In recent years, how writers begin their stories has changed, choosing action over exposition. Ray Morton reminds writers the value of getting your protagonist off to a good start.
The first act of a dramatic narrative plays a key role in the development of that story’s protagonist.
When it comes to the script’s main character, the purpose of Act I is to introduce the protagonist—to show the audience who he (or she) is and what she (or he) is like at the very beginning of the long arc he (or she) will traverse over the course of the tale. Act I establishes the protagonist’s essential traits and quirks, wants and needs, talents and flaws, and hopes and dreams. The plot twist at the end of Act I causes the protagonist to develop an important goal that he (or she) will then pursue for the rest of the story.
If executed properly, all of this will hopefully give us a solid baseline from which to chart the development of the protagonist throughout the rest of the story and sufficient reason to emotionally invest ourselves in her (or him) enough that we will be interested in following her (or his) adventures as the story unfolds and care what happens to her (or him) in the end.
In recent years, however, Act I has become an endangered species. Because first acts tend of have a lot of exposition and not much action (since the story proper doesn’t begin until the plot twist at the end of Act I), they are usually the slowest part of the story. As attention spans have grown shorter and cinematic technique more kinetic (and frenetic—especially in action movies), studios and producers—worried that viewers might become impatient and/or bored and tune out if subjected to too much set-up—have been pushing to make the first acts of their scripts and films as short as possible and many filmmakers have been acquiescing.
Shortening first acts means a place needs to be found to incorporate all of the set-up and exposition that is not being included in a script’s opening pages. This is one of the main reasons behind the rise in popularity over the last 10-15 years of non-linear approaches to cinematic storytelling—most especially the practice of beginning a movie with an action or suspense scene from the middle or end of the story’s second act and then rewinding to the beginning as well as the practice of beginning a movie at the start of the second act and then peppering the narrative with flashbacks to scenes that would traditionally be presented in Act I. These approaches allow the filmmakers to start their movies with a supposedly non-boring action scene so that viewers wont jump on their phones, wander off to another auditorium, or hit pause on their streaming, and yet still present the necessary introductory and explanatory information required for the (assumedly) fully-captivated audience to understand what’s going on.
Some filmmakers are eliminating first acts altogether and are starting their stories at the beginning of Act II, eschewing flashbacks and rewinds, and simply leaving the audience to deduce the missing information from the protagonist’s behavior, from the onscreen action, and a few snippets of dialogue. This practice is concerning for a number of reasons, but when it comes to the protagonist, it can be devastating.
There are four key components to a successful main character:
- Persona: who the protagonist is—his personality, talents, flaws, and point of view.
- Goal: the protagonist in a dramatic narrative must have a goal that she pursues with vigor throughout the story. It is the actions the protagonist takes in pursuit of her goal that drive the plot ever forward.
- Arc: the fundamental transformation the protagonist undergoes as a result of his experiences in the story.
- Affinity: While we do not necessarily have to love the protagonist or even like her, we do have to sympathize with her enough to be willing to invest in her enough that we are willing to follow her from the beginning of the story to the end.
With the exception of the goal (which is introduced at the beginning of Act II), these components all have their genesis in Act I—and the goal only has meaning if we understand why it is important to the protagonist and that importance is established in the first act. If Act I is curtailed or eliminated, then some or all of these components may be as well and if that happens then the protagonist’s characterization can be crippled.
A good example of this problem can be found in Captain Marvel, the current installment of the MCU. Protagonist Carol Danvers has an extensive backstory—born into a family of men who do not appreciate her, she leaves home at an early age to join the Air Force and become a rebellious, kick-ass fighter pilot. Along the way she becomes best friends with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau and a surrogate aunt to Rambeau’s daughter Monica. She is assigned to fly a test run of a new type of aircraft created by scientist Dr. Wendy Lawson that we later learn is powered by an alien power source (Lawson, as it turns out, is an alien named Mar-Vel). The craft is shot down by enemy alien invaders. To stop the enemy aliens from gaining control of the power source, Danvers blows it up. Trapped in the ensuing blast, Danvers absorbs the energy from the power source, which gives her the super powers. The blast also gives her amnesia, so she no longer knows who she is. She is then taken from earth by the enemy aliens, renamed Vers, and trained to be a warrior in their intergalactic army. The aliens hope to harness Danvers’s incredible powers so they can use them to defeat their enemies.
This is a very detailed first act containing a great deal of material that is vital to understanding who Carol Danvers is, what motivates her, and what her eventual arc will be (growing from someone who does not know who she is and is constantly told to keep herself in check into someone who learns her true identity and then finally lets herself go to become fully who she is and becomes a super-hero in the process).
However, the filmmakers chose to tell the story in a non-linear fashion. The film itself begins at the start of its second act, with an amnesiac Vers already an unwitting member of the evil alien army (at this point, she does not know the aliens are evil). After a mission goes awry, Vers is stranded on Earth in the 1990s, where she meets up with Nick Fury and tries to stop an invasion of the planet by another group of aliens—the opponents of the evil aliens Vers fights for. As the movie progresses, Vers finds clues to her original identity. These clues trigger a series of memory flashes and flashbacks that present some of the material from the story’s first act.
