The law of conservation of detail (and exceptions)



The first act sets up a script. It needs to be entertaining, efficient, and most of all focused. If a first act forces me to learn something, there’d better be a damn good reason for it. If there isn’t, the useless information crowds out the useful stuff. It punishes the audience for paying attention and almost guarantees that necessary information will get overlooked. This is sometimes called 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 fail to edit, including needless world building, random jokes that don’t add value, or directors notes that only they will ever need or appreciate.

Here are a few examples of information that might appear in a first act:


 

  • 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.

Exceptions:

A script may add 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 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.

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