In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.
Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.
Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”
This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?
The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act
Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.
Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.
If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.