After the euphoric moment of typing “FADE OUT” on a first draft, your story simmers in a drawer while you take a much-needed break to sort piles of dirty laundry. Now, it’s time to dive back in and explore what story elements work and where your story might have gone off track.
Often, the fix for a dissatisfying ending or lackluster middle happens in the first 20 pages. The first act lays the foundation for your entire screenplay.
When we get a story idea, it’s easy to rush the setup, wanting to get to the meat of the conflict. Rewriting requires dissecting those early pages to see if you maximized their potential.
Typically, there are three mistakes writers make in the first act.
1. WHAT ARE WE ROOTING FOR?
Identify your hero’s motivation and create a clear finish line. All roads of the story lead back to what motivates your hero to achieve their goal. Your audience needs to know what they are rooting for. Set up a visible goal for your hero to achieve, without getting distracted by subplots and supporting characters.
Goals present in two forms: outer motivation and inner motivation. The main goal for you, as the writer, is to elicit emotion.
The outer motivation must be a visible goal the hero pursues right up until the end of the movie. In Titanic, the goal is not to survive a shipwreck; it’s for Rose to travel to America and pursue a life with Jack. It also cannot be easy. If the goal is simple to achieve, opportunities for conflict wouldn’t exist, and an audience would be yawning into their popcorn. What better obstacle than to literally hit an iceberg! Emotion grows out of conflict. If the feat seems impossible to be carried out, the executive will be driven to keep turning the pages, and a future movie audience will be glued to their seats.
The inciting incident drives the outer motivation and overall story goal. But always ask why. Why is it so important for this particular character to succeed at this particular goal?
Think of outer motivations as a specific task and inner motivations as more general ones—revenge, ego, success, or to feel accepted in a world where they have always felt invisible. These more general motivations make your reader connect and relate to your protagonist. Relatability and connection tug at a reader’s emotions. They empathize and understand why their story goal matters. It’s personal, both for the character and the reader.
In the setup, define your character’s ordinary world, but also give us a sense of what they desire or need. What’s missing in their life that they are longing for? Then show us how they avoid that longing, only paying lip service to it.
Demonstrate how they are stuck and unfulfilled, and how the conflict comes from inside the character themselves. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone’s wound is the death of her daughter, unable to move forward. She’s afraid of living her life, hence floats in outer space to avoid her pain.
It’s only in the pursuit of their outer motivation that they will finally address their longing and take action. Without taking action to obtain their deep-down want, they won’t be able to achieve the outer goal we’re rooting for.
The wound that keeps them trapped typically happens in childhood. They create a shield to protect themselves to avoid the pain that wound inflicted. At the beginning of your story, find a way to demonstrate that pain and their avoidance of it. In Joker, Arthur had been so abused as a child that he felt invisible and insignificant. What better way to hide than to become a clown, performing in the open, but vanishing behind a costume and a fake smile.
As long as your hero is controlled by fear, they’ll never push past that pain into a world of healing and growth. They are stuck.
Yes, you need to evolve your character, but you can’t get so wrapped up in their emotional evolution that you no longer keep your eyes on their main outer goal. Getting too caught up in a character’s inner goals can make your story complicated and confusing. Believe it or not, most Hollywood stories are simple. Story consultant Michael Hauge gives a great example of how simple Inception is, which definitely did not feel like a “simple” movie when I watched it.
“A group of people wants to penetrate a person’s dreams down to a layer where they can change his behavior without him knowing it.”
Wow, that really is simple. It’s the execution that got complicated, for me, anyway. I watched it twice and still scratched my head. Which is why orienting a reader and audience is so important. Lay a solid, clear foundation, resisting getting too deep into either the character’s mind or the story’s theme that you lose sight of the through line.
2. WHEN DOES YOUR INCITING INCIDENT PRESENT ITSELF?
Don’t rush the inciting incident. We often hear the advice to grab the reader by the throat, right out of the gate, but we must orient the reader. Those first pages should set up the hero’s ordinary world while also creating some sort of empathy for them and a way for us to identify with them.
Typically, an inciting incident happens anywhere between 5 and 15 pages of a screenplay. Where it happens matters less than how well you set that moment up prior. If you create that event too soon, no one will understand why the character needs to leap into action, or what the stakes are if they chose not to.
3. DON’T JUMP RIGHT FROM THE SETUP TO THE OUTER MOTIVATION.
Grabbing a reader right away is important, but it doesn’t mean you can get impatient and rush the story. Instead, start adding in layers of conflict. Use all of Act I to get the hero to truly start to pursue their main goal. If you start too early, you’ll struggle to get through Act II, and your story will peak too soon and fizzle.
Story structure trips up many writers. Michael Hauge has an enlightening video, created with Chris Vogler, called “A Hero’s Two Journeys.” When I first began screenwriting, it was my go-to resource whenever I struggled with a lackluster Act II. I used his advice to create a story-structure grid to help writers. You can download it for free on Script’s site.
BOTTOM-LINE: Be clear, concise, and define the goal and ordinary world, while adding in opportunities for conflict. Let the reader know this isn’t going to be an easy journey for your hero. Don’t rush. Just like a delicious stew, your story needs to simmer. Use the first act to build to the moment where your hero doubts their choice, but despite their fears, chooses to continue. They’re all in.
In your first draft, you discover your story and characters. They may do and say things you never expected. So, how could you possibly have set that act up correctly on your first attempt? But when those early pages shine, movie executives trust you understand storytelling. That, dear writer, is the secret to gaining a champion not only for this script, but also your future screenplays.
Writing a great story is your outer goal. What’s your inner motivation? What are you trying to say through those characters? Just like your character, you must push through your own fears to succeed. Don’t let rewrites intimidate you. It is in that deeper analysis of your story and characters that a true storyteller births a classic and grows as a writer. I’d root for that all day long. WD
Learn more about screenwriting on our sister site, ScriptMag.com.