How to Structure Your First Act

Image by Ralf Seemann from Pixabay

We’ve all heard it: “Start your story with a bang!” This is not bad advice at all. Capturing the attention from the beginning is essential. However, remember that if you haven’t built an emotional connection between the characters and the audience yet, those scenes are most likely to be forgotten.

You probably have experienced it too. You begin waching a movie or reading a novel. You see some well-written or beautifully shot action scenes in elaborate detail. They might be enjoyable, but you don’t know how to interpret them yet. You don’t know what exactly to follow or who to hang on to. And then, “something” happens, and everything clicks: you realize what and who the story is about. You begin wondering what will happen next: you are hooked.

Maybe later in the story, you see some references to those initial scenes. But you miss them because you either don’t remember those scenes ever existed, or you only have a vague recollection. If you end up loving the story and watch or read it for a second time, then you realize how important those scenes were. You say to yourself, “wow, I don’t remember any of this!”

This is not the end of the world. Those scenes still served a purpose in the first viewing/reading. But when you are building your own first act, be sure not to rely on such scenes to deliver crucial information.

What does it even mean?

The three-act structure is an ancient concept. In 1979 Syd Field brought it up in his book Screenplay. It gained wide acceptance within the movie industry, and many theories and models were developed based on the three-act structure. The concept doesn’t only apply to movies, it also applies to novels and other story forms.

Three acts are basically beginning, middle and end, but there is more to it. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls the three acts thesis world, antithesis world, and synthesis world. In the article below, I wrote about how the three acts work together.

According to Field, the first act is the setup. It takes a quarter of the length of a story and contains an “inciting incident” in the middle.

The setup is where you carefully place all your story elements and wind the mechanism of your story like a clock.

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls the first image we see in a movie “the opening image.” All movies are about change, so there is always a before and after. The opening image is like a snapshot of the before.

In Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler’s book based on Joseph Campbell’s concept of Hero’s Journey, the first act is where we get to know the ordinary world of the hero.

The primary purpose of the first act is to introduce the main character and his world, and make the audience care about them. We want the audience to know what the status quo is so that when “the rug is pulled from under,” they will feel the full effect.

We don’t have to perform these introductions statically; we certainly can introduce everything in ongoing action. However, we should remember that when they start reading a new story or watching a movie, the audience feels like they are visiting a foreign country for the first time. As the story’s writers, we know all the details, so it’s easy to forget what the audience doesn’t know.

In Pixar movies you see how brilliantly they introduce the story elements, never confusing their audience. Michael Arndt, the screenwriter who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, has a video about what he learned at Pixar about beginnings. He suggests introducing the main character doing what they love most:

“Usually what you do when you’re introducing your main character is that you show them doing what they love most. This is their grand passion, it’s their defining trait, it’s the center of their whole universe.

So you start with your main character, you introduce the universe they live in, and you show your hero doing the thing they love to do most.”

The flaw

Arndt adds that we should also introduce the main character’s flaw in the beginning. The flaw of a character comes from their grand passion; it is a good thing that is taken too far. For example, in Toy Story, Woody’s passion is to be loved by his owner Andy. He is so passionate about being Andy’s favorite toy that he doesn’t want to share this with others, especially the new toy Buzz. His flaw is insecurity and jealousy that stems from wanting to be the top toy of Andy.

Jill Chamberlain, the author of The Nutshell Technique, argues that the flaw of the main character is one of the main determinants of a story: a story is essentially about whether the character will be able to overcome their flaw or not.

The setup want

Jill Chamberlain also says that the character should want something at the beginning of the first act that he will get at the end of the first act. She calls this the setup want or throwaway want which doesn’t have to be his “big goal”. For instance, in Groundhog Day, Phil is going to Punxsutawney for one day, and he says that “he doesn’t want to spend an extra second” there.

Stasis=death

Blake Snyder says that the first act should introduce at least six things that need fixing in the main character’s life. He suggests showing the character at home, at work, and play, and create a situation he calls stasis=death. This means that even if the character isn’t aware or is in denial, he is stuck in life, and he can’t continue in the same way. He has to do something to get unstuck and eventually fix all the problems that have been introduced. Luckily, “something” happens soon enough.

Before getting to that “something,” there is one more concept to talk about from Save the Cat: Theme Stated.

Even if they are light, shallow pieces of work only made for entertainment, stories possess life lessons in them. If a story doesn’t have anything to say other than the action we have just read or watched, it feels empty. We ask ourselves, “what was this really about?”. We want to derive a clear meaning about what the story was trying to say, about how to live our lives, or what is right or wrong. A story might have more than one theme. But the most prominent meaning left behind after finishing to read the story is the central theme.

In most movies, the theme is stated sometime early in the setup. It is generally (but not always) told to the main character by some secondary character as a form of foreshadowing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense at the time we first hear it, because we don’t know what’s coming. We might remember it or forget about it instantly, yet it still gives us a feeling and shapes our expectations of the plot. By the time the main character gets over his flaw and wins in the story (or can’t get over the flaw and loses), it makes much more sense.

Toy Story is about friendship. Early in the first act, one of the plastic soldiers gets stepped on. The soldiers’ leader drags the crushed soldier but the poor guy tells him to leave him, that he’ll only slow them down. But the leader says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!” This interaction foreshadows a crucial moment at the end of the film when Woody and Buzz try to escape Sid’s house. It is moving day, so Woody and Buzz must catch the car or the moving truck. At the last second Buzz gets stuck at the fence because of the rocket tied behind his back. Woody, even though he has caught the car, leaves and goes back to save Buzz. The rivalry between them has turned to friendship.

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

This is the “something” that happens in the first act triggering the events and sets the story in motion. We have introduced the rules of the world, now we are pulling the rug from under. This happens in the middle of the first act, approximately the 12th page of a screenplay.

If we think of the story world as a pool table, the first shot that starts the game can be called inciting incident. Or, call to adventure in the hero’s journey. Or, Catalyst in Save the Cat.

The catalyst disrupts the status quo. It “pulls the rug under our feet”. It might

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