Okay, time to get back to work. now that we’ve begun to better populate our world, it’s time to begin to stage it. Typically a film will fall into a three act structure. While screenwriting books all illustrate and discuss this, I think the best book to guide you through the use of these acts in escalating drama is Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, by David Mamet. There are three basic divisions that occur naturally in a drama. the first act break is when the protagonist leaves his ordinary world and commits to his journey, like Frodo leaving the Shire, or Marty getting blasted back to 1955. Often the transition will be made obvious through dialogue: “Once you go through that door there’s no turning back.”
So, what we do in the first thirty, or so pages is establish the main characters and prepare for the journey. The first ten pages are very important. you must get across who your main character is and what crisis he is facing. the crisis part is sometimes covered in a prologue. I don’t think this is good or bad. Elmore Leonard, the novelist whose books have become the films Jackie Brown, The Big Bounce, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty, doesn’t like prologues and prefers to Jump right into the story. Michael Crichton loved prologues, but his prologue from the novel Jurassic park would not have worked in the film. Instead of raptors killing babies in a Costa Rica hospital, Hammond’s crisis is nicely set up with an employee accident resulting in death.
Star Wars films always start with the chapter introduction scrolling off into space. If you aren’t writing episode nine, though I think this is usually a mistake. If there is that much ground to cover before your story starts, you might be telling the wrong story. I’d be reluctant to resort to a lengthy written, or narrated introduction at the start of your script. It might read well, but it’s often an indication that a movie will not be very good. John Carter was decent, but it might have been considerably better with more showing and less telling by a narrator. It is especially unwise for the protagonist to do his narration (unless that character is Charlie Kaufman). The reason being that a character explaining his own crisis seems whiney and it is much easier to empathize with a character by seeing what they go through rather than hear about it. Case in point: The Amazing Spider-man, vs. the original Spider-man trilogy.
The idea is to not only communicate the information about your hero to the audience, but to make it compelling and engage them into becoming active participants. Once you have your main character, his relationships, his crisis and a good picture of his ordinary life something should disrupt that pattern and send him in an alternate direction that will lead to the quest ahead. This inciting incident ought to happen somewhere around page ten. It’s a simple track change that will lead to the impending quest. In the hero’s journey, he often refuses the call to adventure at first and needs to come to terms with what is at stake. Finally, he decides to answer the call and prepares for the road ahead. by around page thirty he should be stepping over that threshold from which there is no turning back.
If you are using character archetypes as mile stones, your hero should encounter, a herald, a mentor and a gatekeeper, or guardian. Another way to look at the first act is to break it up into sequences. If a page equals approximately one minute of screen time, then a full sequence should be about ten pages, or a ten minute reel. the sequences should run like mini movies with cliffhanger endings that propel the story closer. The first act is where you raise the most questions to get your audience invested in the rest of the story. You probably already know your supporting characters and the parts they will play along the journey, so what of the disruption of your heroes ordinary world? How does it relate to his crisis and the approaching quest. What are the stakes involved. He will have to face dangers and he will try to prepare for them. Consider how much of the beginning of Home Alone and Back to the Future are pure set up for a pay off later in the film. What book ends can you construct that will later be reinforced with a counterpart at the resolution? In this way a film is an equation. There is a clever and tactful way to do this as well as a clumsy one, just like anything else. Use your voice and your unique style to finesse the crude layout and you could go from The Mummy to Indiana Jones.
A word of warning. It only gets harder from here. Once you start on this path, there is no going back. JK.