Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A GUIDE TO ACT 1

Last week someone contacted me with a story idea looking for advice on how they might go about turning it into a screenplay. It got me thinking about how I write, present each act and how I use structure when writing features. I tend to think I write organically, writing what feels right and not really sticking to one formula for every screenplay. However, looking closely at it this week I have begun to see a pattern in how I write. 

So over the next few weeks I'm going to blog about my writing process. It's important to note these are not ridged rules to follow but simply my process, developed and adapted from reading as many screenwriting books as possible and finding the process that suits me best. My advice would to be to use these blogs as a guide only and find your own way to write, that's comfortable and advantageous to you. Here goes.

I usually aim to write around a 100 pages for each feature, splitting the screenplay down into four sections of 25 pages, to make it easier to plot and control. The first act covers the first 25 pages and this is how I lay it out.
  • (Pages 1-10) THE SET UP 
  • (Between pages 10-15) THE INCITING INCIDENT
  • (Pages 10-25) THE DECISION
  • (Page 25) INTO ACT 2 
THE SET UP - This where I set up the normal world, where I introduce the protagonist in their natural environment, doing every day things and living their life. Here I show who the protagonist is, their immediate world, the current state of their life and their emotional well being. This is where I show what the hero has to lose, or not as the case may be.

THE INCITING INCIDENT - For me the most difficult section of a screenplay to accurately pin down. What is an inciting incident? The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that turns their world upside down and catapults them into a new one, like the near rape of Thelma in Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise (although some might argue it is Louise shooting and killing the attacker that is the inciting incident. I think one causes the other so the attempted rape is the inciting incident for me).

I've read a lot of books that say the inciting incident has to be on page 10 and should never be later. However, I don't subscribe to this point of view. I find the inciting incident naturally falls between page 10-15 anyway and you shouldn't get too tangled up in trying to get it on page 10 exactly. As long as you have something going on to keep the audience interested, that shows the hero's character, then I don't think it matters too much if it comes a little later on.

The protagonist must be passive with regards to the inciting incident. This is how an emotional connection is made with the audience, when they feel for the hero because something has happened to him and invest in him enough to follow his adventure into the second act. By passive I mean the hero must never look for the inciting incident, or do something that he knows will lead to it. Sometimes the hero's actions can inadvertently lead to the inciting incident, even though it was never their intention. Again using Thelma & Lousie to illustrate this point, it's Thelma who gets drunk in the bar and dances with her would be attacker, which eventually leads to Louise shooting and killing the man. But she doesn't know her actions are going to lead to the attack, she's just innocent, thinking she's having a good time away from her abusive husband, unaware of the threat her flirtatious dancing poses. The audience can see it coming and a connection with Thelma is made.

And one more thing, the inciting incident is always, always personal to the hero, something that affects their life and prompts them into action.

THE DECISION - What happens then when the protagonist is poised on the precipice of this new world at the inciting incident but there's still a while to go until the break into  act 2? How do you fill this section?

This is what I call the decision section, where the hero decides whether to take up the challenge or not, where he debates the pros and cons and ultimately comes to the decision to go on the adventure. The hero won't always be the one to dismiss the inciting incident before finally accepting it, sometimes it will be the hero's friends that will try and talk him out of it, try to tell him it's dangerous, or wrong. What is important is the debate. Should he, or shouldn't he take up the challenge?

INTO ACT 2- This is where the protagonist finally decides to move forward in an attempt to reach his new goal, where he leaves his familiar world behind and is thrown into a new, unfamiliar one. I feel it's important that the protagonist throws off his passivity here, that he makes the conscious decision to jump into the new world. If he doesn't there's no story.

Now you're into act 2 and the fun has only just started...

1 comment:

Helen Bang said...

Thanks Dominic, have posted to S
cottish screenwriters' website.