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Make This Screenplay Structure Connection for a Strong Act 1

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Something I love about teaching screenwriting workshops are the unexpected discussions that unfold around common questions and issues writers run into. Like this past weekend, when we spent some time discussing how screenplay structure doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Structure is how a story is designed in order to elicit the desired response from the audience. Namely, to engage us, escalate our investment, and then give us a satisfying resolution. So parts of the story relate to each other in different ways, and the way they relate helps create this response you’re trying to get from your audience.

I’ll be talking about some of these connections in upcoming weeks. Today let’s start with…

The Inciting Incident – Break Into Act 2 dynamic

The relationship between the Inciting Incident and the Break Into 2 is a pretty straightforward and useful one to understand. When they’re working together properly, their interaction helps lock the audience in for the ride. That connection, when it’s strong, gets us interested and engaged in the outcome of the story.

In other words, when you do this well, you have your audience exactly where you want them — leaning in for more.

And if you understand the connection between these two plot points, that means you have a way to “do the math” of the story. You can use one part of the equation to help you figure out the other. You can double-check the relationship to make sure it’s strong.

Of course, it’s not a rule, it’s a tool. Or, in this case, maybe a guideline. If you think about the relationship between these two plot points when you’re working out your story’s structure, it gives you a target to aim for, rather than throwing plot events at the wall to see what sticks.

Interested? Engaged? Let’s take a closer look!

Quick review: Inciting Incident vs. Break Into Act 2

To recap, let’s define the two plot points we’re talking about today:

  • Inciting Incident: An event that disrupts the protagonist’s status quo and sets the story into motion. It is often the first appearance or indication of the antagonist or main force of opposition.
  • Break into Act 2: Often described as the plot point that locks the protagonist into the story, or forces him to begin to pursue the story goal in earnest. It launches the story into Act 2 by solidifying what the protagonist is going to pursue over the course of this story (the objective), and showing us that he or she is starting that pursuit now. This gives the audience something to track.

What’s the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the Break Into 2?

The simplest way to think of the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the Break Into Act 2 is as a problem-solution relationship. (There’s a variation to consider, but we’ll talk about that in a second.)

The Inciting Incident creates a problem that the protagonist must deal with.

Notice I said, “must deal with”. That’s how it sets the story into motion. Sometimes writers plot out an event that they think makes a good Inciting Incident, but they don’t give us enough context to understand why it’s a true, un-ignorable problem for the character.

If we don’t understand that, then we won’t feel something must be done about it. And that’s the feeling you want us to have in order to start the leaning-in process.

The Break into 2 is – again, very simply – the character’s solution to the problem that’s been dropped into their life by the Inciting Incident.

It may not actually be a great solution, but it’s what the protagonist thinks is their best or only option for solving the problem. And again – this is what your context must do. It must show us why the protagonist believes this, why they choose a given path.

Usually the thing the protagonist is attempting to do in Act 2 is a big, daunting, crazy, even seemingly stupid, adventure. That’s great – it makes for an exciting movie. But we need to understand why this crazy thing is the best or only option if we’re going to root for the protagonist to take it on and to achieve success. The rooting interest is vital, otherwise we won’t care enough to keep reading or watching.

The variation: sometimes the Inciting Incident is an opportunity, not a problem

The Inciting Incident doesn’t have to be a negative event. Sometimes it looks more like an opportunity that the protagonist wants to take advantage of. It could be a job offer, a chance to compete for a big prize, or meeting a potential love interest.

And it’s not unusual for an Inciting Incident to feel like both a problem and an opportunity, as you’ll see in the examples below.

#Relationshipgoals: screenplay structure examples

Here are a few examples to concretize what we’re talking about.

Bridesmaids

  • Inciting Incident: Annie’s best friend Lillian announces her engagement and asks Annie to be Maid of Honor.
  • Problem or opportunity? Both. It’s an opportunity for Annie to maintain her friendship with Lillian. We know from context that this is very important to Annie and pretty much the only good thing left in her life. It’s also a problem, because Annie has been pretending she’s okay with how her life is going but she’s really not (again, we know this from context). Lillian’s engagement forces Annie to face the reality of her current circumstances and how she feels about it since her best friend is now moving forward into the next phase of life, leaving Annie behind.
  • Break Into Act 2: Annie commits to getting along with wealthy, perfect (competitor for Lillian’s friendship) Helen, in order to be Lillian’s Maid of Honor.
  • How it’s the solution: Annie wants to hold onto her friendship and position in Lillian’s life, and she wants to feel okay about her own life. Lillian makes it clear that Helen is part of the deal – she is a part of Lillian’s “new” life. So even though we see how awful it’s going to be for Annie (the passive-aggressive competition between the two is fierce, Annie can’t afford to run with Lillian’s new crowd), this is the best or only way she feels she can protect what’s at stake (her friendship, her self worth).

Die Hard

  • Inciting Incident: Terrorists arrive at the Nakatomi building.
  • Problem or opportunity? It’s a big problem for John McClane. They’re dangerous criminals, and his wife’s in the building! In addition to that, he’s here to make up with his wife, which these terrorist guys are totally interrupting.
  • Break Into Act 2: John McClane embarks on his big, daunting, crazy Act 2 Adventure: to save the hostages from the terrorists.
  • How it’s the solution: Everyone else in the building has been taken hostage, so John is the only person who can take this on at this point. If he wants to protect his wife, he has no other option.

Short Term 12

  • Inciting Incident: Grace learns a new girl – Jayden – is coming to the Short Term 12 facility and is asked to take special care of her.
  • Problem or opportunity? It’s both. Taking on a troubled kid who needs special handling is an on-the-job problem Grace will have to deal with. It’s also an opportunity in a lot of ways. Grace likes helping kids, and this is a chance to make a difference to one who reminds her a lot of herself. We might also see it as an opportunity for Grace to heal. Grace may not realize it, but she’s stuck in her life. Working with teenagers all day allows her to stay in a safe, familiar place. But it also means she’s not really moving forward, nor is she dealing with her past. She’s sort of hiding out in an in-between space. Working with this girl will force Grace to confront her own issues.
  • Break Into Act 2: Boyfriend Mason tells Grace she needs to open up if they’re going to have a future together, and we know this is what we’re tracking in Act 2: Will Grace find a way to talk about her trauma?
  • How it’s the solution: Grace is dedicated to helping the kids at Short Term 12. So she begins to share her story in order to bond with Jayden and address the “problem” of this new arrival. As a result, Grace ends up helping herself too — healing her own trauma so she can move forward into her future with Mason.

Build a relationship

Trying to figure out plot points in a vacuum just makes your job harder. Instead, think about the relationships between the plot points to help you “do the math” of the story.

And you can start with the Inciting Incident-Break Into Act 2 relationship. When this connection is strong, it gets the audience leaning in. We’re engaged by the un-ignorable circumstances the protagonist is experiencing, and we feel invested in whether the protagonist’s chosen path will prove to be the right solution.

Connect the Inciting Incident and the Break Into Act 2 by creating a problem or opportunity for the protagonist and then showing us how the protagonist intends to solve that problem or take advantage of that opportunity with a solution that is dangerous, risky, or audacious in some way – ingredients for an exciting Act 2.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "3 Essential Tips for Writing a Screenplay That Stands Out." 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.

Subscribe