The first act creates context.

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.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLawOfConservationOfDetail

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.

Related:

The point of a first act

3 Act Structure = Setup/Explore/Resolve

Clarity = relatable characters

Don’t let a desperation to sell distract you from writing.

I recently wrote up a series of notes for a client script. I got this in response:

“My only question for you is whether you think there is something salvageable here(1). Obviously as a writer there’s always value in finishing a project in order to improve. But I really don’t wanna put my time into it unless there’s a good possibility for financial gain (2). Let’s say, hypothetically, you took the script and doctored it so that some of the things you mentioned were refined and fixed etc (3). Do you think it would have a fair shot at selling (4)?”

This is a textbook teachable moment. Let me unpack why.

(1) When people use words like “salvageable” they’re usually talking about the core concept, not the execution. Modern screenplays aren’t really about the big idea, they’re about the execution. Look at THE NICE GUYS, which is a brilliant execution of a pretty lame idea (a conspiracy about big auto and emissions standards? Really?) or anything by Pixar. Beginning writers often fall in love with their idea and think the execution is secondary. Really, the execution is most of what you’re selling, otherwise people would buy ideas off of popular tweets.

(2) This reflects a popular misconception that pervades the writing help business. Everyone behaves like winning a contest finds you a buyer, following their formula guarantees you a big payday, scoring high on the blacklist gets you a sale, etc. Sales are only part of the industry, most writers get in by writing a cool spec, getting representation, then using that spec as a sample to secure more work. Yes, you can sell a spec, but that ignores the larger part of the industry – securing work from someone else. This is an uncharismatic nuance, but I believe that it’s better to have a three dimensional understanding of the task at hand.

(3) As noted in points (1) and (2), this is a flawed plan. It over values the high concept and undervalues the execution. It ignores the boring reality that an agent or manager is probably going to ask what else you’ve got going on. Assume that someone were able to write a brilliant take on the basic concept. That would lead to awkward conversations if someone wanted to sign you off “your” spec or wanted rewrites.

(4) Owing to points (1, 2, 3) this is the wrong question to ask. It reflects a fundamental lack of faith in the writer’s ability to execute. It’s also a question that communicates an insecurity that’s easy to prey on. It’s really easy for an unscrupulous operator to say, “Yes, give me $XXXX and your dreams will come true.” There are no easy answers, and even if a part of you really longs for one, it’s advisable to hold that truth close to the vest.

Finally, the question reflects a lack of joy in the process. If a writer loves their idea, they should also love the process that renders it into being. Otherwise, they’re essentially a producer, looking for a hired gun to render someone else’s property.

I’m being harsh on the question because of how it communicates. That said, I hear it a lot from a lot of types of people. Most of them really do love writing, really do want to get better in their chosen field. This question usually comes from a fear of not being good enough, a desperation for validation or quick cash that blots out reason.  Rather than concentrating on selling that one “lottery ticket” spec script, a screenwriter should concentrate on selling themselves as someone who can execute on any number of scripts at a professional level.*

 

 

*credit /u/screenwriter101

The best notes tend to be specific

Reading services, from the Blacklist to me, prefer to give overall notes in a general way. They’re easier to do, and harder to specifically challenge. Unfortunately, they’re not always the most helpful.

Take these Blacklist notes posted by reddit user wolfduke :

The narrative suffers from a premise that is ungrounded, as it introduces a sprawling cast, myriad of magical, fantasy elements, and a limitless time span that transcends a specific, coherent setting. The script could function quite well if it focused on Servanda’s story in the 1487 Rome location, but the addition of an african slave, a Grim Reaper, and the adventure plot that ensues leaves the audiences with too much to digest and too many elements that require a leap of faith and willing suspension of disbelief.

The gist of the note is clear: focus on a storyline and cut things that require the willing suspension of disbelief, but that’s rather abstract. It’s not like authors go into scripts knowing the precise rules that govern willing suspension of disbelief and works against them. Notes like these often need specific examples and a stress on why they break the reader’s perceived “rule” but there’s rarely enough time in two pages.

Readers tend to communicate general concepts: enter late/leave early. Show don’t tell. Speaking as someone who struggles to internalize these after years of writing, these notes are tough to execute. We generally grasp them, but it’s hard to do in the moment. As such, scripts tend to fail on individual lines, but notes rarely go that granular and we end up reading them like tarot cards, trying to discern a useful meaning from abstract symbols.

