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The first act contains a lot of important material. There’s the cold-opening, the inciting-incident (a cold-opening can be an inciting-incident and vice versa, or they can be two completely separate scenes), you have to introduce your main-character and any supporting-characters, you have to get the plot rolling, and of course, you need to end the first act with the first turning-point.

That’s a hell of a lot to get done - and you only have about 20 or 25 pages to do it!

Audiences want to know what’s going on, and they want to know it before they get bored - and that’s typically around 15 minutes or so. That means you need to get a hell of a lot of story across in the first 15 minutes!

A screenplay has three acts, and you can probably guess what they are called: the first act, the second act, and the third act.

The first act, as the name suggests, comes first. And, it is also (almost always) the shortest of the three acts. Although, the third act is usually rather short as well. About half of a typical movie ends up being in the second act, give or take.

So, that means that you probably want your first act being around 20 or 25 pages (given the long-time Hollywood convention that one page of script equals one minute of screen-time). That way, you can have your first turning-point around page 20 or 25 (pages that are heavily action-oriented tend to be faster, and pages that are dialogue-heavy slower - and the first act tends to have a lot of description and stuff that doesn’t actually affect screen-time, so page 20 is usually around the 15 minute mark, usually).

Watch closely every time you see a movie from now on. Watch where the first turning-point is (and, therefore, the end of the first act). You’ll notice that almost all movies have their first turning-point in roughly the same place. Right around the 25 minute mark. Of course, if the film is two-and-a-half hours long, the first turning point will probably come a ways later. But, I’m going to assume you are writing a 90 to 110 page script, like Hollywood prefers.

Before you even start writing your first act, you are going to need a few things:

  1. A protagonist
  2. A quest or goal for the protagonist
  3. A setting
  4. A character-flaw for the protagonist
  5. A theme
  6. And, possibly, some supporting characters

Your first act should start off with a bang! Give the audience something that makes them sit up and pay attention.

This could be a cold-opening. It could be an inciting-incident. It could be the scene you introduce your protagonist, all of the above. Etc…

Just make it exciting! In OLDBOY (2003), the main-character is kidnapped, his wife is murdered, and he’s imprisoned in a hotel-room for many, many years! In The Player, the first scene is the famous tracking-shot that lasts 8 minutes!

Oldboy (2003 Korean Film)

After you’ve grabbed the audience’s attention, you’ll quickly need to introduce your protagonist (if there was a cold-opening, he/she may not have been part of it, so you’ll need to introduce him/her immediately afterwards).

In a very short period of time, you’re going to need to give the audience a whole bunch of information. Not just everyone’s names and relationships to each other, but large chunks of backstory and plot as well.

You’ll want to reinforce your theme at least once at some point during the First Act. If your theme is about how humans are destroying the planet, you probably want a quick scene where a human beats a dog (or an oil spill soils a shoreline) or something like that.

You’ll probably want to kick-off one or two sub-plots in the first act too. If you’re pressed for time and space, you can push them back into the Second Act, of course.

The First Act ends with what is known as the First Turning-Point. Some people call it the Major Inciting Incident (to differentiate it from the minor inciting incident, which we’ll just call the inciting-incident).

The end of the first act, or first turning-point, is when the audience finds out what the protagonist’s goal or quest is. Is your main-character saving the world from a giant space bug? Well, the first turning point is when the protagonist first realizes that there are killer bugs and he needs to do something to help.

The first scene in the screenplay (usually a cold-opening or an inciting incident) might often show the killer bugs landing on Earth or killing someone, but it’s not until 15 minutes later that the main-character actually has to face the bugs. And, that is the first turning-point, when the main-character gets his quest. It’s not when the bugs land, it’s when the bugs first face the protagonist.

For instance, in Armageddon, it’s not space bugs but a killer asteroid that’s coming to destroy the planet. The first scene tells the audience about the danger, that a killer asteroid is coming (inciting incident), but it’s not until the drillers head off to NASA that the first turning-point comes (before this, they are blissfully unaware of any impending danger - they don’t get their quest until NASA shows up).

It should also be noted that the setting you choose for your first act - should probably change in the Second Act! Act-breaks usually come accompanied by a change in setting. In Armageddon, the first act is on the drilling rig, but the second act is at NASA and on the Space Shuttle. In Oldboy, the first act is in the hotel-room-prison-cell, and the second act is freedom.

Writing Your Screenplay’s 1st Act: FORWARD The First Act The Third Act The Second Act The First Act

With all this stuff that has to be shoe-horned into your first act, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and forget that your screenplay needs to feel natural and organic. The audience shouldn’t realize that they are being force-fed backstory and introductions and plot-points and structure. To them, it should feel as natural as anything. It’s easy to start writing like ‘well, I have to do A and B, so that’s what this scene is, A and B!’

Your scenes need to be interesting and engaging in and of themselves. Try to think of each scene as a short film. A work of art. Try to write each scene as if it were the only scene an audience would ever get to see. If you need to introduce Characters A and B - and all you write is: Character A bumps into Character B in the hallway. ‘Hi, Character B!’ ‘Oh, hello Character A!’ Well… Why would anyone want to watch that?!?

Make it interesting! Instead of a hallway, it could be the gangplank on a pirate ship, with a throng of angry, sword-wielding pirates pushing them on. Or a piece of driftwood, stranded in the middle of the ocean. Or anything interesting/exciting/pulse-pounding/fun/etc…

Of course, the interesting thing about the scene doesn’t necessarily have to be the setting. Maybe it’s a good joke. Or an action-sequence. Or catchy dialogue. Or whatever. Just make sure each scene is a scene that’s worth-watching for the audience. Don’t just write what you have to write - have fun with it!

Watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and just try not to imagine how much fun the screenwriter was having writing all those wonderful scenes! Or A Christmas Story. Or Back to the Future. Or Pulp Fiction.

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The end of your 1st Act comes with the First Turning Point, the point at which your protagonist chooses his quest Your 2nd Act can't end without your Second Turning Point! Things may seem bleak for your protagonist, but all is not lost yet! There is still hope!... It all comes down to this - your climax! The end of your story. The conclusion. The one thing everyone in the audience wants to know: does the protagonist win? The second act of your screenplay should be filled with ups and downs, dramatically speaking of course. Like a roller-coaster. It's all about creating conflict and drama. BACK Welcome to SCREENPLAY.today - your free online screen-writing program - learn how to write a screenplay for free! Free Online Screenplay Writing Course from SCREENPLAY.today - screenwriting advice, help, information, hints, tips & tricks