All a first act has to do is set up a main character (1), make me care about them, given them a goal, and set them off on a journey. (2)
That’s it. It’s simple. And it’s difficult.
People have a tendency to over-complicate their first acts, or to make them vaguer than they need to be.
If the story is about an unhappily married linebacker who finds love with a rodeo clown, that’s the part the first act needs to sell. If the script spends 5 pages following the linebacker’s goofy quarterback friend, it distracts the attention, so there’d better be a good reason for it.
Scenes and stories need to start a who/what/where. I need to see that a scene is about a man and a woman arguing over cat food in a store before I can invest in the how and the why. It’s hard to deconstruct something that isn’t properly constructed.
The first act sets up the who/what/where of the script. We need to get a sense of the main character in what the hacks like to call “the ordinary world.” This can exist for a split second, it can simmer for the entire first act, but we need to see it to get a sense of the dude.
It’s why the oft tumblr’d Pixar advice works well: Once upon a time there was __. Every day, _. One day _. Because of that, _. Because of that, _. Until finally __.
Making us like a character is harder, but we must like him. The script illustrates a world, the character is like the vehicle that we navigate the world in. Given that nothing on the page really “exists,” we need an emotional point of reference to ground ourselves in (3).
The main character is our guy, our avatar in the story, our player character… or more simply, us. We humans are good at identifying with things. When someone hits our car, we don’t say “He hit my vehicle,” we say “He hit me!” (4)
Thus, the first act has to do double duty. Set up the main character while also making us identify with them them. That’s the hard part (5), the part where the real business of writing comes in, the part that needs a canny understanding of human nature, audience assumptions, common sense, and all the hard stuff that our work as writers leads us to gain.
Notice, I said “identify.” The character doesn’t need to be normal, nice, or likable, simply… and this is such a lame word… relatable (6). It’s not enough to present JOHN (20’s, handsome, relatable), the script has to illustrate his nature via behavior in a way that makes the audience say, “Okay, I get this dude. I’m willing to empathize with him for 100 minutes or so.” If that doesn’t happen, the rest of the script won’t hold us.
I’m still feeling out my thoughts on how to do this. This might be one of those things that doesn’t lend itself well to procedural advice. But this is something a writer must be aware of. So when you write a script, consider the audience. Consider what they literally are picking up from your first 10 pages, what impression of the hero they’re likely to form. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage… of our imaginations and understanding.
FOOTNOTES (1) Or, less commonly, a group of characters.
(2) In this paradigm, the second act is the journey, metaphorical or actual. The third act is the resolution of that journey.
(3) [Alex Berg calls this the orienting effect.](Alex Berg calls this the orienting effect.)
(4) Stolen from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is a must read.
(5) Blake Snyder considered this so fundamental, he named his book SAVE THE CAT after this need. Sadly, he neglected to provide any practical advice on HOW to do this. Also, his tone was so smug he turned off a generation of young screenwriters to any form of screenwriting advice. Ironically he didn’t save the cat in his own book.
(6) I hate this word, but in my decade of writing coverage, I’ve used it more than any other term. Slate has a great article on its etymology.