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Step 4: Write Act 1

Lesson 10 from: Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

10. Step 4: Write Act 1

Lesson Info

Step 4: Write Act 1

Several of the scenes in your story in addition to having, um, proportion to them just like I said this this is sort of one seventh in addition to this being a proportional truth there are also many functions that this thing can I got these here eyes I got noah's mouth got ears, got a brain all of these parts have very specific functions to them. Similarly, in our screenplay's there are several scenes that have very specific functions to them. Okay, the first one of those is our exposition scene and this is I guess some of the scenes from the from juneau and turn these over for now, right the first um the first most first to most important scenes that we want to look at are what I call the exposition scenes and sometimes explosion scene could be in one scene. Sometimes it could be in many scenes and the inciting event. These are that these are two linked scenes, both of which have a very important function to them. Roughly we can say the purpose of the exposition scene is to set up the...

status quo of the story and the purpose of the inciting event is to bust up that status quo too to shatter it all right, um when we were kids and we heard you know our first bedtime stories don't they almost always began with once upon a time right. And in that once upon a time, we were taught. We were told. Well, here are the circumstances of the story here is this king and he's got this daughter and there is this prince, and there is his kingdom. So we were told what was in that story. Okay? Thie exposition scenes in our movie really, in a kind of way, have to accomplish the same functions they have toe, but we want to do a little bit more sophisticated. Lee. Right? Okay. Uh, so exposition scenes have several components that are several functions that they have to accomplish. Number one, they have to set up the world. Where does our story take place? Movie, like star wars takes place in a you know, in a distant galaxy far away in another time, write a movie like american beauty takes place in a much more conventional takes place in a suburban world. In contemporary times, movie like whiplash takes place contemporary, but not only is a contemporary but there's, a very specific world in which it takes place in the world of music. Okay movie like major league. Well, that takes place within the world of major league baseball. We like rocky takes place in the boxing world. Ok, so the world of the story I can have a lot of different kinds of definitions to it it may be you know it may be a kind of arcane like wall street the movie wall street obviously takes place in the financial world hospital takes place in a hospital some movies the world might be a little bit more generalized in some places it might be a very very specific world so part so one of the things that we have to do in our exposition scene or scenes is to set that world up okay how do we do that? Well, we have to think of a very interesting circumstance of a scene on what is this circumstance mean, it means where the thing is set that by its very nature reveals because we're not talking about what we can't say hey once upon a time what we have to do is put the audience in that world so we have to create some visceral visual representation that in a very quick impressionistic way gives our audience the understanding of where the story is taking place in the movie rocky he's a boxer so where is the opening scene take place took place in a boxing ring and what kind of a box is he you know is the sleek and moving and sting like a butterfly and you know float like a butterfly sting like a bee z is he cashes clay mohammed ali no he's applauding stubborn left handed bruiser, who is not a good fighter at all. And we learn that by by two things, by placing by setting up and on environment and placing the character in that environment with what I call a defining action for the protagonist, these things are gigantically important, setting up, setting up a circumstance that defines the world and putting the character in that place, doing something that defines who he or she is in the in the movie juno, that we have some of the scene cards here for the opening scene. Well, I think couple things happened in that scene. It's cartoon to me, if you remember that the opening credits of the opening scenes of juneau and that tells us something something subtextual in a kind of way, it tells us something about the tone of that story which which which creates its voice and another thing, in addition to the things that the exposition steins are doing textually it also can do something subtextual e it can tell us something about the tone of the story. It makes it kind of a contract between the writer and the audience that says the reality meter is set here. You know, if you are seeing an ingmar bergman film, you know that that reality meters set right at high noon, that you know that, that we are getting a realist the story, of course, there's a lot. There are fantasy elements, psychologically fantasy elements in it. If you were watching a james bond movie that always starts with that, you know, incredible chase scene, you know, visceral gets our blood going, you know, crazy, you know, high tech things happening that you know, that tells us something about what that story, how the tone of that story doesn't it it sze textual, because there's an event happening, but it's also subtextual you know it. It sets the reality. It's, doubtful that james bond is going to cry about about something that happened between him and his mother when he was for that probably wouldn't happen in a woody allen movie. You know, we get that cookie, so there are a lot of things that happened texturally and subtext, ruling in the godfather we are. It brings us right into the right, into who the godfather is, the opening of the godfather. Does something both narratively and emotionally it has to make us be sympathetic with that character who is a hired you know who you know who is and that movie could easily have opened with you know him machine gunning, you know, some some rival to death, you know, like what michael might do at the end, but what does it end with what does it begin with rather the beginning of the godfather? Ah, guy comes and asks, I think we even had a card for it here someplace. Yeah, this one when we're talking about in the beginning of the godfather, this guy comes to don corleone and wants him to to avenge something that happened to his daughter remember, it has a beautiful opening. It's a monologue is this story. He tells a story that begins with I believe in america, and he tells about what this terrible thing that has happened to his daughter and he wants the godfathers to avenge