This is my preferred way for giving (and getting) notes:

  1. Convert file to editable format. Writerduet is really good at converting PDF scripts.
  2. Make notes immediately after the specific situation to which they pertain, marking them with a hashtag (#) so they’re easy to search for.
  3. Make liberal use of strikeout.
  4. When suggesting a general rule, pitch an example. These are rarely perfect, but they illustrate the gist of what I’m suggesting.

Example here: https://www.scribd.com/document/333782275/Example-of-Line-by-Line-annotations. I made these for a short I found on /r/readmyscript so I could show an example without any client confidentiality issues.

As you’ll note, my style is rather blunt, I’m liberal with suggestions and pitches, and I do a lot of striking out. This may be a little undiplomatic for some, but generally when I do these I’m getting paid for them, or someone’s specifically asked for them knowing my specific reputation. Any and all these notes can be ignored, but they’re actionable and specifically useful.

Some may find the idea of suggesting cuts or alt lines a little too presumptuous, and that’s fine. It works for me, but not everyone. But I strongly recommend the idea of tying notes to specific lines. You could do this by writing on a script, using PDF annotation apps, or making a word document tying notes to specific pages, but I find this way the most efficient and easiest to digest.

I also like doing this to my own scripts. When I’m rewriting I try to take off my writer hat and put on my critic hat. I ask myself, “If this were someone else’s script that I had no investment in, what would I legitimately think?”

Rewriting dialogue by identifying the function of it.

They say all dialogue should further understanding of the character or further the story. It also needs to convey distinct character voice, be entertaining, and convey the impression that the writer is worthy of being hired. It’s a lot, and people often get lost trying to do everything at once.

Here’s my trick:

  1. I like to write things that are boring and completely on the nose at first. That way it starts with clarity. You can always art it up later (and sometimes I remember to do that).
  2. Identify the function of the line, what is it actually doing. Once you know that angle, it’s easier to find a stronger line that sells the same underlying idea.

Take this scene from THE ROOM:

ORIGINAL

Mark: How was work today?

Johnny: Oh, pretty good. We got a new client and the bank will make a lot of money.

Mark: What client?

Johnny: I cannot tell you; it's confidential.

Mark: Aw, come on. Why not?

Johnny: No, I can't. Anyway, how is your sex life?

It’s pretty basic, but a good actor would look at the lines and find the underlining meaning so they could emotionally ground a performance. We can do the same:

FUNCTION

MARK: <Generic opening line for verisimilitude. Invitation for further conversation>

JOHNNY: <Vague humblebrag about my important job.>

MARK: <Request for more information.>

JOHNNY: <Blasé refusal to go into more detail.>

MARK: <Whiny request for more information in a way that communicates neediness and a lack of understanding of how the world works.>

JOHNNY: <Flat refusal. Awkward segue into sex talk.>

That’s my subjective take, and probably not what the original writer meant. Still, it’s better to write from a strong point of view. Any choice is better than no choice, and you can always make a new choice in the rewrite.

REWRITE

MARK: You look happy. Like you just fucked Marilyn Monroe without a condom.

JOHNNY: Let’s just say I scored at work. Big money. I’ll make VP for sure.

MARK: Oh? Which one? Rumor is you guys have been chasing Nakamura Industries.

JOHNNY: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

MARK: Okay, but it’d better be worth it.

JOHNNY: You’re pushing too hard. When was the last time you got laid?

A lot of times when people pitch me lines, they’re not great and I turn them down flat. But the more useful takeaway is to consider the ANGLE at which the line is pitched, the underlining meaning. Different angles yield different kinds of lines.

I’d call that better, but still not great. But it tells us a little bit more about the characters, advancing our understanding, making it easier to make the next draft even more specific.

If Johnny’s being casual about refusing detail, then we need the kind of thing casual people say: “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”

Or he could be <evasive because he’s fronting about imaginary success> so “Uh, it’s good. Real good. Lotta boring details, but profitable.” Might do the trick.

Or it could be <Setting up labored segue into sex life because I really want to ask about yours> in which case the better line might be, “Ugh, I’m just glad it’s over. I’ve been so busy working that I haven’t been laid in a month.”

