The beginning of your story should create a Big Question in the minds of your audience as they try to figure out what’s happening. Then as they try to figure out what’s happening, you throw in even more mystery. Finally, you explain what’s going on. Then you resolve the problem you’ve created for your hero, so the structure of your story should look like this:
Act I: Pose a Big Question — Something strange is happening and it’s going to interfere in the hero’s life.
Act IIa: The Mystery Gets More Complicated — Just as the hero starts trying to figure out what’s going on, even more mysteries pop up that complicate his quest for an answer.
Act IIb: Explanation — Finally, we learn what’s been going on all this time.
Act III: Resolution — Now we learn if the Big Question will ever get solved.
In “Hugo,” the first mystery is why is a kid living in a train station? Later we learn the real mystery, which is what does the automaton do that the boy is trying to fix and why is he trying to fix it? In “Star Wars,” the Big Question is why is Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia?
Now the mystery gets more complicated, just as the hero thinks he should be getting closer to the answer. In “Hugo,” the hero tries to get his notebook back from a mean toy seller, and meets the toy seller’s adopted daughter who isn’t allowed to watch movies for some strange reason. Then the hero discovers that the girl has a heart shaped key that he needs to fully activate his automaton. In “Star Wars,” Luke learns about the Force and the stolen Death Star plans inside R2D2. He thinks he’s going to land on Princess Leia’s planet, but then discovers that the planet has been blown up and gets himself captured by the Death Star. Once on the Death Star, he rescues Princess Leia.
With so much mystery constantly unfolding before our eyes, it’s time to start explaining everything or else you risk burying your audience under too many details and mysteries. In “Hugo,” the hero can’t understand why the mean toy seller is so sad about movies, but when we learn that he used to be a filmmaker. Although successful initially, World War One destroyed his filmmaking business as people no longer wanted to watch his films, and he went bankrupt, saving just enough money to sell toys in a train station. In “Star Wars,” we gradually learn that the rebels need the Death Star plans so they can blow it up, so Luke and Princess Leia need to get those stolen plans to the rebels and get off the Death Star.
Finally, we have to resolve the mystery. In “Hugo,” the hero helps bring the automaton to its rightful owner and bring recognition finally to the mean toy seller as a pioneer in filmmaking. In “Star Wars,” the rebels use their knowledge of the Death Star’s weakness to attack it and finally blow it up.
So create a story based around the mystery of your story. Start with a Big Question (Act I), Complicate Matters (Act IIa), Explain what\’s going on (Act IIb), and Resolve the Big Question (Act III). Do that and you’ll have the foundation for a strong and compelling story.