it. And that story is so gigantically poignant and so powerful is talking about these guys that took her and took advantage of her and that destroyed a beautiful face, the only thing that he cared about and, you know, it's so pointed soap powerful, and we saw empathize with this character because we don't necessarily have to have had a daughter, that is, but that has been defamed and defaced and and taken advantage of but we do understand we feel with humiliation is we've all experienced that and he said he's tried to do what a good americans as he went to the the police and you know he pleases case and he says, well, you know I want you know and what do they say that the boys are released on their own recognizance suspended sentence and oh my god, we feel so awful and when he asks the godfather to do the thing we are all thinking of ourselves yes waste those nice boys um but the godfather says no everyone in the audience every one of you wanted to say yes machine but he says no and what that seemed functions as is it makes the godfather's moral stance higher than yours er and so we empathize with him no matter what he's going to do because he has proved himself in a certain way okay, so in the in the opening scene in the exposition scene, we need to set up the carry the the world of the character exists in and place the character into an action that defines who here she is doesn't that it's often but doesn't necessarily have to be the characters occupation in western society we are often identified with that which we contribute to the gross national product, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that but we set up what we call the home of stasis the equilibrium of the story uh the next key event structurally functionally in the first act is very important that I call the inciting event this is the event that propels the story into motion it is linked indomitable e to the exposition scenes because the explosion scenes say here is here's the character floating nicely on a raft hears and here's and no here's the character's life before anything upsets it then the inciting event comes in boom something changes I don't think still do this but a tv variety shows they used to have some guys come out with big table maybe five times the size of this with dominoes set up on it right and they would he went and suddenly they would all fall down there you know you get you get you know, a picture of barack obama or something you know played out justin dominos okay, so I want you to just think about those dominoes for a second all standing upright okay all lined up in rows and columns okay? You push over the first domino and it just hits the floor doesn't just hits the table push over the second domino that just hits the table ok thes khun b r exposition scenes maybe this too maybe this three maybe there's one ok, they they're just they're now we'll talk a little bit later on if they can't just be there but they don't cause something else to happen in the godfather don corleone has that scene but you know with the guy wants his daughter avenged but nothing happens is the consequence of that right away there are several exposition scenes that happened in that in that story that don't cause something else that happened but when when don corleone says no to the five families when they wanted t to sell heroin now things start to happen because of that because he says no the assassination attempt occurs and now everything happens as a result of that you bend so the inciting event is the first time that when you push domino instead of just hitting the table it hits the next domino and it knocks knocks that one into the next one and it knocks that into the next one and that never stops to the end of the movie it is cause and effect the inciting event generates the entire mo mentum for the rest of the entire film and it's very important when we write our stories that we understand that because for several several reasons number one it's inherent to good storytelling even if we weren't trying to sell it its inherent we need to get a story going in movies the story needs to get going different rules apply to short stories to fiction some kind of fiction, some kinds of literary fiction almost nothing happens it's all about the inner life movies it's about the outer life we have movies, movie audiences all they know is what they can see and what they can hear you know they don't have access, we don't have access into the inner life of a character except as it is revealed in the outer life from what characters do so the inciting event propels the story into motion and it's important that when you're writing your script that you understand that the exposition and the inciting events occur within the first seven or eight pages, it shouldn't it shouldn't. It shouldn't happen less than after that because people who are reading scripts if they read the first ten pages and nothing's happened yet it is here's a here's a cruel truth, but it is unlikely that they will continue to read because they will say this writer does not have a sense of how a movie has to be structured he or she needs some more training needs to write some more practice scripts get an understanding so you don't want you want to show them that you don't be that writer who has spent seven months writing a script perhaps something you re just up to page ten realized nothing has happened yet don't give them the real don't give them reason to say no right okay, the third really important structural functional event in the story is the end of act one it is that you know, that slinky moment, you know, if we said because in tight the exposition is michael in that looking different saying that's, my family it's not me the inciting event that godfather gets assassinated the the first key moment, michael saying I'm with you now pop, second key moment being michael being the one who has chosen to kill the people who if he doesn't, we'll kill their father. The key moment in the end of act one the godfather is, you know, his killing, those people in the movie that we're looking at here with these seen cards in the movie juno in the beginning of the story of juno, what happens she's pregnant and her first thought is to is to have an abortion, right? And she goes to women now and thie end of the first key moment is she those fingernails? She realizes everything babies have fingernails, something touches her and she can't do it so that and of our our box moment there's a bunch of other things that happened in the that's box to here, so oh yes, I'm sorry, the the big box mode, the first box is her relationship with the leader of the father of it and you know who and she says I guess we'll nip it in the butt I guess we'll get rid of it and she's hoping he will become emotionally involved say nobody doesn't social so in the second sequence is her well telling a friend