In this video, I’m going to help you unlock the secret to a free-flowing screenplay structure. There’s a ton of books out there on the structure. I think the first book I ever read was Save the cat, which is a book that is hyper-focused on structure, maybe you’re also familiar with the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell and the plot points outline.
In this case, I want to share with you my observation of first act structure, because this is the most important aspect of your entire outlining process, flaws within a screenplay can almost always be traced back to the first act more specifically to the setup, it’s my observation, without fail that first act shortcomings lead to second and third act shortcomings right first act tightness and efficiency and thoroughness lead to second and third act tightness efficiency thoroughness. Okay, there’s really no exception that I’ve witnessed, which is why I’m also encouraging screenwriters, to take their time refining their first act and understanding the domino effects that you are creating with every piece of datum that you’re putting on that page.
Every detail and device in your first act has a tether that your third act is bound to, or it should for that matter. Let’s jump into the structure of the first act, the issue that I see with flawed first act structures is the mechanical progression. This is due usually to plotting before character development or not enough character development, before moving on to the plot or the plotting of the second and third act. I see a lot of this ordinary world, in which the hero wakes up goes to the shower eats the supermarket, feeds a cat, school, home, then the big inciting incident the mob has taken grandma hostage or whatever while this technically fits in right to those heroes journey into the hero journey or the save the cat templates, what it lacks is a motivating principle, so I want to redefine the ordinary world or the setup to maximize your writing experience so that you can start plotting your second act and third act with greater poetic expression and put the rest of you know those gripes of the second act being the hardest put that all to rest it won’t be once you master this principle because it’s gonna force your characters to take the lead okay so let’s start with the very beginning of your screenplay
See if the cat uses the opening image, and I think it’s the theme stated or the setup and the theme stated the hero’s journey starts with the ordinary world. The issue by definition with both of these titles, that they don’t really suggest a hero’s dilemma, and writers tend to just simply fill in the blanks instead of having characters dictate the unfolding of these events and in sequence through a logical action-reaction, starting with the beginning, taking us through these different plot points there’s something much more complex that must be communicated in the setup of your story, and that’s why I renamed the plot point from the setup to set up the motivation.
Why did I do that? now a common pattern that we observe across commercially successful films is a hero, whose ordinary world is posed with a specific problem or dilemma. In other words, we enter the world and there’s something about the heroes’ environment that is restrictive whether they know it or not. A few examples in American Beauty, Lester knows how is his life and he’s aware of his sedation, and in Catch me if you can, right over there Frank is not aware that his family is falling apart. In the matrix, Neo knows there’s something more out there, but he’s not quite sure and Captain Phillips, is aware of pirates and takes these necessary steps to prepare.
The Introductory Dilemma
There’s always an introductory dilemma to this world, and every successful film has a status quo problem. A status quo alone doesn’t progress, plot the problem, what requires solution progresses. The plot so it’s not so much of an ordinary world as it is a let says a conscious or subconscious dilemma, that reaches a climax at the inciting incident which we’re gonna get into shortly and I’ll tie this all together, so bear with me.
I played around with this plot point and renamed it setting up. The motivation and the reason, is that this dilemma always exposes the motives of the hero. Now to define what is a motive, the motive is the reason in which your hero is engaged in the narrative or the reason your character will progress through the narrative towards an objective.
The motive is also the defining characteristic of your character. It’s true or if the story is true in life etc. The best practices to establish this motive instantly within the narrative are because it creates the basis for what I call motivated action.
Motivating action in the most simple terms is the fuel that pushes your narrative forward within a logical action reaction, It’s the reason why your character is moving from scene to scene, they want something and they’re going after that and it’s motivating their action. You know if you’ve ever gotten a note from a colleague or reader saying something to the effect of. I don’t know why the hero is doing what they’re doing right now, this is because the hero’s motive for engaging is not present 100% of the time. For example in Catch me if you can, if we didn’t know that Frank was motivated by, bringing his family together, we wouldn’t know why he’s forging the checks at that moment in time, it would completely strip the emotional core out of that movie you know without motive there cannot be stakes which are critical to assimilating the audience to the now and the urgency of the now what you know.
Back to catch me if you can, we are engaging in this journey because we know why. The reason why, is the single most important datum you can convey in a narrative without it an audience won’t care if you ever get that note, where the reader just doesn’t know why they should care about a character’s journey the diagnosis can be traced back to your setup and your hero’s motive 100%.
Thee Plot Point
So your first plot point in the first act is setting up the motive and you can do that by asking a couple of questions and write this down. Who does my hero love? What does my hero love or who does my hero want to be?
A motive must have an emotional and relatable core that is usually tied to one of the later questions. For example, if you know your hero loves his mom, then the motive can relate to keeping his mother safe or healthy right? Remember when I mentioned that a dilemma should be posed upon the entry into the narrative, well let’s take this example and say that we enter the narrative and Joe’s mother is sick and he’s motivated by trying to extend her life and provide a better quality of life. This is a relatable and understandable motive because we all love somebody right? whether you’re good or bad, we all have love somebody, which lends to strong motivated action. A good motive will always lead to good inciting incidents, so I hope this making sense as long as we have that motive we are driven towards action we are motivated to act right all of our action has reasoning to it so let’s talk about the next point the inciting incident.
