This is what I learned from a lecture by Michael Arndt, the Academy Award winning screenwriter who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and Toy 3. Not only is he an incredible writer, but also he’s incredible at teaching writing.
At the Austin Film Festival, people saw him as a kind of radioactive spider of screenwriting, who could forever change your life with his lecture “Endings: The Good, the Bad and The Insanely Great.”
I can honestly say that what the people saw in him was no exaggeration. I write this because some things are too good not to share. All of this can also be found in this video.
So usually a script is about 100 pages long with three split acts:
First Act is 25. Second Act is 50. Third Act is 25.
All we’re going to do is examine what goes into making a good First Act.
This is not prescriptive advice. Arndt says several times that the point of this is not to say hard and fast rules of screenwriting. Rather, this is just a study of the similarities of three movies that have fantastic First Acts.
Specifically: Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.
1. Introduce your Character (their Greatest Passion)
So generally when you start a story, you want to begin by introducing your main character and the world that they live in. Now since film tends to be a visual medium and most characters won’t just tell us who they are, this is best done by showing our hero doing what they love most. This is their greatest passion. This is the thing that defines them as a person.
In turn, by showing a character doing what they love most, you’ll also be showing their normal world that they do it in. Voila! Two birds, one stone.
Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy. So when we first meet Woody, he is being playing with by Andy. That’s his favorite thing in the world. It’s what defines him as a person.
Marlin, on the other hand, is a father. He takes pride in being a family man. So when we first meet him, he has just moved into a new house with his wife and he’s got a whole new home full of eggs. He loves his family more than anything else in the world and could not be happier.
Mr. Incredible is a superhero, who loves being a superhero. So naturally our first scene of Mr. Incredible is watching him track down criminals and kick ass. Not only does he love and take pride in being a super hero, but also he’s insanely good at it.
2. Hint at your Character’s Greatest Flaw
Now that we’ve introduced our character’s greatest passion, what immediately follows is our character’s greatest flaw. This should only be hinted at and shouldn’t cause immediate problems yet. Often times, our character’s greatest flaw is actually their greatest passion taken too far.
Regardless, the key here is that our character’s greatest flaw needs to derive from their greatest passion.
Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy so much that he doesn’t want to share it with anyone.
Marlin wants to be a good father so much that he is a little insecure.
Mr. Incredible loves being a superhero so much that he doesn’t want to share it with anyone. We see this twice: once, with Buddy.
And again when he bumps into Elasta-Girl on the Roof.
3. Show Storm Clouds on the Horizon
So now that you’ve established your character, your world, your character’s greatest passion and a hidden flaw that comes out of this passion….
Now you need to establish some Storm Clouds on the Horizon.
This is a hint that while everything has been sunny and clear up until now, the future holds something darker. Change is coming. This is what will setup and foreshadow your inciting incident.
It’s Andy’s Birthday Party. And all of the toys are fretting about being replaced.
Marlin establishes that there is an indoors that is safe and that there is an outdoors which is implicitly dangerous.
Even though Mr. Incredible loves being a Super Hero, Helen is telling Bob that things are going to change after they get married. The lifestyle that he loves so much is in danger.
And again, with Buddy showing up and being jealous of Mr. Incredible. This establishes that there is a resentment against superheroes from normal people.
4. Hit your Character with Change (Take Away Their Greatest Passion)
So now that you’ve established your character, your world, your character’s greatest passion, a hidden flaw that comes out of this passion and storm clouds on the horizon…
Something is going to come in that blows apart your hero’s life and turns his world upside down.
What’s important is that what gets taken away from your character is the thing they love most.
It’s his greatest nightmare. Buzz arrives and Woody is no longer Andy’s favorite toy.
The barracuda shows up. Marlin’s family, wife, home — everything that he loves most is destroyed. Except for one little egg.
The person that Mr. Incredible saved from committing suicide sues him! Super Heroes are forced into hiding. Mr. Incredible is not allowed to be a hero anymore.