her well of course there's some schools a lot of other things happen but she calls women now on her hamburger telephone and sometimes it's fun to give a character a physical object that represents that character again it's a it's a visual representation remember that that movies are done for our external are things that just the audience can see and they can hear and so saying something about a character even writing something very articulate about who that character is a narrative description the audience doesn't get to read that you could tell juno is cookie but if you give her I have a telephone that physically and here she is again talking about the tone of the movie here she is calling about something so serious like an abortion on a on a hamburger telephone so there's the contrast between those two way get the flashback of hers sex scene with bleeker we get the introduction of her parents way learnt about that that her stepmother brenda does nails and nails it becomes what I like to call a unifying device in this story she has decided not to have the abortion but she learns babies have fingernails her stepmother does nails it's not nothing is left to chance things need toe you know, be unified I mean she could have had any job she wanted she could have given brenda any job she wanted to and then some strange she says, oh she's always smelling like method evacuate who would know that but it's fun as writers toe add strange arcane details, the things they len's verisimilitude, so let the audience it gives the audience faith that you know more than they do about something and it's a great feeling for an audience tohave when they know they're in good capable hands and the so the end of that what is a comedy with the reception girl but the end of the second pieces that she runs out and she isn't going to do it now what is she going to do? Because that was her plan and now she has to have to not do it. So now there is, she tells her friend best friend leah. This is another very important tool here, not telling leah, but having a character have someone a sidekick, what we call sometimes a foil giving a character somebody who with whom they can have intimacy so that every every secondary character in your story is a way of shining light on your protagonist from a different direction and giving a character a best friend confidante is a great tool for us tohave it's a way again of using something external to get at something internal so they find the adoptive couple in the pennysaver and what's again just speaks to the specific voice of this movie you know who would think that you would find your adoptive couple for your baby in the penny saver I mean, what a strange place to look baby get the public cody's voice and this movie is always combining something really serious in something comedic but believable strangely believable so they find they find there there's some exposition about bleeker the father that he's a runner let he has a breakfast for dinner the lovely scene where julia tell juno's parents that she's pregnant and is again there's there's a lot of interesting humor that comes out of that because they tell you that that paulie bleeker is the father and his jokes about you know I don't think he had it in him but there's also something that is poignant and serious in here because the father says to her I didn't you know I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when and what you know says is you know, I don't know what kind of a girl I am and this becomes another important part of the story which is it's a term that you've all heard and support that you understand it the term is what is the stake of the story and in this movie, there cut there's an external steak and there's, an internal steak and good movies have both of those going at the same time, and they're woven together. And the external state, of course, is what happens to her pregnancy. What happens to this baby, which is decided here at the end of it, a t end of the end of one act, which is they have chosen. This particular couple is perfect couple that they are going to have adopt their child, her child. The internal stake of the story is what kind of a girl she is, what kind of a girl juno is, which is a very poignant question. And the movie goes takes the character from dilemma to dilemma from crisis to crisis, so that at the end of this movie, she not only delivers a child, and not to the to the perfect family that she hoped and thought it was going to be, but to what happens to that family during the course of the story. But she also discovers what kind of a girl she is. She also discovers, you know, we talked about about about the breaking up of the order of things beginning middle and end usually in, you know, in the ideal sense of how a relationship works, a couple might meet they might get married, and then they might have a baby and and their meat, maybe fall in love, get pregnant, then have a baby. In the movie judo. It happens in all kinds of reverse order. They meet, they get, they have sex, they get pregnant, they have the baby, and then fall in love at the end at the end of it. And the realization, because she, leah asks her early in the movie. Oh, you love him, and she doesn't answer the movie. But by the end of the movie, that that answer, that answer comes.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Resource Guide - Script Contests
Sample Script Pages
Writing Exercises
The Godfather Scenogram
Character and Writers Objective Diagrams
Blank Scenogram

Ratings and Reviews

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Hal Ackerman is the Man!!! Loved this course and will be watching it again. Mr. Ackerman is one of those people who truly wants to help you get better at your craft. He's encouraging yet realistic about what it takes to write a great screenplay. I highly recommend this interesting and helpful class.


After taking a number of other screenwriting courses, I can tell you that Hal Ackerman's course, The Art of the First Draft, is the BEST EVER!! His methodology of teaching is fantastic. He takes you on this journey from start to finish in a way that you WILL KNOW how to write a script by the time you finish this course. I liked how he used examples throughout his training to help you better understand screenwriting. If you really want to learn how to be a good screenwriter, then I would highly recommend taking Hal's course. You won't be disappointed.


I've read a lot of books on the subject and I've been to a few seminars. Hal Ackerman's class is genuinely one of the best and the most helpful classes I have experienced. What makes the class so great is that every concept has you putting pen to paper or fingers on keyboard right away. Ackerman really has tools that are called to be used. Thanks for the wonderful resource.

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