So, now that we’ve talked about the index card method, and basic filmic structure and how it might be applied to novels, the natural question is: What actually goes into a first act?
The first act of a movie (first 30 script pages/30 minutes) or book (first 100 pages, approximately) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.
If you're making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.
• Opening Image
• Meet the Hero or Heroine
• The Ordinary World
• Hero/ine’s Inner and Outer Desire
• Hero/ine’s Problem
• Hero/ine’s Ghost or Wound
• Hero/ine’s Arc
(And yes, in a love story with an equal hero and heroine, each character must have all of the previous five elements!)
• Inciting Incident/ Call to Adventure
• Meet the Antagonist (and/or introduce a Mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
State the Theme/ What’s the story about?
• Sequence One Climax
• Introduce Allies
* Introduce Mentor
• Introduce Love Interest
• Plants/Reveals (or: Set ups and Payoffs)
• Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
• Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)
• Central Question/Central Story Action
• Hero/ine’s Plan
• Antagonist's Plan (which we might not know until later in the story, but YOU need to know!)
• Act One Climax
Yeah, it’s a lot! And these are elements that are present in all genres; we haven’t even gotten to story elements specific to specific genres.
That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. Every element on that list (except optional elements like the mentor and the ticking clock) has to be present, but they all have to be introduced within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply have to make each scene work on multiple levels.
Let’s break these things down. I’ll do a quick overview here, but we’re going to go in-depth into some of these elements later on.
In a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of Witness: the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish, the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next images to come: the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax, which takes place in the grain silo; one of the villains is killed by the spill of grain.
The opening image of Notting Hill is actually a montage of movie star Anna Scott’s career: newspaper headlines, magazine spreads, photo shoots, paparazzi tailing her at premieres and the Oscars. This montage sets up this story’s unusual antagonist; it’s Anna’s fame that is the constant opposition to Will and Anna’s love in this Cinderella story.
The opening image of New in Town is the frozen tundra of New Ulm, Minnesota (in December!), an arctic wasteland compared to the heroine’s Miami home. Of course this sets up the Special World into which fish-out-of water Lucy will be thrust. But the film also uses the images of snow and ice to represent Lucy’s frozen emotions, which will thaw and then melt during the course of this romantic comedy.
Well, what I’m suggesting is that we novelists can steal this idea of opening image to write much more powerful opening pages. We’ll be talking more about that soon.
MEETING THE HERO/INE
Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. (And there’s a whole chapter on Character Introductions coming up.) But there are a whole lot of structural details that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.
I go into the idea of inner and outer desires in depth in both workbooks. For now I’ll just say that it’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself; and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonist comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline to follow because it clearly shows character growth. But in love stories, there’s usually a more general sense that a hero/ine’s outer desire is for a person (and usually the wrong person!) but their inner desire is to be a better and more complete person, something that s/he is usually best able to accomplish through making a true partnership with the love interest.
Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning, right?). The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is _________ (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will progress, for example: from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth. And the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.
So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.
THE HERO/INE’S IMMEDIATE PROBLEM
This can mean the Hero/ine’s inner need, but there is often, but not always, one immediately apparent problem that the hero/ine needs to solve, and quickly (such as the threat of deportation in The Proposal.) This can be the INCITING INCIDENT, but is not always. Some stories don’t have this kind of external problem; the problems come later, when, for example, the hero tries to pursue the love interest and is in some way blocked from doing so.
The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own chapter. For now I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.
But - it must be said immediately that in many love stories the main antagonist is actually the lover. This is not necessarily so; sometimes there is an obvious outside opponent, or several. When the lover is the main opponent, what you generally see is a DOUBLE REVERSAL: both the protagonist and antagonist change, with significant character arcs, so that they can ultimately be together happily.
Also in the first act, you’ll probably set up most of the hero/ine’s allies: the sidekick, the co-worker, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister. Allies can also be introduced in other acts of the story.
Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.
This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (as you find in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.
INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE (also called INCITING EVENT)
This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.
