Beginning the First Act of your screenplay represents two very important things: a fresh start and staring down the blank page. Translating an idea from your head (or even an outline) into a fully formed act is no small challenge. It takes work and discipline, sure, but there’s also a formula to these things that can help you get started.
Over the course of the First Act, there are several sign posts that you need to hit to set yourself up for successful Second and Third Acts and, in turn, a screenplay that will have people talking. From introducing your hero and his or her world, to the inciting incident and the point of no return, we will address it all below.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what goes into a typical First Act, let’s tackle the elephant in the room. Most development executives and producers bring home a towering pile of scripts with them each weekend. If you’re lucky enough to find your work in that pile, you need to make sure you get their attention early and keep it. The first ten pages of your script are perhaps the most important you’ll write. A good reader will use the first ten to determine whether they like your voice, the pacing and whether the story is unfolding in a way that intrigues them enough to continue onward.
This may seem obvious but it’s important to note because the First Act often houses a ton of exposition and set up. It can be easy to get bogged down in the minutia of this and forget the golden rule: entertain or else. In this case, the “or else” could be losing your reader before they ever get to that cool set piece in Act Two or the shocking twist in Act Three.
One of the best examples of an opening scene that immediately sets the stakes of the script and instantly arrests the reader is CHILDREN OF MEN. Within in a matter of two pages, Alfonso Cuarón and his co-writers, are able to inform the reader that the youngest person in the world (an 18-year-old man) is now dead, establish a pervasive sense of hopelessness, introduce their lead character in Theo Faron, cement that he has a drinking problem and close with a literal explosion. It doesn’t get much tighter than that.
Many screenwriting guides will suggest you introduce the reader to your hero or main character in the first scene of your screenplay, as is the case with the example above. While ideal, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Take, for example, THE GODFATHER. The first scene of that screenplay carefully establishes the world and the tone of the film. It also introduces us to the titular character but not our lead, Michael. We don’t meet him until Scene 2.
It is, however, imperative that you introduce your protagonist within the first ten pages. Any later than that and you run the risk of alienating your reader. You also need to let your audience know quickly the age of your hero, how they think and how they interact with others. The more specificity you can provide the more connected your audience will feel to the hero. See below and example from GARDEN STATE.
Opening scene for GARDEN STATE by Zach Braff
Likewise, you must use the First Act to demonstrate the main character’s utmost desire and their biggest weakness. Both of which will become important in the Second Act, when obstacles began to arise. In BUBBLE BOY, Jimmy Livingston’s greatest desire is to be loved by his nextdoor neighbor Chloe but his weaknesses, namely a lacking immune system and sedentary lifestyle prevent this. They also propel Jimmy on his Hero’s Journey.
Once you’ve introduced the reader to your main character, the next few scenes should be used to construct their world. This can mean any number of things but it likely includes showing where they work, where they spend time with their friends and family, and generally speaking what their status quo is. Essentially, introducing the world your character inhabits means showing us a day in their life. By doing this, you can also hint at the fact that something is missing. That something can be obvious to the character like in Superbad where Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are both desperate to have sex for the first time and attain some level of coolness or it can be a mystery to your lead, as is the case with George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air. He spends most of the first act convinced that his life is great when, in truth, he has placed work over family to the detriment of his relationships with others.
This section should be tight. No more than 2 to 5 scenes. Whatever gets you to 15 pages. Because, after that, it’s time for the inciting incident.
The Inciting Incident is the first turning point of any screenplay. It Is the shift from complacency to chaos. In Finding Nemo, it’s the moment when Marlon’s wife and children are slain. In Taken, it’s when his daughter is taken. Now, the protagonist must decide what they’re going to do. What do they want and what lengths are they willing to go to achieve it?
The Inciting Incident is a call to action but not every protagonist is ready to answer the call. Not every protagonist has a unique set of skills a la Liam Neeson. Because of this, the Inciting Incident can often lead to the Hell No, I Ain’t Going moment or a refusal of the call. Even some of film’s most notable heroes refused the call initially. In Star Wars, Luke tells Obiwan he can’t journey to save Leia because of his familial obligations and responsibilities on the farm. However, unless the hero leaves their nest and answers the call, you don’t have much of a movie.
In the closing moments of the First Act the stakes are raised and the protagonist hits a point of no return. He or she is forced to make a choice that will set the table for the rest of your screenplay. Typically, it is an unexpected choice that sends him or her on a completely new path. In the aforementioned, Finding Nemo, Marlon is forced to venture out into the ocean and away from the comforts of home to find his son. Likewise, Bubble Boy sees Jimmy running away from home and risking his health to stop Chloe from marrying someone else.
Regardless of how many times you’ve done it before, every new First Act is a call to action for you as a screenwriter. You may be nervous at first but you need to charge headlong in order to get where you’re going. And, besides, it’s best to enjoy First Act while you can because it only gets more treacherous from here.