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Screenplay Structure - The 1st Act
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There can be no argument that the climax of any movie is critical. It's the last thing the audience will be left with as they exit the theater and throw out their popcorn bags and soda cups. Think of the shocking twist at the end of
'The Usual Suspects', or even the dark and depressing but all too realistic final scene in 'Chinatown.' In some cases an effective third act can even save a mediocre flick by fooling the viewer into thinking the whole movie was as good as the last five minutes. However it's important to remember that even though all of the above is true the third act is still not the most important part of a screenplay. That distinguished honor belongs to the first act (the first thirty pages). You have to look at your script like an architect studying the blueprint for a big project. It doesn't matter if you're planning on building the world's tallest skyscraper or an epic sci-fi saga, it ALL starts with the foundation. Without something solid to build on things will fall apart all too quickly and the above-mentioned audience will never actually get to see your movie. So, while you may have a great ending in mind it's best to take the story one step at a time. That means starting at the beginning and making sure you cover the main bases in the first act before moving on to anything else.
First base is the screenplay's protagonist. It's pivotal you introduce your lead character in a timely fashion. The audience will be spending the better part of two hours with this person so it's best to get to know him or her as soon as possible. Also, it's important we connect with the protagonist. There has to be something about this lead that makes us become emotionally invested in him or her, something that makes us root the protagonist on and genuinely care about how it all turns out. That doesn't mean the lead has to be a saint, or suffer from some debilitating disease or mental condition, it just means we have to connect somehow. There are a million ways to do this, even in the case of morally ambiguous characters.
Look at 'About a Boy.' Hugh Grant's lead is a self-involved, immature spoiled brat who has never had a real job or committed to a woman. But guess what? From the jump he's charming and funny as hell so we enjoy following him around. Sometimes the most interesting leads aren't the nicest people in the room but that's alright because it allows room for growth and redemption. They key is finding that 'in'. Whatever way you choose to play it just make sure the lead surfaces in the first thirty pages and establish that all important connection with the audience and reader.
The other big step in the first act involves establishing the protagonist's want. What is his or her main desire above all else? Now that we've been introduced and have a sense of who this person is it's important we next discover what this lead character wants. This will help shape the quest that follows. It will drive the action forward and consume the second and third acts so it needs to be engaging and appropriate to the context of the story. In 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' Indy and his father want to get their hands on the Holy Grail, a perfect 'want' for two adventure loving archeologists. In 'Ocean's Eleven' Danny Ocean and his crew want to rob hundreds of millions of dollars from three Las Vegas casinos. Again, a big goal that gives us high stakes and sets the tone. In 'Can't Buy Me Love' Patrick Dempsey's teenage lead wants to be popular at school. Not quite as big or exciting as the two above but appropriate to the story being told and definitely relatable to the audience. Once the protagonist is set up and the main goal is established the central narrative is in place. This is the spine of your script, the essential foundation. Now you're ready to build, throw obstacles in the protagonist's way as he or she navigates the treacherous waters to reach that main goal (in other words, the second act.
To some this may seem all too obvious, but it's amazing how many screenplays are submitted for consideration to agencies and studios on a daily basis that fail to meet even this basic criteria. These scripts take fifty pages setting up the characters, including tedious and totally unnecessary details (why are we watching the male protagonist shave and discuss his favorite brand of soda?). Then somewhere around page forty-eight the lead finally realizes he or she needs something and decides to go after it. At this point most readers have probably tuned out already because even if the dialogue is sharp and the characters somewhat entertaining there's NO story in place. And a screenplay without a story is like a building without a solid foundation, it will always fall apart.
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