Inception’s first act is pretty awesome.
It surprises me that people have trouble with the first act because it’s easily the most self-explanatory act there is. Introduce your hero, then your concept, then send your hero out on his/her journey. But I suppose I’m speaking as someone who’s dissected a lot of first acts. And actually, when I really start thinking about it, it does get tricky in places. The most challenging part is probably packing a ton of information into such a small space. So that’s something I’ll be addressing. Also, I’ve decided to include my second and third act articles afterwards so that this can act as a template for your entire script. Hopefully, this gives you something to focus on the next time you bust open Final Draft. Let’s begin!
INTRODUCE YOUR HERO (page 1)
Preferably, the first scene will introduce your hero. This is a very important scene because beyond just introducing your hero, you’re introducing yourself as a writer. A reader will be making quick judgments about you on everything from if you know how to write, if you know how to craft a scene, and what level you’re at as a screenwriter. So of all the scenes in your script, this is the one that you’ll probably want to spend the most time on. It’s also extremely important to DEFINE your hero with this scene. Whatever the biggest strength and/or weakness of your hero, try to construct a scene that shows us that. Finally, try to convey who your hero is THROUGH THEIR ACTIONS (as opposed to telling us). If your hero is afraid to take initiative, give them the option in the scene to take initiative, then show them failing to do so. A great opening scene that shows all of these things is the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
SET UP YOUR HERO’S WORLD (pages 3- 15)
The next few scenes will consist of showing us your hero’s world. This might show him/her at work, with friends, with family, going about their daily life. This is also the section where you set up most of the key characters in the script. In addition to setting up their world, you want to hit on the fact that something’s missing in their life, something the hero might not even be aware of. Maybe they’re missing a companion (Lars and the Real Girl). Maybe they’re putting work over family (George Clooney in Up in the Air). Maybe they’re allowing others to push them around (American Beauty). It’s important NOT TO REPEAT scenes in this section. Keep it between 2-5 scenes because between pages 12-15, you’re going to want to introduce the inciting incident.
INCITING INCIDENT (pages 12-15)
Introducing the inciting incident is just a fancy way of saying, “Introducing a problem that rocks your protagonist’s world.” This problem makes its way into your hero’s life, forcing them to act. Maybe their plane crashes (The Grey), they get someone pregnant (Knocked Up), or their daughter gets kidnapped (Taken). Now your hero is forced to make a decision. Do they act or not? — It should be noted that sometimes the inciting incident will arrive immediately, as in, on the very first page. For example, if a character wakes up with amnesia (Saw, The Bourne Identity) or something traumatic happens in the opening scene (Garden State – his father dies), the hero is encountering their inciting incident (their problem) immediately.
HELL NO, I AIN’T GOIN (aka “Refusal of the Call”) (roughly pages 16-25)
The “Hell No I ain’t goin” section occurs right after the inciting incident and basically amounts to your character saying (you guessed it), “I’m not goin anywhere.” The reason you see this in a lot of scripts is because it’s a very human response. Humans HATE change. They hate facing their fears. The problem that arises from the inciting incident is usually a manifestation of their deepest fear. So of course they’re going to reject it. Neo says no to scaling a building for Morpheus and gives in to the baddies instead. This sequence can last one or several scenes. It’ll show your hero trying to go back to what they know.
OFF TO THE JOURNEY (page 25)
When your character decides to go off on their journey (and hence into the second act), it’s usually because they realize this problem isn’t going away unless they deal with it. So in order to erase this eternal snowfall, Anna from Frozen must go off, find her sister and ask her to end it. This is where the big “G” in “GSU” comes from. As your hero steps into that second act, it begins the pursuit of their goal, which is to solve the problem.
GRAB US IMMEDIATELY
Now that you know the basic structure, there’s a few other things you want to focus on in the first act. The first of those things? Don’t fuck around! Readers are impatient as hell, expecting you to be bad writer (since you’re an amateur) and judging you immediately. So try and lure them in with a kick-ass scene right away and don’t let them off the hook (each successive scene should be equally as page-turning). This doesn’t mean start with an action scene (although you can). It could mean a clever reversal scene or an unexpected twist in the middle of the scene. Pose a mystery. A murder. Show us something that’s impossible (people jumping across roofs – The Matrix). Use your head and just make us want to keep turning the pages even if our fire alarm is going off in the other room. Achieving this tall order WHILE doing all the other shit I listed above (set up your hero and his flaw), is what makes writing so tricky.
