First Acts

I’m working on the first act of a new feature-length comedy screenplay, and my screenwriter’s group is going to take a look at it in a few days. I want it to be sharp, so I’m reviewing the elements of a first act.

Of course, the most important elements to include in a first act are distinct, interesting characters, a clear overall tone and the vivid world of the story. Or at least the world as it is normally, before big changes start to occur. I’ve also been trying to ensure my main character’s flaws and needs are clear and that the stakes are big enough to drive the story forward. I want the first 10 or so pages to really hook the reader and to deliver an inciting incident that forces the characters down a path towards change. The major turning point comes at the end of the first act, about a half hour into the movie, so it’s critical to set the story up correctly. Since I’m writing a comedy, I also want to lay down some track that will be funny later in call-backs. Simple, huh? Not.

Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discussed first acts on one of their podcasts. This is how Mazin described the first act:

…I find that this first act is the most important act of a movie. It’s the most interesting act, for me. We’re creating a world. We’re building a world in the first act. We’re creating a person. We’re then introducing a problem. And then we’re pushing that person right to the edge of the nest and finally flicking them out.

I also like how Mazin said, “Everything that you do in that first act has to have a purpose and that purpose must pay off. The bud must blossom at some point in the script, or it shouldn’t be there.” This is a good reminder to tighten up those scenes and take out all that’s extraneous. Mazin also pointed out how important a solid first act is to comedy. “Comedy is about the human condition. And so we need that first act desperately to meet somebody, establish who they are, establish what they believe. Kind of soak them in it for awhile.”

I’m really glad I’ll have some fresh eyes looking over what I have so far. Sometimes it’s hard to see things clearly when you are so close to it. I welcome the coming feedback. Hopefully my first act will keep everyone on the edge of their seat, wanting more and laughing so hard, they wish they’d brought along a Depends.

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