The First Act is My Favorite
I'm a sucker for a good set up. Take an interesting idea, pair it with some interesting characters, and you've got me buckling my belt and settling in for the ride. It's the anticipation of what might come that keeps me raising my arms as the track is laid, the buggy ratcheting along on its upward climb. Unable to see whether there will be corkscrews or drops or full-on loops, your imagination expands, grappling with the laws that are being established as the story unfolds.
This is my favorite part of any story, regardless of the medium in which it's being told. The possibilities are endless, caged only by how far its creator is willing to reach, and the questions of what comes next drive me forward like that roller coaster that's beginning its downward descent.
Then comes Act Two.
Inevitably, this is where most creators get lost. Instead of loops and falls naturally picking up speed we tend to start repeating ourselves, covering the same ground only with less effect. The drops can become predictable and easily seen, eliminating that gut-wrenching moment when the world feels like it's falling out beneath you. Instead we're asked to raise our hands for bunny hills and to scream as we make mild turns because, well, that's what we've been taught to do. And if we don't scream from excitement, it must mean we don't like roller coasters, right?
This isn't to knock any particular writers or point out something that every author isn't challenged with. As stories inherently move further into their tale, the endless streets and alleys you could explore within a city become much more condensed until there's really only one path you can follow. Sometimes it's hard not to feel like a mouse racing around a little maze.
All this to say, when a novel carries me past that first act into the second and even third act (or, on occasion, fourth), and keeps me guessing and wondering where the author is going, it's one of the most enjoyable experiences you can find. Rather than falling into a field of cliches or hitting plot points "because that's what we're supposed to do," we lose ourselves completely in the moment, letting the ride instead carry us. It's rare that this happens, but when it does, it's a beautiful thing to behold.
Blake Crouch's latest novel, Recursion, is the first book I've read this year that's truly accomplished this feat. It's an example of fearless writing, taking a brilliant concept further than engineering should allow that track to go. It's an example of dashing mediocrity to pieces and instead setting forth an example of what contemporary writing should accomplish--to entertain while simultaneously expanding the reader's thoughts and ideas of the world around them, while also dashing to pieces what a typical three act structure should contain. When every act feels like the first act, you know you've found something special.
There are certainly other examples of books and movies that surprise, that elevate their material beyond what the story would entail in the hands of less capable artists. The important thing is to trust your instincts and push beyond the easy answers. Don't tell us the story we've heard a thousand times before. Tell us the story only you can share, but come at it from an angle no one else might expect and you'll reach real gold.