MAKE IT MOVE
It’s important that the first act move. Bad writers like to DRILL things into the reader’s head over and over and over again. For example, if they want to show how lonely their hero is, they’ll show like FIVE SCENES of them being lonely. And guess what us readers are doing? We’re already skimming. Typically, a reader picks things up quickly if you display/convey information properly. Show that your hero is bad with women in the first scene, we’ll know they’re bad with women. There are some things you want to repeat in a script (a character’s flaw, for example) but you want to slip that into scenes that are entertaining and necessary for the story, not carve out entire scenes that are ONLY reiterating something we already know. This is one of the BIGGEST tells for an amateur writer, so avoid it at all costs!
ENTERTAIN US WHILE SETTING US UP
You’re setting up a lot of stuff in your first act. You’re setting up your main character’s everyday life, their flaws, the love interest (possibly), secondary characters, the inciting incident, setups for later payoffs. For that reason, a first act can quickly turn into an information dump. That’s fine for a first draft. But as you rewrite, you’ll want to smooth all this information over, hide it even, and focus on ENTERTAINING US. Nobody’s going to pat you on your back for doing everything I’ve listed above. That stuff is EXPECTED. They’re only going to pat you on the back if your first act is entertaining. Think of it like this. Nobody wants to know how a roller coaster works. They just want to ride on it.
EVERY SCRIPT IS UNIQUE
One of the hardest things about writing is that every story presents unique challenges that force you to improvise. Nobody’s going to be able to follow the formula I laid out to a “T.” You’re going to have to adjust, improvise, invent. That shouldn’t be scary. You’re artists. That’s what you do. Just to give you a few examples, Luke Skywalker is not introduced in the beginning of Star Wars. Marty McFly doesn’t choose to go on his adventure. He’s thrust into it unexpectedly (when his car jumps back to the past). Some films, like Crash, have multiple characters that need to be set up. This requires you to set up a dozen little mini-stories (for each character) as opposed to one big one. Some scripts start with a teaser (Jurassic Park) or a preamble (Inception). The point is, don’t pigeonhole yourself into the above unless you have a very straightforward plot (like Taken, Rocky, or Gravity). Otherwise, be adaptable. Understand where your story is resisting structure, and be open to trying something different.
That’s probably the scariest thing about writing, is tackling the unknown. So what do you do if you come upon these unique challenges? What do you do with your first act, for example, if the inciting incident happens right away, as it does in The Bourne Identity? Do you still break into the second act on page 25? Well, I know the answer to that question as well as some other tricky scenarios, but they’d require their own article (short answer – you break into the second act a little earlier, around page 20). What I’ll say is, this is one of the big things that separates the pros from the amateurs. The pro, because he’s written a lot more, has encountered more problematic scenarios and had more experience trying to solve them. The only way to catch up to them is to keep writing a lot (not just one script, but many, since each script creates its own set of challenges) and figure out these answers for yourselves. The good news is, with this article, you have a template to start from. And remember, when all else fails, storytelling boils down to one simple coda: A hero encounters a problem and must find a solution. That’s true for a story. It’s true for individual characters. It’s true for subplots. It’s true for individual scenes. If you follow that layout, you should do fine. And if you want to get into more detail about this stuff, check out my book, which is embarrassingly cheap at just $4.99 on Amazon! ☺
THE SECOND ACT!
One of the reasons the first act tends to be easy is because it’s clear what you have to set up. If your movie is about finding the Ark, then you set up who your main character is, what the Ark is, and why he wants to get it. The second act isn’t as clear. I mean sure, you know your hero has to go off in pursuit of his goal, but that can get boring if that’s the ONLY thing he’s doing. Enter character development, which really boils down to one thing: your hero having a flaw and having that flaw get in the way of him achieving his goal. This is actually one of the more enjoyable aspects of writing. Because whatever specific goal you’ve given your protag, you simply give them a flaw that makes achieving that goal really hard. In The Matrix, Neo’s goal is to find out if he’s “The One.” The problem is, he doesn’t believe in himself (his flaw). So there are numerous times throughout the script where that doubt is tested (jumping between buildings, fighting Morpheus, fighting Agent Smith in the subway). Sometimes your character will be victorious against their flaw, more often they’ll fail, but the choices they make and their actions in relation to this flaw are what begin to shape (or “develop”) that character in the reader’s eyes. You can develop your character in other ways (via backstory or everyday choices and actions), but developing them in relation to their flaw is usually the most compelling part for a reader to read.
