Three Act Strory Structure: 3 Questions You Must Answer Truthfully About Your First Act


3 Act Story 3 Questions You Must Ansswer Truthfully About Your First Act

By Armaan Uplekar

With a handful of variations, the three-act story structure is a tried and tested formula relied upon and employed by story-tellers since the times of Aristotle to tell a clear and focused story. It is the most widely used and recognized narrative device to arrange plot points and emotional beats in a way that best tells a story with the greatest emotional impact on its audience. At its core it’s as easy as Beginning – Middle – and End, others refer to it as Set-Up – Confrontation – Resolution.  However, as simple it sounds, there is more to crafting a well-executed three-act screenplay that will get you noticed in Hollywood.

Act one is all about perception. It’s your golden opportunity to lure the reader in and plant them in the world of your screenplay; to enmesh them in the characters, settings and story you’ve painstakingly woven. It’s also your opportunity to lose your audience if you don’t know what you’re doing: a rickety first act is all it takes for a producer to put your script in a discard pile and pass on it completely. As a result, the stakes are high and the message is clear: First impressions are essential.

Crafting a riveting first act takes skill and a firm grasp on the contours of your story. You need to be able to understand how to hook a readers’ attention and keep it, while continuing to introduce plot points, conflict and characters. These three questions are vital to ask yourself to ensure your first act is firing on all cylinders and hitting the required narrative beats experienced industry readers and are trained to look for in the first 30 pages.

Do I Have an Opener that Represents My Story?

Think long and hard about your opening image. Recall the opening scenes of some of cinema’s most iconic works and the effect they had on you when you first watched them. The undertaker, Bonasera, in “The Godfather”, emerging from the dark. The imperceptible look in Amy Dunne’s eyes in “Gone Girl.” The steady, lonely image of Andrew Neiman rehearsing feverishly in “Whiplash.”

All these images convey something specific about the films they headline. They are representative of their respective stories’ tone, theme and characters. They instantly communicate information to their audiences on a gut level, either through voice-over, dialogue or visuals. While the visceral nature of some of these images come from, yes, collaborations between the screenwriter, director and cinematographer, the DNA of them is present in the screenplay.

Your opening scene is the first impression to end all first impressions. It will give your audience their most primal reaction; the one they experience before they know anything about your script. As a result, make sure to write your opening scene to fit your story. You want an opener that communicates the most interesting parts of your script in a simple, accessible way. This will maximize how an audience might take to your story and properly primes them for the action to come.

An opening scene that zeroes in on what your story is about heightens the chances of readers becoming emotionally invested in your following pages. While your opener doesn’t have to be directly linked to the plot of the story, it does need to communicate something crucial about what the following pages include – this can range from interesting aspects of your character, backstory, or even a visual metaphor. Anything that allows your audience to better understand what they’re getting into is fair game.

Does My First Act Introduce My Protagonist in a Memorable Way?

The protagonist is the key to your screenplay. They are, essentially, the point-of-view through which all the conflicts of your story are filtered through. Whether they be hero or anti-hero, a compelling protagonist is one that audiences can get behind and root for. Much like how first impressions are important to shaping perceptions of your overall screenplay, they are just as vital to how audiences perceive your characters.

Think about how we first meet Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Our first moments with her establish her as a loner and scavenger; a steely survivor clinging to hope. This impression persists with us throughout the course of “The Force Awakens,” and establishes how we see Rey as a heroine. It highlights an important part of her characterization, and the images the screenplay crafts (Rey pilfering the bowels of Star Destroyer and, a few pages later, camping in the shadow of a demolished AT-AT) stick with us as a result.

Be sure that your first act introduces audiences to your protagonist in a way that adequately represents them. Audiences members want to meet characters who stick out and stick with us. When brainstorming ways of introducing us to your hero, try to focus on writing scenes that best exemplify their most prominent character traits. Are they heroic? Cowardly? Born-leaders? Power-hungry manipulators? You want your first scene with your protagonist to clue audiences in on who they’ll be following for the next ninety-plus pages.

Does My First Act Establish the Primary Conflict in a Clear Way?

Conflict is the engine that drives any story and it takes many forms. It can be man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, or any combination of the three. It adds stakes to what your characters’ experience, throwing them into action and setting the wheels in motion. As a result, it’s crucial that your first act take the opportunity to clearly communicate the conflict to both your characters and audience. Knowing the conflict – what the protagonist is trying to accomplish and what stands in their way – is a necessary part of what gets your audience engaged in the experience of your story. It lets them to know what to expect in the coming pages, and gives them a sense of what story you’re telling.

If your first act fails to establish the conflict, it’s likely that your audience, as well as your protagonist, will feel lost. They won’t be entirely sure as to what your story is about, or what they should root for. That’s why it’s so important to be clear as to what the conflict is; if confusion abounds, readers will be unsure as to what they should be looking for in the following acts. And, in all likelihood, your protagonist will be confused along with them.

Even in cinema verite films (Think, “slice of life” dramas), writers take care to establish what their protagonist’s internal conflict is. Does the hero of your story want happiness? A sense of belonging? Maybe they harbor a desire to get over a crippling phobia. Either way, successful writers find ways to convey what’s at stake in their first act, and how this conflict might shape the acts to come.

By taking the time and care to check that your first act follows these three simple guidelines, you’ll greatly improve the readability and effectiveness of your first set of scenes and greatly improve your chances of success.

Read Also: Three Act Story Structure

Act II: 3 Keys To Unlock Your Second Act With Ease

Act III: 3 Ways To End Your Third Act With A Bang


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