In The Proposal, the Canadian heroine Margaret is threatened with deportation because her visa has expired – a pressing EXTERNAL PROBLEM that forces the heroine to react, and quickly (so she pressures her assistant to marry her to keep her legally in the country).
In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood women, including sisters Elinor and Marianne, lose their home and all they have when their father dies and the house and estate go to their half-brother according to the law of primogeniture.
In Leap Year, Anna’s very long-term boyfriend gives her earrings instead of the engagement ring she was expecting, and Anna decides to fly to Ireland to propose to him on Leap Day, when any man proposed to by a woman is traditionally required to accept.
In It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep has ex-sex with her ex-husband Alec Baldwin at their son’s graduation, and the two are back into an affair, even though he has remarried.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation.)
Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. S/he must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.
Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here: THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often (not always!) reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. When you think about it, it’s human nature to resist change, so a little reluctance on the part of the hero/ine can bring some psychological truth to your story, as well as dramatic tension.
Also note that the INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE may be the same scene, or they can be two separate scenes. But we’ll talk more about that later.
HOPE/FEAR (and STAKES)
Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. In It’s A Wonderful Life, we HOPE George Bailey will keep defying villainous Mr. Potter and continue building houses and doing good for people in the town. We FEAT Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our FEAR for the character should be the absolute worst-case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love – but that means you have to make that love and the potential loss of it meaningful.
Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but in most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning. And I need to point out that what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character is often quite different from what the character hopes and fears for herself: because we are able to see what or who they really need.
STATEMENT OF THEME
A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of It’s a Wonderful Life, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they are doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.
In Sea Of Love, the filmmakers set up protagonist Frank’s obsession with his ex-wife right from the start – which mirrors the killer’s obsessive love for his ex-wife that is driving him to murder. It’s a major theme of the story and we get it right up front.
SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX
An act or sequence climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location that spins the story into the next act.
CENTRAL QUESTION/CENTRAL STORY ACTION
I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you must have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a Central Question:
In New In Town: Will corporate executive Lucy be able to streamline the struggling factory and get that promotion?
In Leap Year: Will Anna get across Ireland to Dublin in time to propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day?
In The Proposal: Will Margaret and Andrew be able to fake a marriage convincingly enough to prevent Margaret from being deported?
It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges, and it’s usually answered definitively at the climax of the second act (and usually with a twist).
The Central Story Action is directly related to the protagonist’s PLAN to get what s/he wants, or thinks she wants. (Although sometimes the Central Story Action and Plan are more the protagonist’s reaction to the antagonist’s Plan).
Plan, Central Question and Central Story action are usually set up in the first act, but they are the crux of the second act, and maybe the most important key elements to understand about your story. More about those HERE.
ACT ONE CLIMAX
The climax of an act is very, very often a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws.).
But let’s cover the basics right now. There are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for instance, in Psycho.
If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes. They are tent poles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.
That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in North By Northwest. Folding up Paris and the zero gravity fight in the hotel corridor in Inception. The goofy intergalactic bar in Star Wars. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz. The dungeon – I mean prison – in Silence of the Lambs. In fact you can look at Raiders and Silence and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in Raiders…).
Actually, this might just be a good time to stop, take a breath, and watch some movies, to see all of these techniques we’re talking about in action (and pay particular attention to setpieces!). Again, only use any of these techniques that appeal to you or that you think will help.
You can work off a movie from your own master list, or if you've never done this before, I include full breakdowns of movies in both my STFA workbooks (see below(.
If you really want to see how the Elements of Act One function, get hold of three of movies, and watch the first act of one of the films, looking for the elements I’ve discussed here. Then read my Act One breakdown for that film, and watch the first act again. Do that with three movies in a row, and you will be super-prepared to start analyzing the films on your own list.
And I’m sure you realize this, but I’m going to say it anyway. The reason that I suggest you break down several movies of your choice for the story elements is to make it easier for you to identify these same story elements in your own story.
If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one, and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes. Whether from my list or your own, try to choose movies that you think are structurally similar to the story you're working on.
I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.
I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amazon DE