Writing Act One of your Screenplay

It’s been 10 days since I started writing my 3rd screenplay.  My previous two screenplays were crap. Great ideas, but crappy execution. I learned a whole lot in the process and I’m hoping the knowledge gained will show in my current endeavor. Here is what my process has been like so far, and a breakdown of writing Act One:

BACK STORY and CHARACTERS: First, I wrote out a brief history of the world I was creating and filled it with people and places. Then I had a little debate over whether or not I was going to turn this into a screenplay or novel (I’m writing a screenplay, but I may revisit the novel idea later). After that, I made a list of my basic story beats and started to write. I finished Act One yesterday. Great right?  It’s amazing what you can do with your time when you’re not working. After getting over the brief period of “this is so awesome“, I realized there is a whole lot that needs to change before I move on to Act Two.

For this breakdown of writing Act One I am borrowing heavily from The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.

OPENING IMAGE: Your opening image is supposed to set the tone, mood, and style of your screenplay from page 1. I think I’ve hit this pretty well.  My problem is, i’m not exactly sure if it’s a great snapshot of my character’s “before self”. According to Blake, a good opening image will always show a good “before snapshot”, where the final image will show a good “after snapshot”.  I think I’m going to revisit the opening image to better portray my character’s “before self.”

THEME: My theme needs some major work. Mostly because I have no clue what it is yet.  This one will take some story meditation on my part.  It is very possible I won’t discover my thematic premise until after I finish the complete first draft, but at least I know that I’m missing one. Every screenplay needs a theme.  I’m just the type of writer who isn’t drawn to writing by themes, or character arcs.  I’m drawn in by plots and action. The themes in my screenplays must be searched out. It’s a journey I must take in the writing process.

SET-UP: During the set-up, which usually takes place in the first 10-15 pages of a screenplay, I need to be able to do a lot of things.  I need to introduce my main character, and at least hint at every other character in my screenplay.  I also need to be able to portray everything in my character that needs to change by the end of the film.  I need to do this so that I can fix all those things by the end of my screenplay and form a great character arc. That’s a lot to do in 10 pages.

I’ve ALMOST introduced, or at least hinted at all of my characters in the first 10 pages…  Almost.  I really think I could tighten that up a little more though.  Also, I need to work on showing things in my character that need to change.  I’ve basically done none of that.  My character right now is awesome from page one.  He has no faults, or weaknesses.  BORING! After all, my screenplay is basically a “road movie”.  The WHOLE POINT of my story is for my character to have a giant life changing experience.

INCITING INCIDENT: My inciting incident happens on page 7. That’s too early, I believe. Yes, you’re thrown into the action right away, and you want to keep reading, but do you care? I haven’t even given you a reason to care about my character’s life, as it’s being spun into that crazy direction! I KNOW IT’S EXCITING, but you’re gonna run out of steam because you just. dont. care.

DEBATE: My character gets a letter that throws his life into a new kind of crazy. The Call to Adventure! Now, he needs to refuse the call.  There must be some reason why he can’t do it. He’s too scared.  He’s tied down with boring responsibilities.  This is the debate section.  My screenplay literally doesn’t have it.  Wait… yes it does!  In one line, “Go to The Wall?  Are you crazy!?  We can’t go to The Wall!  We just killed a Knight!”  …it makes total sense why he wouldn’t go the The Wall if you knew the story. DON’T YOU WANT TO READ IT! I know you do! But that’s all of his debate… and a couple seconds later he —

ACT TWO BREAK: DECIDES TO GO TO THE WALL! This would be my “Break into Two”, or what Tom Reed calls, my “Choose Act Two”. He refers to it as this because your hero must ALWAYS choose to go.  The decision must be made by the hero, or else… well, it’s just weak.  Why should I care if Frodo doesn’t CHOOSE to carry the ring? Why should I care if John McClaine doesn’t CHOOSE to save his wife?  At least I got that part right, but it’s still weak and needs a very CARNAL reason for the “Jump into Two”.  Like… his Aunt and Uncle were EFFING KILLED BY STORMTROOPERS and NOW he wants to go to Alderaan, or his son was EFFING SHOT BY A SADISTIC BRITISH OFFICER and NOW he wants to fight in the Colonial Militia! You catch my drift? Your character can’t just go. He must DECIDE to go.

Anyways, now I have a nice list of things to work on for the rest of this week.

6 thoughts on “Writing Act One of your Screenplay”

  1. you probably aren’t looking for advice, but i’ll say that it’s always been a lot easier for me to write the entire screenplay as fast as possible and not worry about what needs to be fixed. i can do all of that later, just get the whole thing down and i don’t even think about the problems.

    surprisingly, when i go back and rewrite, the structure usually lines itself up. for example, your inciting incident is at page 7 right now, when you go back to make it better and add stuff, you will find that it magically moves to page 10-12.

    anyway, that’s my 2 cents. good luck!

  2. I’m always looking for advice.

    Thanks for the input, and it makes a lot of sense! I have this bad habit of trying to make things perfect before moving on to the next step, when I know that I need to just get it all written out and then take a look at the whole.

  3. I respect any screenwriter who has set out to finish a script, and then finished on. I have even more respect for a writer who respects the process of following the rules and the three act structure, because God knows too many writers ignorantly place themselves above it.

    Being said, I like your article.

    One thing, you don’t need to hint at all of your main characters in the first 10 pages. In the first act, yet, but not the first 10 pages. Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn’t introduced until around the 30 page mark, nor is she mentioned. And this is edging the second act already.

    I think the most important things you can start to think about at this point are
    1. Your main plot’s ending
    2. Your primary subplot (the need of your character that complicated his/her want)
    3. Your other subplots and their endings.

    Also, knowing your midpoint and act 2 plot point are vital. It doesn’t hurt to know your pinches either.

  4. Hey Nik!

    I totally agree with you. My number 1 job should be figuring out how to end this thing. I’m pretty sure I just figured that out a few days ago. I’ve been through a couple endings, trying to figure out which one helps drive a better story.

    Subplot needs a lot of work. Hope to figure that out when I do more character development. (Will probably happen in writing)

    Midpoint and Act 2 Plot point will definitely be done before I start writing/rewriting this beast.

    After this article I went though some crazy times and actually had two completely different first acts for this story. I ended up taking the parts that worked from each and combined them into one super long 45 page act 1. I am going to keep this first act and finish the screenplay and see what happens in re-writes. My plot points are constantly moving. I’m getting close though. I can feel it!

    Thanks for the reply!

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