Picture this: a vengeful god comes down from heaven and tells you that you have 24 hours to kill an evil man, or you’ll die. You’re allowed to ask one question.
If you’ve got any sense, you’ll use that question to ask some variation on the following: “What counts as an evil man?” (1) It’s hard to do something if you don’t have the faintest idea of what you’re doing.
By the same token, it’s hard to remain invested in a story if you have no idea what you’re rooting for.
If a first act doesn’t set up the character, goal, and the stakes, it’s not doing what a first act should do. You need all for rooting interest:
- Character – who they are, why we like them (or relate to them or otherwise engage with them), what they want out of the world.
- Goal – “Make the world a better place” is an abstract goal. “Make the world a better place by opening an animal shelter” is a more concrete one. It’s hard to imagine what “a better place” looks like, everyone will have a different idea. It’s easy to imagine an animal shelter opening it’s doors.
- Stakes – Opening an animal shelter is easy if you have limitless money and permits. It’s hard if you’re risking everything and could lose your house if you fail. The end of the first act usually has the character commit to a plan, something they can’t take back. The die is cast. Stakes can change, evolve, or rise, but you need some proto-stakes at the end of the first act, otherwise it’ll feel like the character doesn’t care about what’s going on.
Once you have a character the audience likes, a sense of stakes, and a clear goal, you have a rooting interest. Rooting interest makes a script easy to follow because it attaches narrative weight to everything in the second act. If the character needs to kill a dragon, he’s winning every time he gets closer to the dragon, losing everytime he gets further away from it (2). Without that rooting interest, it’s all just incident: pedestrian, plodding, arbitrary, confusing.
Most scripts fail in the first act because writers are gunshy about commiting to simple things like characters, goals, and stakes. Don’t be afraid to be clear. You’ll need that clarity to help the audience enjoy, appreciate and understand your script.
RELATED: The Premise Test
(1) The smart asses out there are already thinking of their witty subversions of the scenario, coming up with a clever way out of the scenario, or mounting some elaborate theological explanation of why the scenario is impossible. Part of playing along means accepting scenarios in the spirit they’re offered.
(2) Dramatic plotting in a nutshell – one step forward, two steps back.