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

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?”

When you get a logic note, don’t fight it. Have a character ask the question and answer it (or Justification)

A big part of writing is justification: anticipating common sense logic notes, asking them yourself in the script, and creating a plausible explanation

This maintains willing suspension of disbelief, and creates specifics of character that ends up paying off later. When people don’t get things, they’re not flawed or bad, they’re “calling out” a logical issue that you might have overlooked.

  • Why did he give up the gun?
  • Why did she go back to him?
  • Why would the town turn on the kids after they saved it?

Improv made me realize the best way to do this was to take the executive’s question, put it in a character’s mouth, and then give the defense I would give in the room. It always works. Sometimes we get non justifications (lampshade hanging), sometimes the justifications are lousy, but scripts get credit for anticipating the question that the audience was about to have.

  • Why did the hero give up the gun? Because he can’t bring himself to kill a fellow cop (I should probably seed that through act 1 and 2).
  • Why did she go back to him? Because of the fucking awesome “I’m sorry” speech I’m about to write for the abusive husband (you wouldn’t want to go with ’cause she’s dumb,’ which might cause the audience to detach from the character completely).
  • Why would a man marry a dolphin? Because they echo locate and thus are good listeners.

The really hard part is anticipating the common sense, zeitgeist, politics, and quirks of the average audience. Some people are really open and judging any idea as flawed or false is hard for them. Some people lack empathy and think every thinks like them. Some people spend pages justifying obvious things, like why a mother would run into a building to save her kids.

That’s why outside feedback is great. When people have notes, most of the time they’re reacting to a moment where the logic didn’t scan. Calling out and justifying is a powerful tool, you get better at it just by having a term for it, and you get good at it by putting it into practice.

Exercise: If you’re stuck on a plot, write from character POV

Goldman once wrote that screenwriting is structure. A lot of people take that to mean that screenwriting is plot, which is it isn’t.

Screenwriting is about story, and story is about the immediate moments. Take James Bond. All the classic plots are pretty much the same (action scene, M tells Bond to kill a guy, sexy girl shows up, Bond kills guy), but we remember the moments – cars turning into submarines, Jaws biting through a gondola cable, the cool action.

Story exists in sequences, moments of immediacy. If you look up your favorite moments on youtube, you’ll rarely see a summation of the plot, you’ll often see a excerpt showing a cool sequence. That’s the money part of screenwriting.

Plot is abstract and thinky. If you read through my old posts, you’ll see how uncharismatic and boring thinky shit can be. If screenwriting is structure, the structure and plot exist to showcase the cool moments or sequences in a way that makes sense.

I work with a lot of thinky writers who are all about the 10,000 foot view. Elaborate plots with a lot of twists, thinky concepts, highbrow references, characters that are about their arcs more than they are about being interesting. It’s a common trap to fall into. Fortunately there’s an easy fix. Write from the character’s point of view.

Rather than write something like, “In a world where the Nazis won World War Two, a secret program exists where scientists work to use the Hadron Collider to set the timestream right,” try this:

“I am a scientist. I have grown up in an evil fascist realm, and I know something’s not right. I hate the ruler of my country, he killed my father. I am working on a project to change the past… but I’ve started to suspect that one of my colleagues might be a sabateur…”

Writing this way cuts through the thinky stuff and forces you to tie all that happens to the immediacy of the character’s emotions, which shows a more immediate way into the story and keeps things in the moment, not in the abstract.

God’s Approval Hits Record Low (or One Liners Suck)

If you ever listen to Simpsons DVD commentaries, you’ll hear the recurring complaint that one liners, sign gags, and the like take the longest to write, even with a full team of really funny comedy writers. I agree with this. Most comedy is character based, characters are set up with traits, and we see them behave in scenes where they fulfill or subvert that pattern. Homer does Homer stuff, Frasier does Frasier stuff, Peter Griffin does Peter Griffin stuff, etc.

One liners are a different breed, they’re lines that have to be funny on their own. It’s relatively easy to write jokes to to a character premise. It’s easier to write a funny tweet to a novelty account like “Shit a medieval knight says” than it is to write a legitimately funny tweet absent of a character.

Here’s a situation that came up on my last Screenwriting Live Stream (www.twitch.tv/storycoaching).

THE SCRIPT: A supernatural action/comedy.

STORY RECAP:

  1. Open on Arc City, where a douchey businessman is killed by a supernatural serial killer/angry ghost.
  2. Meanwhile, in heaven, God reads a newspaper as one of his staff tells him that hell is overfilling.

Leaving aside the daunting world building elements (fictional city, high concept monster, fictional heaven that may or may not conform to what we commonly expect from heaven), the story’s problems begin with two headlines on the newspaper that God reads.

