Your First 30 Pages...
I run one of the largest writers’ groups in Hollywood, with writers at all different skill levels. Every week the group hears 30 pages of a screenplay acted out by professional actors (like a table read), then the rest of the writers in the group gives notes on the pages. As you can probably imagine, people mostly present the first 30 pages of a feature. At this point I have heard nearly 1000 Act One’s, and in this article, I want to discuss what makes an Act One FLY or DIE.
There are multiple things you need to accomplish in your first (approximately) 30 pages. You need to get the reader/audience to empathize with your protagonist, you need to establish the world, tone/genre, and you need to set up your plot. I would argue that chief among those responsibilities is giving your audience a question they are begging to get answered – which inevitably has to do with the plot. Let’s be more specific though.
I have seen countless Act One’s with incredible world building, that has really good dialogue, characters that are funny or interesting, attention-grabbing pages at the top, and a powerful scene or two in the subsequent 20+ pages – but I can’t tell you how often a script will have one or more of those elements and I am still not excited to go into Act Two. Or put differently, I don’t know what the story is about. Why is that?
One of my favorite discussions about this topic comes from JJ Abrams (I believe it’s a TED talk), where he poses the idea of getting your audience to buy into “what’s in the box?”. In other words, you tell the audience, “I have a secret or a question that I have presented to you in the first 30 pages, and if you stick around till the end, that question will get answered”.
This if often referred to as the story engine, the A-story, the protagonist’s goal, etc… But I like thinking about it from the audience’s POV. What question do they want to be answered? Have you set that up clearly? Is it simple? This is paramount, and I would argue it’s the most important thing. I don’t care if it’s the best dialogue ever, in the most interesting world ever created – if I don’t have a question that needs to be answered in Act Two or Act Three – it means I am not engaged with the story. Let’s look at some examples from super big Block Buster movies, where, by the end of the Act One, a giant, clear, simple, question is stuck in your head.
- The Matrix: Is Neo the one?
- Harry Potter: Will Harry Potter defeat Voldemort?
- The Hunger Games: Will Katniss be the victor?
- Lord of The Rings: Will Frodo destroy the ring?
- Avatar: Will Jake Sully join the Na’Vi and defeat the human colonists?
- Titanic: Will Jake and Rose survive/fall in love?
- Jurassic Park: Will Dr. Grant and co. get off the island alive?
- The Lion King: Will Simba avenge his father and defeat Scar?
- Star Wars: Will Luke defeat Darth Vader?
- Ex Machina: Will Caleb free Eva?
I haven’t seen most of these movies in ten years or more, and I can still go back and point out this key question that was set up 30 minutes into each of those movies. Does your script achieve this goal? What is the central question you want your audience to be asking heading into Act Two?
Leave comments below with other movies you think have a clear question set-up at the end of Act One.