Don’t fully commit protagonist in opening scene

Typically when a story starts, there is an out-of-whack event, an upsetting of the status quo that the main character must deal with. How the main character addresses this event forms the bulk of the story’s plot.

Sometimes, though, the main character is reluctant to act. That is, he is not fully committed to resolving the issue.

For example, what if our protagonist comes to believe that something bad has happened to a neighbor, as she mysteriously hasn’t been seen for days. He files a report with the police and decides he’s washed his hands of it, has fulfilled his civic responsibility.

To ensure we have a story, though, something must occur that convinces the main character to become fully committed. This is variously known as the lock-in, the point of no return, and in a three-act structure as the Act One climax.

For example, after a cursory search the police turn up nothing and seem disinterested in investigating. For the lock-in, our protagonist might feel dissatisfaction with the lack of action and so decides to investigate on his own. Or perhaps the threat ramps up as he hears or sees suspicious activity at his neighbor’s house and so decides to investigate. Or possibly our protagonist has a need for self-redemption; maybe he once was a police detective who got bounced off the force when he screwed up an investigation and so wants to prove his mettle to his peers and to himself.

There are a variety of reasons why you might make your main character initially reluctant to act. First, it’s a great way to learn more about him, the villain, and their background without giving a lot of exposition. Further, plot-wise, getting your main character involved too early may not be believable when police or others are better equipped to address the problem. Lastly, it’s a good way to explore the story’s theme through development of the character. If fear, for example, holds back the main character from acting, this can be part of an examination of the theme of courage.