Act One – A Guideline
Regardless of how violent, clever, inspiring, tough, imaginative, cute, evil, sexy or heroic the characters are, or how interesting and remarkable the situations in which they find themselves, or how fantastic the special effects, it’s all but impossible to keep the undivided attention of the audience for very long without first setting up a clear-cut central dramatic (or comedic) question to serve as the story’s through-line.
And it must be a question that creates an absolute “need to know the answer” in the minds of the audience – for it is their desire to know the answer to that question that keeps them glued to the screen for the duration of the movie.
So…set up the story’s backdrop, its main characters, and the major story’s through-line within the first twenty-five to thirty pages – Act One.
Introduce the protagonist in such a manner that the audience is “forced” to make some kind of an emotional connection to him/her so that they are willing to root for him/her through the thick and thin of the story. Most people have experienced the desire to have some portion of their lives better than it currently is, hence our emotional connection to Dorothy who pines for a better life “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”
Then introduce the major change to your protagonist’s status quo; the change that upsets his/her equilibrium. Dorothy’s lifted from her home into Oz via a Kansas twister.
Introduce the antagonist (or other force – such as the erupting volcano or the insurmountable addiction) that will constantly oppose the protagonist throughout the story. Dorothy makes an enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy inadvertently kills the Witch’s sister, and Dorothy inherits her ruby slippers coveted by the Wicked Witch.
Then introduce the decision the protagonist makes as to how he/she is going to restore balance to his/her world. Dorothy wants to get back home to Kansas, and so decides to obtain the help of the Wizard of Oz who will, according to one and all, help her achieve that.
This decision is then the basis for the story’s central dramatic question which serves as the story’s through-line:
Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas or die at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the West?
Once the protagonist acts upon that decision – Dorothy takes her first step on the Yellow Brick Road – you’ve also taken your first step into Act Two.