Your Most Critical Act

Your Most Critical Act


Um ... wait, hold on. That's not what I meant.

Sorry, my mind immediately reverted to those "Girls Gone Wild" commercials that would play post-midnight in the early 2000s.

... Not like I ever stayed up super late trying to watch those or anything ...

Here, lemme back up and try again:


(No, seriously, it is.)

OK, now that that's out of the way, let's dive into our topic of the day.

Because, I'm just gonna be honest, I've caught the writing bug again.

You know that feeling when a story gets its hooks in you? When you get swept up in the narrative and write, write, write until your fingers bleed and your keyboard breaks?

Yeah, that happened to me. I'd been mulling over a tale for a few weeks and finally decided to dive in and ... wow, did I have some stuff to say.

It's that perfect storm of artistic expression meets unbelievable fun. I wrote damn near thirty pages in two days. That's the entire first act right there, y'all.

And do you want to know the very next thing I did? Before starting the middle, mapping out the third, or taking a shower after my weekend-long writing binge (which, now that you mention it, I should probably take one of those soon)?

I sent those pages to several of my most trusted reader friends to see how they read.

Because if the first act of your story doesn't draw the reader in, absolutely nothing else is going to.


Full stop.

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

I one-hundred percent, wholeheartedly, unequivocally believe, with all my soul and every fiber of my being, that the first act of any screenplay is the most important words in that story.

Which is why everyone (repeat: EVERYONE) should utilize first-act reviews. Whether you use a paid service like Script Pipeline or you get them from people in your writing group.

The point is: you need to make sure this section of your story is rock-fucking-solid.

Think about it for a second, and you'll quickly understand why: the first act of any narrative lays out the foundation of your story, right? Broadly speaking (and I'm talking very broadly) each of the three acts is supposed to do some key things:

FIRST ACT: Establishes the situation. Introduces characters. And incites the drama, tension, and conflict that is to come.

SECOND ACT: Continues to push the story forward by amplifying/increasing said drama, tension, and conflict created in the first act.

THIRD ACT: Pays off all the drama, tension, and conflict that has been building throughout the story in a way that is satisfying to the audience.

Looking at this breakdown, what stands out to you?

For me, I see that most of what the second and third acts are meant to do hinges upon what was done in the first act! The middle of the narrative is about amplification, right? Well, you can't amplify anything if you didn't create it in the first place. And the end of the tale is about crafting a satisfying conclusion ... but similarly, there's no way to conclude something when the groundwork wasn't done beforehand!

As someone with over twelve years’ experience as a development assistant/executive and contest reader, I can absolutely tell if a script is good by the end of the first act (and usually before that). And I can also tell you if a story is bad in the same amount of time (and again, usually before that, too).

A good opening of a story ... ANY story ... is going to have the reader on the edge of their seat. They're going to be excited about what comes next. About getting answers to mysteries that have been set up. Or payoffs to drama you've foreshadowed. They'll be dying to learn more about your dark, brooding protagonist. And they'll want to see if there's going to be a happy ending to the tale. These are all green flags I look for when judging material. These are the reactions you want as a storyteller.

But the reaction I usually give to the opening salvo of scripts I read? It's a resounding "meh." Or even worse, it's an "I am not interested in this story at all." This is a HORRIBLE sign for any screenplay. It's basically a kiss of death.

I can count the number of times on one hand (seriously, ONE DAMN HAND!) that I've hated a story's first act, and somehow been pulled back into it during the second. It just doesn't happen, folks. If you can't hook me before your narrative truly kicks off, no amount of character development, plot twists, or great writing is going to save it.

Which is why I'm going to go back and harp on the importance of having someone give feedback on your first 30 pages. If this section of your screenplay is so important, so vital, so gosh darn mother flubbing critical to your success, then why in God's name would you wait until you’ve finished the whole script to see if it's working?

The first act of your screenplay is the foundation for the story; everything builds upon it. If the start of your narrative is uneven and shaky, there’s a 99.99999999% chance that everything else is going to be as well.

Imagine for a moment that you're shopping for a house. What's the most important element in determining a sale? Contrary to what a real estate agent might tell you, it's not the bathroom, the kitchen, or even the dining area.

No, it's the damn foundation. If that's not right, no amount of marble countertops are going to make a difference. Because there ain't nobody with half a brain who will buy something with a cracked foundation. Shaky beginnings lead to problems down the road every time, without fail. (If you don’t believe me, ask my sister. She’s fixing a foundational problem on her house right now, and it’s crazy expensive.)

If you have a story with a bad first act ... an opening section that doesn't pose interesting questions, doesn't establish a compelling protagonist, doesn't set the basis for tension and drama, and doesn't pull the reader in, that is absolutely going to affect how you write the second and third act.

To repeat: everything in a story builds upon itself. Likewise, if the foundation of a house is built diagonally, then the other levels of the house will be slanted as well.

It makes exponentially more sense, as I see it, to stop what you're doing and have your foundation checked before continuing construction. Don't do a bunch of work on other parts before you know that you're operating on solid footing. It really is as simple as that.

Look, I've given a lot of notes in my career. And 99% of the time when I do, I note the first act. It's becoming sickeningly common these days (sickening because I'm downright sick of repeating myself over and over). If your story isn't working, I will almost always point to the first act as the reason why.

And some of my clients even get mad at this. They'll tell me, "Spike, you keep saying the same five or six things about my story. Don't you have any other notes for me!" And most of the time, I don't! Because why note what happens in the middle or end of a story when I know it's the beginning that's failing them? Why do the work to point things out later on when I am sure that it's going to change once they've addressed the core problem? It's honestly a waste of time for me and them.

The point of this long-winded rant—before you start your second act, before you rush to get to that awesome twist or stunning reveal you have planned at your climax, take a moment to ensure that your opening is firing on all cylinders. Use this time to ensure that you're building up from the most solid of all foundations. It will save you time, stress, and heartache in the future if you do.

Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.‌

*Feature Image by Vali-111 (Adobe)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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