This one doesn’t get talked about as much but it’s just as important as character development. In fact, the two often go hand in hand. But it needs its own section because, really, when you get into the second act, it’s about your characters interacting with one another. You can cram all the plot you want into your second act and it won’t work unless we’re invested in your characters, and typically the only way we’re going to be invested in your characters is if there’s something unresolved between them that we want resolved. Take last year’s highest grossing film, The Hunger Games. Katniss has unresolved relationships with both Peeta (are they friends? Are they more?) and Gale (her guy back home – will she ever be able to be with him?). We keep reading/watching through that second act because we want to know what’s going to happen in those relationships. If, by contrast, a relationship has no unknowns, nothing to resolve, why would we care about it? This is why relationship development is so important. Each relationship is like an unresolved mini-story that we want to get to the end of.
Secondary Character Exploration
With your second act being so big, it allows you to spend a little extra time on characters besides your hero. Oftentimes, this is by necessity. A certain character may not even be introduced until the second act, so you have no choice but to explore them there. Take the current film that’s storming the box office right now, Frozen. In it, the love interest, Kristoff, isn’t introduced until Anna has gone off on her journey. Therefore, we need to spend some time getting to know the guy, which includes getting to know what his job is, along with who his friends and family are (the trolls). Much like you’ll explore your primary character’s flaw, you can explore your secondary characters’ flaws as well, just not as extensively, since you don’t want them to overshadow your main character.
The second act is nicknamed the “Conflict Act” so this one’s especially important. Essentially, you’re looking to create conflict in as many scenarios as possible. If you’re writing a haunted house script and a character walks into a room, is there a strange noise coming from somewhere in that room that our character must look into? That’s conflict. If you’re writing a war film and your hero wants to go on a mission to save his buddy, but the general tells him he can’t spare any men and won’t help him, that’s conflict. If your hero is trying to win the Hunger Games, are there two-dozen people trying to stop her? That’s conflict. If your hero is trying to get her life back together (Blue Jasmine) does she have to shack up with a sister who she screwed over earlier in life? That’s conflict. Here’s the thing, one of the most boring types of scripts to read are those where everything is REALLY EASY for the protagonist. They just waltz through the second act barely encountering conflict. The second act should be the opposite of that. You should be packing in conflict every chance you get.
Obstacles are a specific form of conflict and one of your best friends in the second act because they’re an easy way to both infuse conflict, as well as change up the story a little. The thing with the second act is that you never want your reader/audience getting too comfortable. If we go along for too long and nothing unexpected happens, we get bored. So you use obstacles to throw off your characters AND your audience. It should also be noted that you can’t create obstacles if your protagonist ISN’T PURSUING A GOAL. How do you place something in the way of your protagonist if they’re not trying to achieve something? You should mix up obstacles. Some should be big, some should be small. The best obstacles throw your protagonists’ plans into disarray and have the audience going, “Oh shit! What are they going to do now???” Star Wars is famous for one of these obstacles. Our heroes’ goal is to get the Death Star plans to Alderaan. But when they get to the planet, it’s been blown up by the Death Star! Talk about an obstacle. NOW WHAT DO THEY DO??
There should always be some push-pull in your second act. What I mean by that is your characters should be both MAKING THINGS HAPPEN (push) and HAVING THINGS HAPPEN TO THEM (pull). If you only go one way or the other, your story starts to feel predictable. Which is a recipe for boredom. Readers love it when they’re unsure about what’s going to happen, so you use push-pull to keep them off-balance. Take the example I just used above. Han, Luke and Obi-Wan have gotten to Alderaan only to find that the planet’s been blown up. Now at this point in the movie, there’s been a lot of push. Our characters have been actively trying to get these Death Star plans to Alderaan. To have yet another “push” (“Hey, let’s go to this nearby moon I know of and regroup”) would continue the “push” and feel monotnous. So instead, the screenplay pulls, in this case LITERALLY, as the Death Star pulls them in. Now, instead of making their own way (“pushing”), something is happening TO them (“pull”). Another way to look at it is, sometimes your characters should be acting on the story, and sometimes your story should be acting on the characters. Use the push-pull method to keep the reader off-balance.
