The First Act

What are acts for, and how can you best utilize them to tell your story?

It can be argued (as many have done) that all stories have three acts: a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. Yet what does that tell you, the potential screenwriter, about the structure of storytelling?

Firstly, to define an act:

  • act: A finite block of story action, its conclusion leading either a new direction for the story’s conflict, or to a resolution.

An act is like a story all unto itself. It too has a beginning, middle, and end. Acts should be treated not just as part of a larger whole, but also as separate entities with their own internal structure and rhythm.

The “Hollywood paradigm,” as espoused by Syd Field and others, is that Act One is the first 25% of the script, Act Two is the middle 50%, and Act Three the final 25%. Screenplays are timed using a rule-of-thumb which estimates one page equals one minute of onscreen time. Thus, a 120 page script would be a two-hour film. Therefore Act One is roughly 30 pages (or 1/2 hour), Act Two 60 pages (or one hour), and Act Three, the final 30. There are many films that break this form, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stick to this traditional, mainstream style.

If you think of drama as being about the building and releasing of tension, then it helps to see act structure as the rails upon which the oncoming train of conflict rides. In other words, act structure guides the direction, flow, and acceleration of dramatic action.

If Act One is the Beginning, then what does a beginning entail? What do we need to know as a viewer in order to understand the story and its purpose? Several important elements are: character introductions, a sense of place and time, any background or history necessary to follow the present story action, and a direction for the characters and story to travel. Act One, then, is about laying a foundation.

As first acts tend to be short (and Hollywood currently leans toward ever shorter first acts), how can you convey the necessary information to get a story off the ground, without becoming bogged down in exposition, or without short-changing the story or characterizations? One way to look at it, is that once you have a skeleton of essential structural information, you have a clearly visible form upon which to add the remaining flesh to bring it to life. It is the skeleton which will suggest to you which elements are absolutely necessary, and which are merely decorative or excessive. And in a screenplay, you must cut anything unnecessary!

There are three keys to a first act structure–the first supporting “bones” in your screenplay’s skeleton. Each of these keys is typically present in every story, whether a screenplay or not. Understanding the function and placement of these keys will help you create a smoothly running launch-pad for the rest of your screenplay.

The three keys are:

  • The Initiating Incident
  • The Call to Action
  • The Commitment to Act

The Initiating Incident

A screenplay needs to begin with an initiating incident. This is the event or action that sets the plot in motion.

Here are several examples if Initiating Incidents, each with an example of their resulting effect on the story. The title links are to copies of the screenplays discussed.

Event: The ore-carrier Nostromo receives an apparent distress signal from a dead planet.
Result: The ship’s computer, Mother, awakens the crew to investigate.
Clockwork Orange
Event: Dim insults a woman singing Beethoven’s 9th in the Korova Milk Bar, and Alex whacks him with his cane.
Result: Dim challenges him to a fight, then backs down.
Jerry Maguire
Event: Jerry has a revelation about his work as a sports agent.
Result: He writes a radical “Mission Statement”.
Star Wars
Event: The Empire boards the Rebel blockade runner.
Result: Princess Leia hides the Death Star plans in R2-D2’s memory.

You see how neatly the Initiating Incident causes the next event in the story. This is exactly the kind of inevitable chain of events you are trying to create in your screenplay. Notice also, that it is the characters that determine how events are to proceed, and that their unique psychology dictates exactly what will happen next (their next action) based upon their personal goals.

The Call To Action

Following the Initiating Incident, there will be a period of time during which the characters, especially the main character, need to orient themselves in light of the information presented to them by this big event. Here they will question and explore. Their world and their place in it are shown, and often, a reason is given as to why the main character doesn’t quite fit into that world.

The Initiating Incident has a special resonance for the main character, although they may not yet realize it, because the Initiating Incident signals to them that a fundamental shift has taken place in their lives, and that new, major change is in the wind. Where this shift is keenly felt and realized by the main character comes at the Call To Action.

The Call To Action is like the horn blown to signal the beginning of the hunt. The main character, depending on their goals and temperament, may or may not respond. Dramatically, it is often better to either have the character refuse to join the action (due to internal conflict), or be prevented from joining (due to external conflict). Time-wise, the Call To Action typically takes place between pages 15 and 20 of a screenplay.

Here are some examples of Calls To Action in same three films as cited before, and the main character’s reactions to them:

Call: The crew lands on the planet, only to find a wrecked alien spacecraft.
Response: The crew explores the derelict craft, finding alien eggs kept in storage.
Clockwork Orange
Call: Asserting himself to Alex, Georgie proposes that the gang should pull a real heist.
Response: In sharp refusal of their plan, Alex attacks Georgie and Dim to show them who’s boss.
Jerry Maguire
Call: Jerry puts the Mission Statement in the mailbox of everyone at the agency, but has second thoughts.
Response: The Mission statement is publicly lauded; privately, all at the agency think Jerry is doomed.
Star Wars
Call: Luke sees Leia’s holographic cry for help.
Response: When asked by Ben Kenobi to join a rescue attempt, Luke refuses.

Following the Call, a period of reflection takes place, in which the characters absorb the implications of the Call, and/or of their refusal or inability to act upon it. During this brief moment, events transpire to drag the character into the thick of the conflict. Often it happens that the enemy (who already know what they want!) have regrouped and make their move.

The Commitment To Act

At this point, something happens that forces the main character to join the story. They can no longer refuse for one or more reasons. The reasons may be moral (the enemy has violated the main character’s code of conduct), intellectual (the main character is now convinced they must act because they believe inaction will be worse), or physical (if the main character doesn’t motivate, he/she will suffer or die). The more reasons, the higher the stakes will be, thus the greater the drama.

This commitment usually happens somewhere between page 25 and page 30 in a screenplay.

Here are several examples of Commitments To Act, preceded by their motivating situations:

Situation: An alien larva attaches itself to crew-member Kane’s face.
Ripley refuses to let the crew bring Kane aboard, citing contamination procedures. (Note this late use of her refusal of the Call). She is overridden by science officer Ash, who lets the crew and larva inside.
Clockwork Orange
Situation: During the heist, Alex kills a woman, then Dim smashes his face with a bottle, leaving him helpless as police arrive.
Commitment: Alex goes to prison.
Jerry Maguire
Situation: Jerry is fired by his former pupil, Bob Sugar.
Jerry vows to steal all of Bob’s clients away from the agency and go into business for himself.
Star Wars
Situation: Luke finds his Uncle and Aunt dead, killed by Imperial Stormtroopers.
Luke no longer has a reason to stay on Tatooine, and he wholeheartedly decides to join Ben Kenobi on his rescue mission.

Next time you watch a film, try and pinpoint these first act structural elements. Seeing how they are applied will increase your own understanding of how to use them in your own screenwriting work.

Effective Dialogue Screenwriting Essentials Unlocking Act Two →