The problem is that these memories and flashbacks do not present all of the material from the story’s first act. They do deliver a complete account of the test mission and crash and subsequent explosion that gives Danvers powers and wipes her memory. The other narrative material is only presented in brief snippets, none of which are sufficient enough to fully establish Danvers’s character. And this proves to be a big problem for a number of reasons:
- Because we never get a full sense of who Danvers was before the explosion, we have no way to evaluate the person we meet in the movie. Throughout the film, other characters are constantly telling Carol (and us) that she has to keep her emotions in check—that she is too wild and unfocused and needs to tame these qualities if she is ever to become an effective hero. However, we never see Carol acting in this wild and unfocused manner everyone is always alluding to—we only meet the subdued Carol trying to keep herself in check—so the comments are baffling.
- Not seeing her act in this fashion also significantly mutes the impact of Danvers’s arc—there’s a wonderful moment at the climax of the movie in which Carol stops trying to keep herself in check and thus is finally able to give full vent to her amazing powers. Visually, this moment works very well in the picture, but it has no emotional impact because—never having seen the wild, untamed Carol, we don’t realize this moment is supposed to represent a triumphant return to form for her—all we see is a nifty spfx light show.
- Along the same lines, there’s a moment in the movie’s climax in which Captain Marvel is lying flat on the ground, having seemingly been defeated by her enemies, but then slowly gets back on her feet and stands tall. This sequence is intercut with flashbacks of a younger Carol doing the same thing at other points in her life. The point of the scene is to illustrate her indomitable spirit, but since we never any of these previous rises before this moment, we have no sense of their relevance now.
- Without a clear sense of who Carol was before the crash, we don’t know who she is or what motivates her. We also don’t know what her goal in the story is. Her practical goals are clear—she wants to save a group of innocents and defeat the villains—but we don’t know what her personal goal is. We can’t, since we are never told what is important to her or what she wants to achieve in her life.
- Finally, a major plot point in the story is Carol’s reunion with Maria and Monica, but since we never see the three of them together before the separation (except in the briefest of inconsequential memory flashes), there’s no emotional impact in seeing them come back together.
The cumulative effect of all this is that we never get a clear sense of who Carol Danvers is or what the meaning of the story’s events has for her character. And so, while Captain Marvel is undeniably a well-made movie, it is also a disappointingly uninvolving one.
Another example of this problem is in the 2018 film Private Life, a movie about a Manhattan couple (played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) desperate to have a baby, but due to faulty biology cannot conceive. The couple tries expensive treatment after expensive treatment with no success and eventually become so frustrated they come up with a plan that involves making a shockingly inappropriate request of a young relative, a request that causes a great deal of turmoil in their already tumultuous extended family.
This is another modern indie comedy in which the alleged humor is supposed to be generated by our amusement at the myopic, self-centered behavior of the lead characters and the uncomfortably awkward situations that behavior generates. The problem is that for this sort of material to work, we must have a thorough understanding of the protagonists’ motives and a great deal of sympathy for their plight and objectives in order for us to tolerate their awful behavior long enough for them to finally reach the realization that they need to stop behaving in these ways and return to behaving like normal, decent people that we hope will come at the end of the narrative. Such understanding and sympathy require a first act that shows us who the protagonists are and persuades us that they are good and worthy and likable people before their troubles begin and the resulting stress causes them to act in less-than-admirable ways.
Unfortunately, the makers of Private Life chose to dispense with a first act altogether. We don’t meet the couple until long after their fertility problems have been diagnosed and they have been through a number of expensive treatments that have failed. By this point, both are depressed and angry. They treat each other and most other people they meet (including a group of trick-or-treating children) just horribly. They are shrill and selfish and (in the case of the Hahn character) really mean and it is impossible to feel any sympathy for them whatsoever. From this unpromising start, the couple’s behavior gets worse and worse to the point where our lack of sympathy eventually turns into outright loathing. They finally start to turn themselves around by the end of the movie, but at that point, we’re long past caring.
To be honest, I’m not sure we would ever be able to get behind some of this couples’ more extreme behavior or past their unpleasant attitudes, but a strong first act that allowed us to meet Giamatti and Hahn before their troubles began could have shown us that they were basically sympathetic and decent people, which would have allowed us to cut them some much-needed slack as the stress and pressure accumulate and their behavior deteriorates. Without that detailing, we don’t know what to make of the couple. We might assume they were once pleasant, well-behaved folks worthy of our investment. However, we might also assume that they have always been this awful because the movie offers us nothing to encourage us to believe otherwise.
Act I plays a vital role in the presentation and development of your protagonist. It should never be given short shrift. However you choose to structure and present your narrative, make sure you tell us all we need to know about your main character at the outset so that we can understand him, connect with her, and know where he is starting from at the beginning of the tale so we can be moved when she meets her destiny at the end.
Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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