The second act is where you escalate the story. This should be simple if you follow the Scriptshadow method of writing (GSU). Escalation simply means “upping the stakes.” And you should be doing that every 15 pages or so. We should be getting the feeling that your main character is getting into this situation SO DEEP that it’s becoming harder and harder to get out, and that more and more is on the line if he doesn’t figure things out. If you don’t escalate, your entire second act will feel flat. Let me give you an example. In Back to the Future, Marty gets stuck in the past. That’s a good place to put a character. We’re wondering how the hell he’s going to get out of this predicament and back to the present. But if that’s ALL he needs to do for 60 pages, we’re going to get bored. The escalation comes when he finds out that he’s accidentally made his mom fall in love with him instead of his dad. Therefore, it’s not only about getting back to the present, it’s about getting his parents to fall in love again so he’ll exist! That’s escalation. Preferably, you’ll escalate the plot throughout the 2nd act, anywhere from 2-4 times.
Twist n’ Surprise
Finally, you have to use your second act to surprise your reader. 60 pages is a long time for a reader not to be shocked, caught off guard, or surprised. I personally love an unexpected plot point or character reveal. To use Frozen, again, as an example, (spoiler) we find out around the midpoint that Hans (the prince that Anna falls in love with initially) is actually a bad guy. What you must always remember is that screenwriting is a dance of expectation. The reader is constantly believing the script is going to go this way (typically the way all the scripts he reads go). Your job is to keep a barometer on that and take the script another way. Twists and surprises are your primary weapons against expectation, so you’ll definitely want to use them in your second act.
In summary, the second act is hard. But if you have a structural road-map for your story (you know where your characters are going and what they’re going after), then these tools should fill in the rest. Hope they were helpful and good luck implementing them in your latest script. May you be the next giant Hollywood spec sale!
THE THIRD ACT!
Without question, your third act is going to be a billion times easier to write if your main character is pursuing a goal, preferably since the beginning of the film. “John McClane must save his wife from terrorists” makes for a much easier-to-write ending than “John McClane tries to figure out his life” because we, the writer, know exactly how to construct the finale. John McClane is either going to save his wife or he’s going to fail to save his wife. Either way, we have an ending. What’s the ending for “John McClane tries to figure out his life?” It’s hard to know because that scenario is so open-ended. The less clear your main character’s objective (goal) is in the story, the harder it will be to write a third act. Because how do you resolve something if it’s unclear what your hero is trying to resolve?
THE LOWEST POINT
To write a third act, you have to know where your main character is when he goes into the act. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, typically, putting your hero at his lowest point at the end of act two is a great place to segue into the third act. In other words, it should appear at this point in the story that your main character has FAILED AT HIS/HER GOAL (Once Sandra Bullock gets to the Chinese module in GRAVITY, that’s it. Air is running out. She doesn’t understand the system. There are no other options). Either that, or something really devastating should shake your hero (i.e. his best friend and mentor dies – Obi-Wan in Star Wars). The point is, it should feel like things are really really down. When you do this, the audience responds with, “Oh no! But this can’t be. I don’t want our hero to give up. They have to keep trying. Keep trying, hero!” Which is exactly where you want them!
The beginning of the third act (anywhere from 1-4 scenes) becomes the “Regroup” phase. This phase often has to deal with your hero’s flaw, which is why it works so well in comedies or romantic comedies, where flaws are so dominant . If your hero is selfish, he might reflect on all the people he was selfish to, apologize, and move forward. But if this is an action film, it might simply mean talking through the terrible “lowest point” thing that just happened (Luke discussing the death of Obi-Wan with Han) and then getting back to it. Your hero was just at the lowest point in his/her life. Obviously, he needs a couple of scenes to regroup.
Assuming we’re still talking about a hero with a goal, now that they’ve regrouped, they tend to have that “realization” where they’re going to give this goal one last shot. This, of course, necessitates a plan. We see this in romantic comedies all the time, where the main character plans some elaborate surprise for the girl, or figures out a way to crash the big party or big wedding. In action films, it’s a little more technical. The character has to come up with a plan to save the girl, or take down the villain, or both. In The Matrix, Neo needs to save Morpheus. He tells Trinity the plan, they go outfit themselves with guns from the Matrix White-Verse, and they go in there to get Morpheus.
THE CLIMAX SCENE
This should be the most important scene in your entire script. It’s where the hero takes on the bad guy or tries to get the girl back. You should try and make this scene big and original. Give us a take on it that we’ve never seen in movies before. Will that be hard? Of course. But if you’re rehashing your CLIMAX SCENE of all scenes?? The biggest and most important scene in the entire screenplay? You might as well give up screenwriting right now. If there is any scene you need to challenge yourself on, that you need to ask, “Is this the best I can possibly do for this scene?” and honestly answer yes? This is that scene!