5. Add Insult to Injury
But taking away the thing that your character loves most still isn’t enough to go into the second act….
You’ve got to add insult to injury. You’ve got to have something that shows the world is unfair and unjust for taking away the thing that they love most. You’ve got to give them a reason and justification to take action against the world.
Not only does Woody get replaced, but he get replaced by a total idiot who doesn’t even realize that he is a Toy. And all of the other toys love him!
In this case, you don’t really need insult to injury. With emphasis alone, we already understand that the world that Marlin lives in is unfair.
Not only do Super Heroes get banned, but the reason Super Heroes get banned is because Mr. Incredible was trying to do the right thing by saving someone’s life.
6. Lead them to a Fork in Road (Take the Low Road)
So your main character’s life is changed, their grand passion is taken away, and the world is revealed to be unfair.
Now is when your character is faced with a fork in the road on how to deal with their loss:
A. There is a high road, a healthy responsible choice.
B. And there’s a low road, an unhealthy irresponsible choice.
Now remember though, if your character chooses the high road, you don’t really have a story.
In this scenario, your character has just had the thing he loves most taken away from him, but they immediately comes to terms with his loss and learns to live without it like a Masterful Buddhist Monk (The End.)
So your character needs to take the low road. What’s key here is that their decision to take the low road needs to be driven by their greatest flaw.
Now usually watching a character choose to take the low road because their own flaws would be terrible to watch. Without context, it would be like asking your audience to watch an alcoholic take his first drink of alcohol after years of being sober. We’re watching a mistake in the making.
However, if you’ve shown both how much your character loves their greatest passion AND how unfair the world is for taking it from them, you will have earned the opposite:
We will root for the character to take the low road.
…which is important because we can then continue to relate and support our main character through the rest of the film.
For Woody, the healthy choice is to say, “I had my day in the sun. I was Andy’s favorite toy for a long time. But now I have to concede the spotlight.”
But what happens is that Woody makes the unhealthy choice. He tries to push Buzz behind the desk.
The key thing here is that we are rooting for Woody to make the unhealthy choice because we have seen Woody’s passion for being Andy’s favorite toy AND how unworthy Buzz is of being Andy’s favorite toy.
Marlin finds Nemo at the edge of the Ocean. The responsible choice is for Marlin to understand that if he wants Nemo to grow, he needs to risk Nemo’s safety sometimes. However, Marlin’s weakness of being an overprotective parent causes him to embarrass Nemo in front of his friends.
We understand Marlin’s actions because we’ve seen how much he loves being a father and we’ve seen how unfair and unsafe his world is.
The responsible choice for Bob would be to continue working in a cubicle and do what his wife tells him:
“Go save the world one policy at a time, honey.”
But that would be boring. So instead he makes the irresponsible choice, he lies to his wife and goes moonlighting with his buddy FroZone.
Again, we are completely rooting for him to make the unhealthy choice because we saw how much he loved being a super hero, how good he was at being a super hero and we saw how unfairly it was taken away from him.
7. Cause a Crisis
Now that your main character has taken the low road and made the irresponsible choice, he needs to face the immediate consequence of his action: the Crisis.
The Crisis is the objective problem that your main character faces. This is the problem that will fuel the main character through the journey that is the rest of the screenplay.
Instead of knocking Buzz behind the desk, Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out the window. All of the other toys force Woody to find Buzz and bring him back safely or they won’t let him stay in Andy’s Room.
In rebellion against his Dad, Nemo swims out into the open ocean where a human diver captures him. Now Marlin is given a goal that will last him the rest of the movie: he needs to save his son.
Mr. Incredible’s moonlighting with FroZone leads Mirage into tracking him down, which leads to Syndrome into ultimately capturing him.
So your story is coming out of your character’s deepest desires and darkest fears. The thing that they love is taken away from them and their world is revealed to be unfair. To put things right, they have to make the journey that is the rest of the film.
And by the end of the journey, hopefully they’ll not only get back what they lost, but also they’ll be forced to fix that little flaw that they had when we first met them. The End.