The great writer and director Billy Wilder offers this piece of advice on screenwriting and movie making: “Grab ’em by the throat and never let go.”
This is what your first act, indeed, your first few pages must do. The first act has several functions. It establishes who your main characters are, the setting, the time period, the theme and the genre. It is in this act that we meet the protagonist and the antagonist.
In some screenplays we may not meet the antagonist directly, but we are at least introduced to them, with hints at ultimate revelation, such as is often the case in mysteries. Although we may not see them yet, we are made well-aware of their presence and the negative, sometimes devastating impact they have on other people in the story.
It also establishes the premise of the story: a saloon owner is shocked to see the woman he loves walk back into his life during World War II. Casablanca. A huge shark menaces a beach resort town at the opening of the summer tourist season. Jaws. A Young fighter pilot must rescue a kidnapped princess and defeat an evil empire. Star Wars.
Your first act must really grab the Hollywood exec by the throat within 10 pages or they will stop reading and move on to the next script in the pile.
The first act of your screenplay is generally longer than 10 pages, but that is all the time and space you have to convince someone to keep reading. Sometimes less.
Many screenwriting teachers say that the first act should be about one-fourth of the screenplay. But many first acts are shorter.
All first acts end with the Inciting Incident, which is an event that happens that either encourages or forces the protagonist to take his or her path in a new direction.
The first act, coupled with the inciting incident, establishes the central question of the script: what does your protagonist want to do, be or have and what or who stands in their way?
Up until this moment, we see the protagonist in their normal world. The inciting incident is something that shakes up that world and causes the main character to take action to achieve a specific goal.
It establishes the stakes of the film: Will the boy get the girl? Will the suburban couple that gets lost in gang territory make it out alive? Will the prom queen escape being murdered by the serial killer?
The inciting incident also establishes who or what stands in the way of the hero reaching her goal. It is the beginning of the real conflict of the story.
Also, the inciting incident is the first plot point of the story. A plot point is an event that turns the story in yet another direction. A good movie has numerous plot points that increase in intensity until the final plot point — the climax.
Here are some examples of inciting incidents in classic movies: Scarlett O’Hara meets Rhett Butler. Gone with the Wind. Luke Skywalker’s farm is destroyed. Star Wars. A lost love suddenly appears in the saloon of a cynical man in World War II. Casablanca. The respected head of a Mafia clan is the victim of an assassination attempt. The Godfather. Dorothy lands in Oz. The Wizard of Oz.
So how did the inciting incidents in the films above affect the story?
Spoiled, beautiful Scarlett O’Hara, who is used to having men faun over her, meets her match. It is the beginning of a tempestuous cat-and-mouse relationship against the background of the Civil War.
Luke Skywalker dreamed of becoming a cadet and flying fighter jets but he always had a reason not to. Once his Uncle’s farm was destroyed, he had no more excuses. He sets off on his adventure.
Rick in Casablanca sticks his neck out for nobody, until Ilsa rocks his world and ultimately inspires him join the war effort to defeat the Nazis.
When Vito Corleone is gunned down, Good Citizen and War Hero Michael chooses to protect his father by joining the “family business.”
When discontented Dorothy lands in strange Oz, it is the beginning of an adventure back home, both physically and emotionally, to recognize “There’s no place like home.”
Do you understand how the inciting incidents sets the story in motion? One of the keys to successful screenwriting is to have an effective inciting incident that will set your main character onto a new path, giving both them and the audience a reason to get involved and stay involved–right up to the closing credits.