Act I is the most important part of your screenplay because it introduces the hero, states the hero’s problem, opens with an Inciting Incident that gets the story going, and ends with a bang.
Act I consists of two 15 minute segments. The first segment establishes the hero, states the hero’s problem, and (hopefully) makes the hero sympathetic to make us want to root for him (or her).
This segment opens with an Inciting Incident that establishes the tone of the entire movie, and it ends with the hero getting a peek at another way to live, but turns away from it. In “Star Wars” the Inciting Incident is the boarding of Princess Leia’s starship and her subsequent capture. This segment ends when Luke learns more about Obi-Wan Kanobi but says that he can’t help because he has to help his aunt and uncle run the farm.
In “Die Hard,” the Inciting Incident is when Bruce Willis lands in Los Angeles and ends when he finally reaches his wife’s Christmas party and starts fighting with her. Then he’s left alone in an office. He’s given a chance for a happier life with his wife, but chooses to fight her instead.
In “Alien,” the Inciting Incident is when the starship’s computer prematurely wakes the crew up after receiving a strange signal from a desolate planet.
Beyond introducing the hero and his (or her) problem, the second segment of Act I typically introduces an ally to the hero. “In Star Wars” it’s Hans Solo. In “Babe” it’s the sheep dog that takes Babe in and makes him feel at home on the farm. Every hero needs help and an ally is someone who will guide the hero on his journey.
The second segment ends with a plot point that opens the door to a new world. This is the place where the twister drops Dorothy in the land of Oz, where Luke finally gets to leave the planet that’s been a prison to him, where the alien bursts out of the doomed astronaut’s chest, and where Bruce Willis suddenly finds himself in a new situation after terrorists storm the building. Act I needs to end with a bang and a distinct change of focus in the story surroundings.
The purpose of the two Act I segments are:
- Introduce a sympathetic hero
- State the hero’s problem and goal
- Give the hero a peek at another life, which the hero may reject
- Introduce an ally
- Open a door to a new world
In the first segment, the hero is reacting to the world around him. In the second segment, the hero may reluctantly be taking action, but more commonly is just drifting along with life and letting outside circumstances mold his life. When Act I ends and opens a door to a new world, the hero may voluntarily step through (Luke in “Star Wars”) or the hero may be forced through this open door into another world (Bruce Willis in “Die Hard”).
By the end of Act I, audiences should know who the story is about and what the hero wants. More importantly, the audience should also feel an emotional and sympathetic bond with the hero and want the hero to succeed.
In writing your own screenplay, define these elements for your Act I because until you make these elements crystal clear to your audience, they won’t have a reason to watch (or read) the rest of your story.