Pitfall #7: Act One Undone!

As I dig deeper into the development process, a core issue keeps showing up when I’m out there looking for an amazing script. I find a high concept logline, but the script is poorly executed. The main issue consistently appears in Act One and it’s usually due to the same reason. So, we’re calling this Pitfall #7: Act One Undone!

It could be hard to tell if this is an issue you’re facing, but here’s a test. If you are getting script requests, based on pitching your logline, but then get a pass—read on! Help is on the way!

Back in the day, which was when I first started figuring out how to write a screenplay, screenplay length was supposed to be around 120 pages. Yikes, huh? (Hopefully, that sounds long.) For some time now, 120 pages has been considered way off the mark. The page count has continued to drop, over the years. I can remember when 110 was the norm, then you had to hit just over 100, but now that I’m in development, I’d even go so far as to say that scripts should be under 100 pages, unless you’re writing a drama.

We could certainly debate the exact page range and why the change happened, but let’s save that for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at a swanky bar. Just know that screenwriters used to be allowed to write more exposition, and the need to write scripts for tight budgets has greatly affected the page count. Unfortunately, a lot of writers have held onto the idea that Act One is still 30 pages long, a throwback to when scripts were 120 pages. Even if their overall page count is still on the mark—around 100 pages—they haven’t adjusted Act One’s length, which should be around 20 pages long, if you want a 100-page script to hit the plot points at the right time. (Which you should want to do, if you want to option your script.)

Problem: ACT ONE is too long, with way too much set-up.

What happens when a screenwriter gives themselves ten extra pages in the wrong Act? A script that misses the mark.

What I’m seeing is scripts with 30-page Act Ones. The screenwriter spends too much time setting up the main character’s normal world. The result: the protagonist, along with the elements leading to the big change coming in their life, gets too many pages.

How many pages should the setup get? The producer answer to this question is “as little as possible for the audience to understand.” Which isn’t that useful to a writer. For me, it’s somewhere between three scenes and one page. For a fast setup checkout Taken. But if you want a setup that will give you blisters, watch Phone Booth. The main character picks up the phone and a sniper tells him he’s dead, if he hangs up. Bam! That’s fast. Of course, the rest of the movie weaves in all the backstory in an tantalizing way, when most writers would want to put some of it in Act One. Thank you, Larry Cohen for showing us how it’s done.

Of course, scripts don’t just set up the main character’s normal life. They also have to setup the situation, which could involve the antagonist’s goal and a developing plot point. The first place to start is knowing where Act One ends. You need to know if Act One is too long. If it isn’t, bravo, but you can still run Act One through the list below to help tighten up your script. If it is too long, go through the advice below to get your script back on track.

How to make certain your script isn’t wallowing in too much setup:

    • Go to page 20 of your script and see if it’s near your Act One Turning Point. (If you’re a couple pages over, that’s fine. More than a couple, you’re Act One needs help. If you’re UNDER 20 pages, you might be missing a necessary scene or story beat. This evaluation can help for that, too.)
    • Make a list of all the scenes in Act One.
    • Note each scene’s page number—the page it starts on.
    • Note what each scene is doing in Act One. Is it a character scene, a plot scene or both? (Both is better.)  Does it setup the main character’s normal world? Does it setup the story problem? Is it backstory? Is it a genre scene? Does it just introduce characters? Etc.
    • Evaluate your notes. If you have too many (or too few) of one kind of scene, look for ways to combine scenes or edit them down into what is absolutely necessary to set your audience on the right path. They don’t need to know everything at once, just what will keep them interested and watching to learn more.
    • Make those rewrites/edits in your script!

If you have too many setup scenes you’ll be swamping your reader with useless information, delaying the hook of your story, as well as risking your plot points hitting at the wrong time. Any time I’ve run across this problem, the script usually continues to breakdown, with an ending that doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes, these extra setup scenes just need to be cut, but that doesn’t mean the information they contain won’t still come out in how your main character acts. Sometimes, just seeing how your protagonist reacts to events is as effective as seeing several scenes that show us a moment from their life. How and what you show is the fun part of our craft. Play around with it. Don’t be afraid to try a couple of ways to set things up.

One Rule of Thumb, if you are setting up something that is commonly known or a present-day  situation, you don’t have to spend as much time on the setup. For example: a main character too busy with work and taking the kids to school should be a fast setup. Your audience will be way ahead of you. If you take too long to set that up, it can be boring. However, if we’re being introduced to a family that lives underground and is hiding the fact from everyone they know, that could use a little more setup.

WHEN TO CHECK FOR THIS ISSUE?

Good question! This is something you do AFTER a first draft. I wouldn’t worry about this until you feel really good about your plot, but before sending it out for feedback.

Note: I know that some writers might not think page count is important. If you want to be a working screenwriter, it’s very important. I’ll talk about that more in the extra material. You can read the extended version of this post in the Screenwriters Pitfalls List or join our newsletter to get the extended pitfall sent to you every time we put out a new one. 

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