William Goldman once said that screenwriting was structure. Valid point, but it’s not only structure, it’s texture to, the the difference between “They have sex” and “As Bob runs his tongue over her neck, Alice grabs at the bed sheet with her toes.” It’s the little details, cool visuals, quotable dialogue, neat moments of behavior that bring it to life. Without it, even the most “properly” structured story will just lie there, inert.

Those specific moments, the little things that register vary from writer to writer, from audience to audience. A hundred writers will have a hundred takes on the same basic scene. You want to make sure every line in a scene advances your story and sells your basic competence as a writer. The easiest way to do that is by understanding what each line is actually doing in the scene.

RELATED

Specificity in Dialogue

Mapping 3 Act Structure to Scenework

Finding Interesting Beats in Scenes

A simple trick for writing dimensional characters.

Writing characters is a varied art form and there’s a million ways to develop characters that are “great” “dimensional,” “original.” Here’s a trick I like to use:

  1. Who is this character, really?
  2. How do they present themselves to the world?

These are also good questions for life. If you want to know how someone wants to be seen, look at their instagram. If you want to know who someone is, share an inheritance with them.

This trick allows you to use two simple judgements to create a character that seems more complex.

Examples:

Terminator 2 – Sarah Connor wants to be a tough, merciless warrior. At heart she’s a traumatized survivor and a good mom.

Die Hard – John McClane wants to be seen as a good husband. At heart he’s a warrior who tends to put action over family (this works out well for the story he’s in).

Zootopia: Judy Hopps wants to be seen as a progressive, enlightened person who busts old stereotypes. At heart she’s as much a slave to to stereotypes of her culture as anyone (she gets better).

The Office: Michael Scott  pretends like everybody loves him and that his coworkers are his family, but he is actually pretty lonely. He thinks he is hilarious, but nobody laughs at his jokes. (credit to Moebius23)

Other examples: A coward who dreams of being a heroic gunslinger. A sucker who thinks they’re on the verge of cracking a conspiracy. A sexual addict who thinks they’re pure and virtuous.

Creating a simple dynamic like this allows you to create a character that’s both contradictory and consistent, and it also hints at a profound character want.

To deploy this in a story: whenever a character has time to think, let them do something consistent with the self image they’re selling. Whenever they’re pressured, tired, or think they can get away with it, let them be their true self.

Movie characters tend to be archetypes. The hero, the love interest, the villain. That’s not a bad thing, it’s baked into storytelling, and it allows for a narrative clarity that allows a varied audience to relate to a specific story.

The trick is to hide this with artifice. Despite the fact that everyone basically responds to archetypes, people also like to fancy themselves as discerning and smart, so if you’re too on the nose, you’ll get dinged for it by readers, by contest judges, by the talent you want to attract to your projects.

Related:

Archetypes

Behavior

Arc

Don’t Write Generic Dialogue. Speak to the specific complaint.

I hate generic stuff, momentsthat show something basic: the kid loves his mom! The cop works at a precinct! The couple is fighting! Any hack could write that, and it’s the screenplay’s job to show off what’s special about your writing style. You want to sell people on the idea of you.

Here’s a very generic scene:

INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
A HUSBAND and WIFE are fighting.

HUSBAND: You’re driving me crazy!
WIFE: You’re driving me crazy!
HUSBAND: You’re crazy!
WIFE: You’re crazy!

Okay, I get it. Their marriage sucks, but I don’t know anything about the characters. It’s just a bland fight. When I read scenes like this, I’m reminded of something an improv teacher once taught me: scenes should speak to a specific complaint.

That’s a fancy way of saying that dialogue should specifically highlight WHY things are happening. If someone says “I love you,” do they say it everyday or does they want something today? If a husband and wife are fighting, who’s fault is it?

The characters become more clear if a scene becomes more specific:

HUSBAND: You’ve been snapping at me all day, and I’m sick of it!
WIFE: Get a fucking job! I’m sick of carrying you. I should have married John.
HUSBAND: Fuck John. Let him deal with your shit. I’m sick of you hitting on any guy with a six pack!
WIFE: You’re one to talk! You’d fuck mud if you thought it would wiggle!

This is a little on the nose, but at least we know a little more about the two lovebirds. If we wanted to further refine it, we’d have to think about what we’re trying to say about these people and the best way to manifest that broader truth in a few specific lines.

By making dialogue more specific, you get to show off your chops and you make your characters more distinct.