In The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that act-1 of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is developed by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point.
The primary function of act-1 is to set up the dramatic context of the story, introduce the protagonist, as well as other important characters, their world, and the story goal—the things that the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.
Establishing the dramatic context of act-1 means setting up characters, their situation, and the premise of the story: What is at stake for the protagonist? How is the goal defined? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? More concisely, what is the dramatic question of act-1? 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…”
“Act-1, and indeed, act-2 and act-3, revolves around a short statement. The story examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”
The Structure of the Dramatic Question
This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question. In the first act there are really two questions. The first question quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen). The second question concerns the individual 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 question in the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic question of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall the dramatic question is, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question is: what is the final straw that breaks them up? Our task as writers is to answer these questions—a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.
Tracking act-1 (and indeed, act-2 and act-3) through the dramatic question helps us focus on the progression of our story. It propels us to write material that is purposeful and concise.