When Your Act 1 Is Out of Whack


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

Have you heard the saying that a problem in Act 2 (or 3) is really a problem in Act 1?

Just how true this is has become more and more apparent to me over the years. You need Act 1 to be effective if you want your screenplay to be effective.

What’s important to note is that you can’t truly tell if Act 1 is effective on its own. It can’t be judged in a vacuum. Because what makes Act 1 effective is how it sets up what’s to come in Acts 2 and 3.

You could read Act 1 of a given script and think it’s great, finding no flaws. But if that Act 1 doesn’t establish what it needs to – that which we see escalate and pay off in the rest of the script – then it’s not truly successful, no matter how well written.

And yet, especially in early drafts, writers tend to spend a lot of time and attention on getting Act 1 just right (or so they intend). But doing so without thinking about Act 1’s relationship to the rest of the script means that a lot of that work may ultimately be wasted.

Are you obsessed with Act 1?

There’s a natural inclination to give Act 1 a lot of time and attention, especially when you’re working on an early draft of your screenplay. It may even happen without you realizing it.

Because the default writing strategy tends to be: start at page 1, keep writing until the end. So, if you at all revisit what you’ve written before moving forward, you end up going over Act 1 a lot more than the rest of the script by the time you’re done writing that draft.

But until you know exactly what Act 1 needs to include in order to properly fulfill its function, you’re tweaking and polishing what may not belong in the script at all.

So how do you know what Act 1 needs to include?

Each act has a specific purpose

Each act has a purpose, and they all work in relationship with each other to create the whole. All together they make up a story that has sound plot and emotional logic, two things that make the story satisfying to the audience.

Most simply, Act 1 is setup, Act 2 is escalation, and Act 3 is resolution. But that means that Act 1 must set up what Act 2 will escalate, and what Act 3 will resolve.

And that means properly setting up not only the plot events, but also character arcs, relationships, and even theme. In Act 2 each of those elements will escalate, and in Act 3 each of those elements will resolve or pay off in some way.

So until you have some idea of what you’ll need to escalate and resolve, you might not be setting up the right elements or setting them up the right way – in a way that will effectively pay off in the rest of the script.

Making sure Act 1 works

If you want to reliably and effectively hit a target, you need to know what you’re aiming for. So the first thing to do is to understand exactly what Act 1 needs to accomplish.

In order to be effective, what does your Act 1 need to set up?

As I mentioned above, you’ll want to think about the context your audience needs in the areas of plot, character arc, relationships, and even theme. That may be a lot to juggle at first, so I’d start with plot and character arc.

Plot and character arc may seem like obvious, easy elements to get right, but if you read a lot of works-in-progress you’ll notice it’s common to see misalignments in both areas. A misalignment is the way I’d describe it when what happens in Act 1 doesn’t effectively set up what’s paying off in Acts 2 and 3.

Act 1 provides the context the audience needs to understand what happens in Acts 2 and 3

By the end of Act 1 we need to understand what the main conflict is. Who wants what, and what’s standing in the way.

When the main conflict is effectively established, the audience has an open loop to track – a question in their minds that they’re watching to get the answer to. We know who wants what, now the question is, will they get it?

That question, asked in Act 1, is answered in Act 3. If the script forgets about this question in Act 2 (starts giving the audience too many unrelated scenes), or fails to answer the question or answers an entirely different question in Act 3, then the script feels misaligned. The setup doesn’t match the escalation and/or the resolution.

We also need to be emotionally invested in getting the answer to this question. That can involve properly setting up character, stakes, character arc, relationships, and theme.

Just like with plot, character arc has a setup, escalation, and resolution. The transformed character in Act 3 must be aligned with the needs-to-transform character in Act 1, and the experiences we see that character go through in Act 2 that force the precise transformation.

Before you feel too overwhelmed, let me share a short exercise that I think can really help you clarify your thoughts and get a handle on what goes into each part of the screenplay.

Write three paragraphs to test alignment

This is an exercise I’ve talked about before and a version of it is included in The Screenplay Outline Workbook. But honestly, I think it’s worth repeating here because it’s so simple that it’s easy to overlook. Forcing yourself to write out these three paragraphs gets the stuff out of your brain and in front of your eyeballs, so you can gauge whether what you have in mind works or not.

The exercise is this:

With the function of each act in mind (setup, escalation, resolution), break your story idea down into its three major parts and write one paragraph for each:

    • Act 1 sets up “who wants what and what’s standing in the way,” (the main conflict). It also establishes who the character is before they go through the transformative experience, why they need this particular journey, why they want to achieve the story goal, what it means or why it’s so important to them, and what will happen if they don’t succeed.
    • Act 2 shows the main conflict escalating. That means all the pieces Act 1 set into motion are now colliding and creating conflict. The protagonist spends most of the time pursuing the story goal or engaging in the main conflict that was established in Act 1. The protagonist is also being forced to contend with his old, flawed worldview or way of being in the world. The experiences in Act 2 should directly impact and cause friction and change in this area.
    • Act 3 is resolution, it shows the protagonist confronting and resolving the main conflict that was established in Act 1. If that main conflict has already been resolved earlier in the script, we have a problem. If the protagonist is trying to resolve a conflict in Act 3 that’s entirely new and not set up in Act 1, we may have a problem as well. The audience wants the original question answered, the one they’ve been investing in and anticipating the outcome of all along. We also want to see the protagonist’s transformation pay off here. The thematic lesson is embraced and demonstrated (usually).

Make sure the three parts are aligned. We need to see a logical connection between the three parts so they all work together — that’s what the story is made up of.

A good story needs all three parts

Act 1 is important. And narrowing down even further, you’ve probably heard about the importance of the first 10 pages in grabbing the reader.

But don’t forget about the other parts of your script. Remember that Act 1 is only important because it’s a part of the whole, that larger story you’re telling.

Think about what Act 1 needs to do to benefit the big picture. After you’ve figured out exactly what it must do, then you can spend that time and attention making sure it’s truly fulfilling its purpose.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.