Which I call the motivation disturbed, and why do I call it that? Because this moment either obstructs or aids the motive that you’ve established for example the setup of the motivation would have shown Joe wanting to take care of his mother, but maybe he doesn’t have the funds so let’s say he can drug deal but he doesn’t want to, because he doesn’t want to worry his mother or go down that road and stress out his mother. Everything’s related to that motive so a logical motivation disturbed can be let’s say he loses his job, his day job or another one, it could be maybe that he comes upon a ton of stolen cash motivation disturbed, is a moment that either obstruct or aids the hero’s motivation, and that motivation disturbed, should always lead to what I call the big question.
This is the next plot point that Blake Snyder calls The Debate. The motivation disturbed always leads to the big question: What the hell is the hero going to do? Now, if your motivation disturbed or inciting incident doesn’t pose that question, then there’s a disjointing. In our example let’s go with the idea that Joe gets laid off from his job. Well, What the hell is he going to do? Now he’s got a mother who’s sick, he can try a variety of things right, he can try getting a loan, and if you’re a good writer you’ll have that loan rejected, creating more conflict. He can try selling everything he has, but it’s not enough.
Sustain the conflict. His mother is going to die. Unless he comes up with money fast. This leads us to the big decision, this debate this question this big question is going to lead to a big decision, and let’s just say his big decision is he’s going to enter the drug game and go with this big high-stakes high-risk commission, so the big decision is the last plot point of the first act and it’s just this. It’s just as important as the rest of the previous plot points because it has fundamental devices baked into it and that is the hero’s goal.
So what does the hero want, now unlike the motive, which is actually internal emotional reasoning, for engaging the narrative. The goal is a tangible objective, that it’s usually involving the procurement of an objective. Meaning an individual objective or an event in space and time gets more specific with a time restriction or specific location, and specificity is great because specificity helps the escalation of the conflict.
For example, a specific goal would be to deliver two tons of heroin. Joe is going to deliver two tons of heroin to a specific location, by a specific time. So let’s recap this now because now that there’s a big decision, the big decision has a very specific goal what does that second enact third look like as long as it’s motivated and the audience understands why Joe is doing it. Joe can continue carrying this emotionally resonant reasoning with him and the audience will root for him, it doesn’t matter if he’s a murderer if he kills like a million people. If he doesn’t have this emotional reasoning the audience won’t care about this drug deal, they only care because it’s a strong emotional tether to his motive, his mother.
We see that in Breaking Bad. It’s why we care for Walter and want him to succeed, even though he’s by all means not a good person, so set up the motivation, introduce us into a dilemma, and show us what the hero lives for disturb. That motivation throw in a major obstruction in the way of the motive or aid for that motive, which leads us to a big question: What the hell is the hero going to do now? This then leads us to a big decision to pursue a specific and tangible goal right? and the motive is the through-line. It’s the glue that ties it all together.
Too many scripts where people just get out into the action and they start going into places in down avenues with no real reasoning, and yes, you can have as many explosions and shootouts and chases and all that kind of stuff as you want. You can have a very clear goal and it’s great at least you’ve got something right, but unless you have the motive, you’re going to leave your audience wondering like what am I watching? And you don’t want that, you want your audience to be engaged, you want your audience to be invested and the way you invest them is through setting up the motivation.
Take a look at every movie that’s successful. I want you to start observing them for the way they establish motives early on what is it about this character’s life, What are they living for, What are they, Who do they love, What do they love, Who do they want to be. These are the emotionally resonant things that we can always connect to somebody who loves something, or someone else. For example, for someone who wants to take care of the mom, we understand that especially family member, we understand that dog, we can understand that anything who do they want to be.
We want to lose weight or we want to live a better life, We want to live our best life, these are things that we can respect and relate to, and that make good motivations and so that is the basis for everything else that comes out of your screenplay. So don’t go into it, with some arbitrary, let me set up an ordinary world, the ordinary world, is not really an ordinary world it’s a problematic world in which the motives of a character are threatened or the motives of the character are heightened at this very moment. I mean look at the matrix, Neo knows there’s something else out. There he’s motivated. By knowing this, by learning what is the matrix, he wants to know he needs the answers, he’s is left with more questions, than answers and he’s a person that desires these answers. An inciting incident as that motivation is disturbed, follow the white rabbit he goes, and it sets off a chain of events right, but it’s because of that dilemma it’s because of that motive to mitigate that dilemma, that we get this series of events that are really entertaining that captures our attention that is what’s the word I’m looking for compelling. If you want a compelling story, you have to have a character that wants something for reasons that you can relate to or that people can relate to.