April 03, 2008

Jump Right In - Act I

Act I is one of the more enjoyable acts to write. Why? Because we start writing! We explore, test out our characters, and determine the setting and tone for the rest of the story. Act I is critical. If we want our audience to keep reading (or watching), we must engage them!


You’ve got an idea of what your story is. You’ve got a path for your characters to follow. How do you get this plane off the ground? Let’s keep examining the paradigm I use that was created by Syd Field:

Divide Act I into three distinct, evenly spaced sections. If Act I is 25 pages, then each section is 8 pages long. According to Mr. Field and his paradigm, here’s what those sections should look like:
  • Pg. 1-8: Present the main character and showcase her problem.
  • Pg. 9-16: Focus on main character and demonstrate how this problem is affecting her life.
  • Pg. 17-24: Identify exactly what the problem is (culminating with Plot Point I).
Dial into your main character. The character must grow throughout the story. Determine where the character is and how she’s currently interacting with the world around her in Act I. Build tension. Set the tone. Allow the reader (or viewer) to become entrenched in the fictional world around them.

Writing a Novel vs. Screenwriting

I break the rules in Act I. Screenwriting requires extreme brevity. The focus must be on the main character throughout Act I. Writing a novel, however, allows for increased complexity. While I still focus most of my attention on the main character, I also add elements (usually from other major characters) that will appear later in the book.

And that’s why paradigms are so effective. You can intentionally break the rules and get away with it.

What’s your initial reaction to Act I? What do you do differently? What do you do that similar?

Referenced in this post: The Screenwriter's Workbook by Syd Field.

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