1) Ryan Gosling kidnapped by a Jinn 2) Exclusive interview with Angel turned atheist.

It’s awesome that the script in question attempted one liners. The problem is these aren’t particularly good.

PROBLEMS WITH THE FIRST ONE:

  • Esoteric language. You and I may know that a Jinn is an alternate term for genie, but most people do not.
  • Raises more questions than it answers. Wait, we had a fictional city, a ghost, God, and now there are genies? This world seems like a hole without a bottom, what’s next? Multi-dimensional techno-badgers?
  • Random: You could fill in any creature and any celeb and the joke still works as well as it does now, which isn’t very well at all. It doesn’t trade on the expected traits of either.

PROBLEMS WITH THE SECOND ONE:

  • Ungrounded. An angel not believing in god would be like a worker not believing in his boss. Even if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be front page news, not even on a slow news day.
  • Too clever by a half. Rather than use any of the mythos established by the first two scenes, this introduces a completely tangential comic premise, “wouldn’t it be funny if…”

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PUNCHING THIS UP:

  1. Comic premise of heaven: once this is setup, one liners like this become easier to write, justify. ex. “All the newspapers in heaven are written by madmen with literary degrees.”
  2. Establishing world building. I have no ordinary world. It’s not like this is playing in the world of the mundane, or even an established genre milieu like “generic fantasy kingdom.” For this to work, the world needs to be contextualized for the audience rather than introduce more fantasy bullshit to a world that’s unclear, the paper should tell us something about the world that’s already been established.

MORE INFO FROM THE WRITER:

When pressed for details, we learned that the major problem is that hell is like a mine but it’s run dry. That’s good to know, it sets up the whys and wherefores of the story, and also hints at why we saw the supernatural weird thing in the first scene (economic trouble in hell? Let’s migrate to earth!). We also learn that god is an impotent figure head.

That would be good to know up front, and even if we don’t, the headlines ought to hint at that.

As I said up above, one liners are a bitch to write, and they’re even harder when they have to carry world building. These are the best the room could come up with.

  • God’s Approval Numbers Hit Record Low – The best I can do give the restrictions. The idea of God being polled like a politician is inherently funny, and becomes even moreso if you know a bit about the universe. And if you don’t, it immediately frames God’s situation in a memorable way.
  • Economic trouble in Hell – have we reached peak damnation? Peak oil is a thing in the real world, peak damnation suggests that hell is like a mine. This is probably too esoteric to be funny.
  • Ryan Gosling kidnapped by infertile Goose – Another esoteric one – it relies on someone knowing that a gosling is a baby goose. A line like “infertile” to implies that the poor goose is baby crazy, not just lonely. I’m not sure if that makes this better.
  • Ailing God’s Surgeon’s Desperate plea: Believe harder, he’s dying! Another way of implying an impotent deity, grounded in the hyperbolic tone of a real-world tabloid newspaper.

Overall though, I don’t think this is the place for a one liner, unless you happen to have one in your pocket that’s really, really good. Otherwise you’re buying yourself hours of work that you don’t really have to do, I’d much rather understand the universe first, so I can then enjoy jokes that stem from it, not get hit with a slew of jokes that make it hard for me to orient myself in the world.

Vetting a Logline – The Fright Chamber

Here’s a logline that was submitted by /u/nasteeninja for consideration on my live screenwriting show (www.youtube.com/c/storycoaching, now every Saturday at 5 PM). I’ll get to the script at a later date, probably on video.

A sadistic doctor, hellbent on immortality, abducts a troubled nurse and forces her through a series of constructed nightmares designed to steal her subconscious.

I generally like this, it makes me think of movies like the Cell, or a more supernatural/scifi take on Saw. It’s got an implicit second act, so my imagination can work with that.

It’s told from the POV of the villain, not the hero. That’s cool for the genre. I don’t remember any character names from the Saw franchise, other than Jigsaw.

My main problem with this is that it raises more questions than it answers. I don’t know what a constructed nightmare is. Is he using a neural network computer? The mystic powers of the Ruby of Cyttorak? A lo-fi warehouse full of mundane creepy stuff? That should be made clear.

Hellbent on immortality suggests supernatural, but I’m still not sure how this nurse’s subconscious aides him in his stated goal.

INT. LABORATORY – NIGHT

DOCTOR: I will steal this woman’s subconcious with my unspecified, high concept device, and it will make me immortal.

LAB ASSISTANT: How does that work, sir?

DOCTOR: That’s unclear.

The immortality bit is optional. On a logline level, I don’t care why the bad guys in SAW or FINAL DESTINATION do their thing, only how what they do is interesting (on a script level this matters, but we’re talking loglines). I’d recommend striking that in favor of language that tells me what the central mechanism is, or even if this is going to be a supernatural horror or a sci fi horror story.