero" is Backstory. And Act Five is the Denouement.

One could conceivably remove both, and the message of the story—or the storyform—would remain the same.

Regardless, the approach to developing both a preceding Act and a proceeding Act is a good one. The former ensures the Audience understands WHY the story exists. The latter reinforces WHY the story was told.

Act Zero

You must carefully forge your backstory before you begin. Understand the issues below. This does not directly appear in the story except by use of flashback and via other methods to DELIVER EXPOSITION.

Backstory is merely an explanation for justification. The Dramatica storyform identifies the specific Elements of this Justification, both in the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines and in the Overall Story and Relationship Story Throughlines.

Justification motivates drive—it's an imbalance between things that propels an effort toward resolution. The reason WHY that justification exists? That's Backstory (or, in this case, Act "Zero").

For example, in the political satire The Death of Stalin the characters justify their behavior because of an imbalance of Effect. Effect, as a narrative Element, is defined as:

the specific outcome forced by a cause

WHAT is the source of conflict in The Death of Stalin? Being shot in the head for disobeying—a specific outcome forced by a cause. The reason for why they feel justified bending over backward to keep those in power happy? Decades of Soviet WHY and many, many graves for those who weren't driven by Effect.

  • The WHAT is the justification itself. The Problem element.
  • The WHY is the explanation for that justification.

Justification for All

Recommendations for Act Zero continue:

Usually the emphasis for the backstory will be on the antagonist, but even protagonists carry baggage into the story.

The Overall Story Throughline perspective takes into account all the Objective Characters. Not just the Antagonist. And not just the Protagonist.


If you can develop justifications for all the characters, particularly in ensemble pieces, you can create a more vibrant landscape for your story's message to thrive. Tie their own justifications together through that shared Problem element, but vary the actual instance of that justification and tailor it to each character.

While many in The Death of Stalin want to avoid the Effect of pissing him off, the pianist Maria (Olga Kurylenko) embraces that negative Effect. She wants to upset him so he, too, can experience the pain and suffer from living under his rule. Why is she driven towards this Effect? Because her family was killed by the dictator.

Maria is neither Antagonist nor Protagonist—yet she ties in thematically with the rest of the story because of her justification towards Effect.

Setting Up the Storyform

To reiterate, Act Zero "does not directly appear in the story"—which means, it's really not an Act. Acts exist to provide shifting context for the story's central conflict. One can't justify a particular solution for a story until it has been adequately vetted.

Writers set up the disaster that is coming in the story.

Yes, this is their job.

Forces need to already be in motion before the story begins to create conflict for the characters.

Or, to put it more precisely—justifications need to be in place to explain WHY the story proceeds the way it does.

For each character in the Overall Story Throughline, ask:

  • WHAT is this character's version of the Problem element?
  • HOW does this Problem element create conflict?
  • WHY does this Problem element exist?

The first two arrive in the actual story. The last appears in Act "Zero" and explains the reasoning behind the justification.

If for some reason you can't answer these questions for a particular character, that is a good indiciation of something else. That character is tertiary and unimportant within the context of your story's purpose.