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Writing Act I of Your Screenplay

Every act in the three-act structure has a set of tasks to accomplish. The first act serves as your audience's introduction to the entire world of the script — people, places, time frame, and all. Remember that your audience members begin in a neutral darkness. In their advance toward some new awareness, they're not unlike visitors in a foreign country. You need to orient them fairly quickly to the story that's about to unfold. So, the first act is all about setup.

Your opening moments

Begin with an image. Stories that begin with anything else, voices in darkness or immediate dialogue, for instance, are often difficult to absorb. A strong opening image can convey backdrop, character, and pervading mood in seconds. That image might also convey a theme for your piece. The Untouchables opens with the planting of a bomb in a local establishment and its inevitable explosion. An innocent girl dies in that explosion, which quickly suggests the depth of corruption responsible for such an action. It visually pits good against evil from the start.

The eye picks up details much more quickly than the ear, and nothing's more disconcerting than staring at talking heads. In a way, you haven't earned the right to open verbally. Your audience doesn't yet know the people speaking; they haven't decided whether the characters are interesting enough to pursue. Let your audience watch your characters for a bit, assess their actions, and make some initial assumptions. Doing so keeps your audience actively involved in guessing what your story will be.

Also, everything that happens in the first moments of a film is important. If you provide vital information verbally, your audience is likely to miss it in their quest to appraise the environment visually. People come to the movies to see pictures in motion. Why begin with anything else?

The first ten pages

If your opening image grabs the audience's attention, you have roughly ten pages after that opening to convince them that your film is worth watching. Don't believe that? The next time you go to a movie, ask yourself how you feel about it after the first ten minutes. If you're bored or confused, you'll likely deem it a failure. If you're riveted, odds are that you'll consider it a success.

The first ten pages provide an initial criterion on which to judge the ensuing story. They should provide just enough information to establish a clear world without giving too much of the eventual plot away, and they should create enough mystery to keep the audience wondering what's in store. Your first ten pages should accomplish the following tasks:

  • Introduce the main characters
  • Establish the primary environments
  • Convey a distinct mood or atmosphere
  • Establish the time period
  • Illustrate a routine or way of life
  • Provide any relevant backstory (events that transpired before the story began)
  • Introduce the antagonist

If you haven't already settled on an ending to your script, now is the time to do it. If you don't know where the script is going, how will you determine which pieces of information to highlight at the beginning?

Everything that happens now is a setup for what comes next. So you have to know what comes next.

Some films reveal the antagonist as the villain right away. The opening text of The Untouchables delineates Al Capone as the film's key scoundrel. The shark in Jawsconsumes its first victim in the first five minutes. By contrast, the true murderer in Ghost seems to be a nice guy until well after the protagonist is killed. When you reveal the villain is up to you; you certainly don't have to do so in the first ten pages. However, make the conflict clear shortly thereafter. If you wait much longer, you risk having a restless audience that's impatient for the action to begin.

The inciting incident

The inciting incident, also known as the catalyst, marks the film's first turning point. It tilts the story from order to chaos, from complacency to combat. It's the point of no return. In this moment, you answer two questions:

  • What do your characters want?
  • What might prevent them from getting it?

Together, these queries make up the film's premise, or what it's ultimately about. In Lord of the Rings, one hobbit wants to rid Middle Earth of an evil force. The Dark Lord and human greed stand in his way. In both Ordinary People and Good Will Hunting, young men struggle to forgive and forget their tortuous past. Personal demons and unsympathetic adults stand in their way. A strong premise clearly defines a need and an impediment. As soon as an audience senses these details, you can pose the central question:
Will your protagonist(s) succeed?

If the answer is yes, you may have a happy ending; if it's no, a tragedy is in the works. Your inciting incident isn't complete until you pose this question. Until then, audiences wait. They wait for action; they wait for intent; they wait to be told what they're waiting for.

An inciting incident generally occurs in one of the following ways:

  • An action plunges the characters into conflict.
  • A piece of critical information arrives.
  • A sequence of small events prepares an audience for the story.

In Jaws, a shark attacks a young woman, an action that begins the hunt. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham receives word that his job is in jeopardy, a piece of information that sends him over the edge. In the final method, the inciting incident takes the form of several events and is, therefore, the most subtle of the three. The film Zorro is a clear example of this technique. Two brothers witness Zorro attempting to thwart an execution. They save his life in the process, and he rewards them with a silver medallion. Government troops then invade his house, kill his wife, abduct his child, and throw him in jail. Years pass before he escapes. Meanwhile, the brothers, now grown up, also flee government soldiers. When one of them is killed, the other falls into a great depression and would risk his life avenging the death, if he wasn't first intercepted by (who else?) Zorro. All these events prepare an audience for the real story, which involves the training of a new masked hero. This preparation obviously takes longer than ten pages, but the result is the same.

Plot point one

Plot point one is the first big turning point in your script. It occurs at the end of the first act, approximately 30 pages into the action, and propels an audience into Act II. It must do the following things:

  • Push the action in a new direction
  • Force the protagonist to make a choice and take a risk
  • Raise the central question for the first or second time
  • Raise the stakes

Pivotal events, like plot point one, are usually surprises. Audiences know that something grand will happen eventually. They might even know what the result of that event will be. But don't allow them to guess the details of the event itself or you'll spoil the surprise. Star Wars audiences know that Luke Skywalker will eventually be called away from the safety of his family and into training. They may also guess that, as a result, he will have to fight Darth Vader, but they don't know exactly how these proceedings will transpire. Stories that hint too thoroughly at upcoming events become overly predictable and less exciting to watch.

In Zorro, the young brother meets his future mentor. He must choose to fight the villain now or follow this instructor and heed his advice to wait. His decision tilts the plot toward the true story — the training of a legend. In The Untouchables, Malone joins Ness's force, and together, they enlist a team of crusaders. From that point on, it's them against Capone's small army. The first plot point may be as shocking as the death of a loved one or as gentle as the touch of a hand. Both actions have the power to launch a great story.

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