Films are undoubtedly a visual medium, and a powerful one, but they aren’t born that way. Every film starts off as a script, and what lies within the pages of your screenplay determines or defies the quality of its visual twin.
You should sequence your story into manageable, bite-sized portions, which when transferred to screen, will look as seamless as they read. As readers, we don’t stop to question the nature of these steps, they usually do their job and do it well; they cajole us into turning the page.
In screenwriting, you’ve got about ten pages to capture an executive’s attention; seriously, no more and maybe less before they continue slogging through the slush pile.
The key to success? You’ve got to open with a bang. Ten pages isn’t much, so you really need to give us something to react to, something big. Remember Lost, by J.J Abrams and Damon Lindelof? The first scene opens to the protagonist coming to on a jungle floor. That’s enough to get us asking questions, but when he makes it out onto a beach, we’re slapped in the face with the answer: a crashed plane, an exploding engine, people screaming, getting blown up. All within three minutes of screen time. That’s all it takes for the audience to get hooked. In features, the first act comprises of about twenty or thirty minutes’ screen time, the written equivalent of which is thirty pages.
This is where a beat sheet comes in handy. Beats determine the mission and scope of each of your scenes, they’re like touchpoints to hit. Great if you do, but they’re not the end of you or your script if you don’t. Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is probably the most comprehensive, the ones you should tick off your Act I checklist:
This is perhaps one of the most important beats of your script. The first scene acts as a hook to catch the reader/viewer’s attention.
The opening image of Jurassic Park sets the premise immediately. Man versus Beast. In Gone Girl, a wife snuggles up to her husband whilst he tells us (via voiceover) how he pictures cracking his wife’s head open and pooling her brains for answers. This is genius in the way it points to the film’s major premise. Is he mad? What answers is she hiding?
The opening image should make us ask that question, what’s going to happen? And we don’t want to be spoon-fed the answer either, we want to be strung out, wherein lies the suffering, lies the pleasure.
This is where you lay the foundation for your story. Where is the story set? What is the character missing from his/her life? What is the film going to be about? Essentially, you are presenting the protagonist’s world to the viewer as it is before the call to adventure.
The theme usually appears in the set-up, and is the underlying message of a film, spoken aloud to the protagonist to challenge the way they think. It’s a message that usually falls flat on the main character in the beginning, because they don’t have enough context or personal experience with it to yet understand its value. In other words, the character is oblivious to it. In Jaws, Brody’s wife waves him off to work, telling him to be careful and he laughs it off. “In this town?” Right.
Gravity‘s theme is pretty straightforward: Ryan needs to let go. We see this figuratively and literally throughout the film. Ryan has to let go of her daughter’s death, just like she’s got to let go of Matt, in order to survive. In 500 Days of Summer, Tom is hopelessly optimistic about Summer, but it’s his sister who sets up the theme of the film by pointing out that just because Summer shares certain aspects in common with him, this doesn’t make her his soulmate, a truth Tom painfully comes to terms with.
Otherwise known as the Inciting Incident, or call to adventure, the catalyst is the first event or action that will show that change is coming for the character. That life as he or she (or it) knows it, will end. In Shawshank Redemption, Red puts his money on Andy to crack during his first night in his cell, but Andy stands his ground and doesn’t make a peep. Inglorious Basterds’ catalyst hits when Lander asks LaPadite if he’s harboring the Dreyfuses under his floorboards. His family won’t come to harm’s way if he collaborates, setting Shosanna’s fate into motion.
Usually there is some debate surrounding the character’s catalyst. Should I leave my nice comfy hobbit hole to go on what appears to be a suicide mission? Wouldn’t I be safer here, eating crumpets and sipping tea? But not all debates revolve around a character’s departure. In the Hunger Games, for example, the debate is not whether Katniss will participate in the games (she doesn’t have a choice) but if she’ll win. That’s why it’s important you have a general idea of these beats, but don’t use them to define your screenplay.
Break into Two
This is the end of act one. It’s the ultimate game-changer that will propel your character into act two, the cataclysmic decision, the point of no return. Usually there’s new surroundings to be explored and it’s the driving force that carries the protagonist into act two and dumps him in harm’s way. In Jaws, the hunt is on once a reward is put in place for catching the killer shark. In Django Unchained, Dr Schultz cuts Django a-I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine deal he can’t refuse. In Juno, the protagonist ponders over abortion, but then decides to give the baby up for adoption.
Remember this is just a formula, it’s not THE formula. A template designed to help, but never restrict you. Each writer finds their groove as they go along, so it’s absolutely fine to take all this on board with a pinch of salt. If you don’t put the catalyst on exactly page number twelve, the script police aren’t going to beat down your door and batter you senseless with a heavy duty script guide. Like I said in my previous article, your story is unique, and sometimes the rules are there to be broken.
Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.