What to include when writing the first act of a screenplay. This description is tailored to the classic feature film script, but parts of it are relevant for other formats.
Begin at the beginning
In my reccollection, though it may be faulty, Alice was once asked to tell a story and given the advice that she begin at the beginning, proceed to the end and then stop. In a feature script the first act is the first fifteen pages, but more than that, it sets the scene and the universe.
In a screenplay the tone of the first act is set by the very first few lines. Does it begin with a shadowy figure striding through a dark alley? Is it, instead, children playing in a park? Setting the tone is part of the screenwriter's job. Choosing the first scene is critical. Ideally, the viewer should be able to tell you something important about the story after only watching the first scene. Does it begin with a voiceover? That implies the story will be first-person. Does it begin with an act of violence? Maybe that means the crime depicted is the initiating event for the story, maybe it means nothing in itself, but establishes the 'world' of the film as being a dark and dangerous one.
First act checklist
Imagine the first act has to fulfil a specific function. It has to introduce the characters and set the scene. To work this out you can imagine a checklist of things that have to be in the first act.
- Introduce protagonist
- Introduce antagonist
- Introduce world
- Give antagonist motivation
- Give protagonist motivation
- Explain the difficulties both will face
Finally, the first act closes with an event, a conflict, a revalation that sets the story in motion. Think of it in terms of those corny trailer voiceovers from years ago. Write one of those voiceovers for an imaginary trailer for your story.
Yes, it's terrible. Please don't think that's an example of my best writing. But think of how much it's told us. Protagonist is a woman who loves a man. Antagonist is a system that bans such love, for some reason. The world is some sort of totalitarian state, perhaps? Her motivation is happiness, the event at the end of the first act is when her man is taken away from her. The main plot will be her trying to rescue him in the second act and in the third act we find out whether she succeeds and finds the happiness she seeks.
Believe it or not that's the entire plot. This sort of film is called 'high concept'.
Famously Jaws (1975) was described by the logline 'Bad shark. Kill shark' but we may be able to do a trailer voicover for the film.
The logline is actually the inverse of the trailer voicover. Loglines essentially descibe the meat of the story, the second act. The trailer voiceover is first act and the direction the plot takes. So Jaws needs a trailer voiceover. Feel free to come up with your own, or pick any film you like but I might suggest something like:
Now the way I've pitched this voiceover isn't the way everyone would. Lots of people think Jaws is a horror film, but in my opinion it's a disaster movie. The shark is like a natural disaster, the real enemy is the town council and the greedy capitalists. Think of 'The Towering Inferno' where the fire is the killer but the enemy is the corrupt builder.
Ending the first act
Usually our hero is a splendid fellow. He's a good person and he wants to do the right thing. However, it takes an event to drive him to act on his beliefs.
This event is the thing that ends the first act. Somebody's murdered, abducted, imprisoned, or some secret is revealed. Once that happens our protagonist has no choice but to act. Generally, therefore, the event at the end of act one happens to the protagonist. The protagonist isn't really committed to the story until the beginning of act two.
In Star Wars (1977) the end of act one is when Luke's family is murdered. Before that he wasn't joining the rebellion, after the murders he jumps in.
The satisfactory first act
So, we've set the tone, given sketchy answers to the items in the checklist, we know what the final event will be and we're desperate to get on with some actual narrative. How do we know the first act is fully finished?
We don't. I could tell you that some people believe the first act could be told in flashback, beginning the story with the event at its end, I could tell you that some people suggest the real story is entirely in act two. I could even tell you that a great first act is the single most important thing for your screenplay, if you want to get it made. None of this helps, though all of it is true. In my experience, once the second act is fully plotted out you'll probably come back and change the first act. You may pump up the action, introduce another character, or strip one out. Just because you're moving on to the second act doesn't mean the first is fixed.