The First Act

So, continuing the conversation from last week, what actually goes into a first act?

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes looks like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

– Opening image
– Meet the hero or heroine
– Hero/ine’s inner and outer need.
– Hero/ine’s arc
– Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
– State the theme/what’s the story about?
– Allies
– Mentor
– Love interest
– Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)
– Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
– Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)
– Central Question
– Sequence One climax
– Act One climax

Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.

OPENING IMAGE:

Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking a piss” – as the British say – on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.

MEETING THE HERO/INE

Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES (more here… ) and how they conflict. Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning. The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.

THE ANTAGONIST

The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post, of course; I’ll have to get on it. For now I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.

ALLIES

Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.

MENTOR

Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.

LOVE INTEREST

This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.

HOPE/FEAR (STAKES)

Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we hope and fear for the main character. Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or love story the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning

STATEMENT OF THEME:

A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.

FIRST ACT CLIMAX/CENTRAL QUESTION:

We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but hey, look at the title of this blog…)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?
(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Next post I’ll move on to the elements of the second act.

And now I’m headed to New Orleans… wish me luck (!).

12 thoughts on “The First Act

  1. John Dishon

    It’s a Wonderful Life is my model for the perfect story. The build-up and the execution are flawless. That movie is rather timely too; Bailey’s speech to Potter when they’re thinking about closing the Building and Loan could easily have been given at the DNC. And Potter does look a lot like John McCain.

    Reply
  2. Jake Nantz

    Man I feel like one of my students taking notes. Ms. Sokoloff, I really hope you don’t mind, but I’m literally downloading each of these into a Word document to help my creative writing students understand the meat-and-potatoes of basic story structure. Much of this can be good for them even when they are just working on shorts.

    On a personal note, it’s really building confidence for me, because I keep looking at my WIP, my first novel, and checking things off in my mind (yep, got that, yep, that’s there, okay…need her to show up a little sooner, got that, and that). It’s great because it’s almost like getting feedback from a published author (as opposed to the people in my former writing group, where the only “published” author was through Booksurge).

    Thanks so much for doing this. Oh, and I love the occasional Alien reference. I thought I was one of the only ones who knew which movie used the Nostromo and which used the Sulaco….

    Reply
  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    This is really great stuff, Alex. But I’m not surprised. 🙂

    The one thing I would argue with — and this always gets me into trouble — is character arc.

    Most stories take place over a few hours, days, or weeks. Unless you’re writing a sweeping saga, the timeline is very short.

    To have a character discover something about herself over such a short period of time — at least to the point where it changes her, is, to my mind, a bit of a stretch.

    Generally speaking, people don’t change in a few days, no matter what they’re confronted with. If something major happens, like a death in the family, a mugging, an accident — people are certainly affected by it, but any change they go through would still take months or even years.

    Yes, I know we’re talking fiction, and fiction often has a kind of accelerated reality, but I think too many of us put too much emphasis on the idea that your hero has to change in some way.

    Does James Bond change? Even in this last, best Bond, Bond went from being a ruthless killing machine to a slightly more ruthless — and pissed off — killing machine. Not much of a change.

    Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has changed, but it has taken several books — and years — for that arc, and it’s still in progress.

    Or look at Jack Reacher. To my mind, he is one of the greatest characters in fiction these days — every writer wishes he’d created a Reacher, and readers love him. But change? Not much. In fact, we don’t WANT him to change. Reacher remains the same solid, unflinching nomad throughout the story, and we know that in the end he’s going to save the day, then walk off alone into the sunset.

    Now, I’m not suggesting there’s anything WRONG with a nice character arc, I just don’t think it’s a NECESSARY element of fiction.

    My two cents, at least.

    Again, great post. I just wanted to throw that in.

    Reply
  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Another useful post Alex. I notice you use SILENCE OF THE LAMBS quite a bit for story reference. Can’t say I blame you there. It’s probably one of the best examples for your posts that have to do with storytelling. Well, that and it’s probably one of my favorite stories.

    Hope you have fun in The Big Easy.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Thank you, Madame Professor!

    And take care down in New Orleans. I don’t envy you the trip, and have my fingers crossed for your well being (and for that of all Gulf Coast residents) right now.

    Reply
  6. pari

    Alex,I hope you’re NOT headed into N.O. right now!My prayers and thoughts are everyone on the coast. Let this NOT be the hurricane people think it might be.

    As to your marvelous post: Each week I feel like I’m getting an incredible lesson in writing — one that’s tangible, useful and magnificently concepted. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. J.D. Rhoades

    You know there’s a hurricane headed to New Orleans, right? Good luck, Alex.

    And you should know…I’m printing this series of posts out and putting them in a notebook. This is great stuff.

    Reply
  8. Jake Nantz

    Have to say I’m getting a little nervous that Ms. Sokoloff hasn’t come back in on the comment trail to let us know she got to N.O. all right. Prayers for everyone down there that is staring down another hurricane when they had finally started to get their feet under them and tourism booming again after Katrina. God, please watch over those families.

    Reply
  9. Allison Brennan

    I’m praying for you in N.O., Alex!

    My first act is what I write and rewrite and write and rewrite more than all other parts of my book. I spend twice as long on the first 100 pages than I do on the last 300-350 pages of my manuscript. I’m glad I’m not abnormal.

    Reply

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