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IMPROVISING SCREENPLAYS: The Five Key Elements of Act One

Writer and theatrical improviser Brett Wean reveals the five key elements to consider when writing Act One of a screenplay.

In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script. Follow Brett on Twitter @brettwean.

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Writing the beginning of your script is a little like falling in love or going on a first date: you and your screenplay are getting to know each other, showcasing your personalities, maybe even revealing a few of your charming imperfections. If you’re like me, there’ll probably be some tripping over furniture Dick Van Dyke style, which is totally hip and ironic and retro now, or so the furniture tells me. (I may have gotten a concussion.) Not only are your readers getting to know your writing style, your main character, and the world that your character inhabits, but you yourself are getting to know the vibe of your own work as you first start writing it.


“Hi, Script! My name is Rodolfo! Let me get the door for you! I brought you a flower! Do you have any dietary restrictions? I thought we’d go rollerblading and then hit the aquarium!” (I’m married now, but I was so good at dating. I crushed it. CRUSHED it.)

Act One is your opportunity to lay the foundation for your entire story. It’s the point at which you have to communicate what your protagonist’s normal, everyday life is like before Act Two starts and (as the kids put it) “ish goes cray-cray.” It should feel fun and easy and compelling and natural.

At the same time, though, you need to have carefully considered a number of elements that are absolutely vital to have in place: otherwise, the foundation you’re building will prove faulty, and the rest of your script will crumble. Think of it as picking up a bouquet of roses on your way to that first date...or making a reservation at the perfect French/Norwegian fusion restaurant...or buying a pack of condoms. (Have fun while writing your script, but be safe.)

Even if you’re not writing from a fully thought-out outline -- which is the screenwriting equivalent of not using a condom (sorry, I’ll stop with the condom references), here are the five considerations you need to have thought about before you jump in:

Who are your important supporting characters?
Just as important as establishing your main character’s identity and personality, now is the time to set up a constellation of other people who make up their world. Most importantly, who are the main secondary characters of the movie? Who are your main character’s friends? Who is their best friend? Who do they work with? Who gets on their nerves the most? Really think carefully about everyone they see in a typical week. Who is their boss? Who are their coworkers? Pretend you’re tracking them moment by moment over the course of a typical day, stealthily hiding behind bushes and parked cars: who would they run into? Do they always stop in at the coffee shop? What do they do after work, or school? Do they even have a job? (By the way, do not get caught tracking them, because this is considered fictional stalking. Obviously, if they’ve got a restraining order against you, pick another character.)

What is the environment?
Just as important as your cast of characters is the physical world you have to establish. In regard to both, even if your hero is going to be leaving the world of their normal life once Act Two gets going, your audience needs to know exactly what they’re leaving behind, and what exactly changes for them once the main gear of the story begins to turn.

As a totally separate exercise from considering what needs to happen, write out a list of scene locations. Where does your main character live? What does the outside of their home look like? What are the different rooms we should see? Where does your protagonist spend his time during the day, and at night? What does their world look like, in general? Really consider what places the viewer needs to see to “get” the world you’re creating.

Remember: you probably have a clear idea of all of this in your mind, and figure that it will all naturally reveal itself as you tell the story...but you can’t depend on that. Make an important location list, and take it into consideration as you plot out your opening scenes.

A lot of people don’t consciously consider this before they start writing -- again, they assume it will just naturally come out. But chances are that if you don’t think about it before starting, certain important tonal hints won’t emerge until your reader has already assumed a slightly (or wildly) different tone than you’ve intended to the world you’re setting up.

Is it a wacky comedy? Is the universe your character inhabits a stark, unforgiving wilderness in which good people die? Is it a world of wonder and amazement? Not only do you need to strongly get this across in the “action” of your first few pages -- what happens -- but it should probably come across in the way you write the narration, or “business” of your script. Renee Zellweger better clumsily trip over that stack of newspapers on Page One, or your audience is going to be genuinely concerned, rather than tickled, when she falls down that flight of steps twenty pages in.

Theme, or Question
Can men and women ever really be friends? That is, of course, the famous thematic question behind the classic romantic comedy Basic Instinct. (Or was it When Harry Met Sally? No, I’m pretty sure it was Basic Instinct.) Even if it isn’t explicitly stated, every movie has a theme, or a thematic question.

Can a simple farm boy from Tatooine make a difference in the fight against a dark galactic empire? Is it better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or...or...well, we all know the entire quote from Hamlet, I should hardly have to recite it for you right now, even though I totally know it by heart, obviously.

Your Hero’s Strengths and Weaknesses
How is your main character going to change? What is the dramatic arc of your movie? Roughly 99.9% of the time, the key to your main character’s triumph (or downfall, if you’re writing a tragedy) is an internal struggle. What does she have to overcome to beat the bad guy, or fall in love? What are her flaws or faults?

Remember when Peter Parker decided not to stop that robbery because the guy getting robbed was a jerk to him? What about that speech Hugh Grant gave in the first act of Four Weddings and a Funeral in which he said he could never see himself making the kind of commitment the bride and the groom were making? You think that speech is just in there by accident? What are you, new?

Conversely, the first act is the perfect time to subtly set up a hidden strength your main character possesses: one that he may not even realize he has himself, yet, and that he’ll be able to whip out, like a pack of condoms, at the end of the movie, allowing him what he wants the story to completion. (I know a good condom metaphor when I see it. Sorry. What am I, like twelve?)

Well, there you have it...the five big considerations you should take into account before writing your first act. Have a nice time, and get my daughter home by eleven.

Have any questions about improv, and how it relates to writing for the screen? Feel free to post comments below or send questions via Twitter @brettwean. They’ll be considered for a future installment.

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