THE POINT OF A FIRST ACT
A first act creates the context to understand the story going forward.
It contextualizes the character. Who are they, what’s their archetype, what are their distinct traits, what do they want? Take a movie like THE VERDICT. At no point does Paul Newman say, “I’m an alcoholic sellout lawyer who must win a case or lose my soul,” but the script illustrates this as clearly as if it were stamped on his forehead.
It contextualizes the setting. If it’s a sci-fi/fantasy world building script, it’s sets up the basic rules. The ways in which this setting differs from the common sense world we hold as normal. The social codes people live by. The technology levels. The kinds of things the people therein think are impossible or normal. (Example: This morning I rode my purple dragon to work and I heard a man talking about love. Love? What nonsense).
Period scripts or scripts that are densely political share a lot of the expository needs of fantastical settings. If a script takes great pains to tell me that we’re a week away from the seven year anniversary of the dark purge that enabled Mayor Aldebourne to take over the town, it’s a safe bet that this information will be necessary to know going forward.
The script needs to get all this setup done in a brief amount of time. By about page 25, the audience is done learning. The time for setup is over, we want to see what fun stuff the author can DO with all that setup.
CONSERVATION OF DETAIL
Given the need to create clarity and context, if a bit of unwieldy setup appears in the first act there better be a damn good reason for it. Tvtropes calls this the law of conservation of detail.
There’s a lot to do: of work to do, and not a lot of space to do it in. The act needs lay all of its expository pipe AND also be fun, entertaining, and convince a skeptical reader that it’s author actually knows how to write. Given this, there’s not a lot of room for extraneous stuff. And yet, authors often thrown in extra stuff to show off the research and backstory they’ve so carefully wrought. And some of it is unnecessary. It’s world building for the sake of world building, and if it doesn’t pay off later, it’s basically punishing me for paying attention.
- Probably Necessary: We meet the hero’s boyfriend. We see she’s serious and uptight, whereas he’s a lusty, gambler. Despite their differences, they love each other.
- Probably Unnecessary: We spend half a page talking about the boyfriend’s complex relationship with his bookie, who never reappears or pays off at any point going forward.
- Probably Necessary: We see a professor give a lecture. We see he’s knowledgeable, funny, and charismatic. His students love him.
- Probably unnecessary: The author uses the history lesson to shoehorn in a lengthy tangent about corruption in politics, which doesn’t ever pay off going forward.
- Probably necessary: We’re in a future universe. Robots everywhere. A man kisses a woman, and suddenly the police descend on him like he’s a mass murderer.
- Probably unnecessary: Let’s assume the script is about a rebel who dares to love in a world where it’s illegal. That gets diluted if we also see people get arrested for juggling, trading recipe books, and wearing open toed shoes.
SOME EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
A script may add some COLOR. The ur-example is Han Solo bragging about making the Kessel Run in however many parsecs. We don’t know what that is, but it seems like a cool thing, and it communicates a lot about the character’s swagger and the surrounding mythos of the world. That’s good. The impact would have been diluted if he dropped five other oblique references in the same scene or, god forbid, spent a half page explaining what the Kessel Run actually was.
A script may create INTRIGUE by deliberately omitting detail. If characters talk about… the incident… we don’t need to know what that is now, we might never know, but we get a sense of what it means. The inclusion of intrigue means everything else needs to be totally clear and necessary. If the surrounding context is vague, the intrigue may not even register.
A script may create a RED HERRING. If characters in a mystery spend a half page talking about the mysterious past of their host it sure feels like a clue, but it’s also equally possible that it’s a deliberate mislead to make the identity of the real killer more surprising. As with intrigue, red herrings need surrounding clarity, otherwise the reader won’t trust the story enough to treat the information as potentially important.
A script may use a NON SEQUITUR, something that’s totally screwy just because. These are often really fun, because they show the author letting their freak flag fly outside of the structural needs of the story. It’s the reason why the best Simpsons jokes were the ones cut for syndication. They were funny simply because they were funny, not because they were advancing the plot. This technique is best used sparingly, if everything is a non sequitur, nothing is.
Like all things in screenwriting, context and clarity is a guideline. Some exceptions apply, but readers need some underlying clarity, otherwise they may not be able to follow and appreciate the story you’ve worked so hard to create.