THE LOWER THAN LOWEST POINT
During the climax scene, there should be one last moment where it looks like your hero has failed, that the villain has defeated him (or the girl says no to him). Let’s be real. What you’re really doing here is you’re fucking with your audience. You’re making them go, “Nooooooo! But I thought they were going to get together!” This is a GOOD THING. You want to fuck with your audience in the final act. Make them think their hero has failed. I mean, Neo actually DIES in the final battle in The Matrix. He dies! So yeah, you can go really low with this “true lowest point.” If the final battle or confrontational or “get-the-girl” moment is too easy for our hero, we’ll be bored. We want to see him have to work for it. That’s what makes it so rewarding when he finally succeeds!
Remember that in addition to all this external stuff that’s going on in the third act (getting the girl, killing the bad guy, stopping the asteroid from hitting earth), your protagonist should be dealing with something on an internal level as well. A character battling their biggest flaw on the biggest stage is usually what pulls audiences and readers in on an emotional level, so it’s highly advisable that you do this. Of course, this means establishing the flaw all the way back in Act 1. If you’ve done that, then try to tie the big external goal into your character’s internal flaw. So Neo’s flaw is that he doesn’t believe in himself. The only way he’ll be able to defeat the villain, then, is to achieve this belief. Sandra Bullock’s flaw in Gravity is that she doesn’t have the true will to live ever since her daughter died. She must find that will in the Chinese shuttle module if she’s going to survive. If you do this really well, you can have your main character overcome his flaw, but fail at his objective, and still leave the audience happy (Rocky).
Remember that the third act should be Payoff Haven. You should set up a half a dozen things ahead of time that should all get some payin’ off here in the finale. The best payoffs are wrapped into that final climactic scene. I mean who doesn’t sh*t their pants when Warden Norton (Shawshank spoiler) takes down that poster from the wall in Andy Dufresne’s cell? But really, the entire third act should be about payoffs, since almost by definition, your first two acts are setups.
OBSTACLES AND CONFLICT
A mistake a lot of beginner writers make is they make the third act too easy for their heroes. The third act should be LOADED with obstacles and conflict, things getting in the way of your hero achieving his/her goal. Maybe they get caught (Raiders), maybe they die (The Matrix), maybe the shuttle module sinks when it finally gets back to earth and your heroine is in danger of drowning (Gravity). The closer you get to the climax, the thicker you should lay on the obstacles, and then when the climactic scene comes, make it REALLY REALLY hard on them. Make them have to earn it!
NON-TRADITIONAL THIRD ACTS (CHARACTER PIECES)
So what happens if you don’t have that clear goal for your third act? Chances are, you’re writing a character piece. While this could probably benefit from an entire article of its own, basically, character pieces still have goals that must be met, they’re just either unknown to the hero or relationship-related. Character pieces are first and foremost about characters overcoming their flaws. So if your hero is selfish, your final act should be built around a high-stakes scenario where that flaw will be challenged. Also, character piece third acts are about resolving relationship issues. If two characters have a complicated past stemming from some problem they both haven’t been able to get over, the final act should have them face this issue once and for all. Often times, these two areas will overlap. In other words, maybe the issue these two characters have always had is that he’s always put his own needs over the needs of the family. The final climactic scene then, has him deciding whether to go off to some huge opportunity or stay here and takes care of the family. The scenario then resolves the character flaw and the relationship problem in one fell swoop! (note: Preferably, you are doing this in goal-oriented movies as well)
While that’s certainly not everything, it’s most of what you need to know. But I admit, while all of this stuff is fun to talk about in a vacuum, it becomes a lot trickier when you’re trying to apply it to your own screenplay. That’s because, as I stated at the beginning, each script is unique. Indiana Jones is tied up for the big climax of Raiders. That’s such a weird third act choice. In Back To The Future, George McFly’s flaw is way more important than our hero, Marty McFly’s, flaw. When is the “lowest point before the third act” in Star Wars? Is it when they’re in the Trash Compactor about to be turned into Star Wars peanut butter? Or is at after they escape the Death Star? I think that’s debatable. John McClane never formulates a plan to take on Hanz in the climax. He just ends up there. The point is, when you get into your third act, you have to be flexible. Use the above as a guide, but don’t follow it exactly. A lot of times, what makes a third act memorable is its imperfections, because it’s its imperfections that make it unpredictable. If you have any third act tips of your own, please leave them in the comments section. Wouldn’t mind learning a few more things about this challenging act myself!