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3 Mistakes Screenwriters Make in Their First Acts

By Ken Miyamoto · April 14, 2019

What are some of the most common mistakes screenwriters make in the first acts of their screenplays?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we feature a Film Courage video interviewing Hollywood script consultant and story expert Michael Hauge where he talks about the mistakes screenwriters often make in their first act. We’ll share some of the best information from this video that you can use to help your screenwriting preparation process.

Characters with Lack of Outer Motivation

“If you’re having story problems, all roads lead to the hero’s outer motivation. Because one of the biggest issues, one of the most difficult things for writers to really embrace, is this idea that at the very foundation of any story is a visible goal that the hero wants to cross at the end of the story.”

He goes on to say that so many screenwriters get so caught up in the depth of the character and their inner journey, the themes, and the plotting of a strong premise, that they lose the story by adding so many other elements and concepts to deliver those themes, plot points, and inner character developments.

“If you think about it, most Hollywood movies, in particular, are based on very simple story ideas.” 

He chooses what many would think is a very complicated story as an example — Inception. While it comes off initially as being a very complicated premise, it’s actually very simple.

“It’s very core. it’s very simple. a group of people wants to penetrate a person’s dreams down to a layer where they can change his behavior without him knowing it. That’s it… everything is built on that goal.”

When you have that simple, single goal and communicate that to the audience early on in the script, everything is built on that foundation. Most screenplays out there don’t have that.

He goes on to point out that it’s understandable why this is lost. Screenwriters want to stand out. They want to be original. They want to explore those character depths. But they lose sight of the fact that it all needs to starts with a straightforward goal.

Another example (not mentioned in the video), would be Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, a lot of stuff happens within that cinematic story. But the simple goal mentioned early on in the script is, “Find the Ark. Get it before the Nazi’s do.”

In the first act, screenwriters need to present a simple goal and finish point that everyone can see and envision, whether they read the script or watch the movie.

Not Showing the Character’s World Before the Story Begins

“We have to have a setup. It can be very brief — or a character can be on the move, so to speak, they can have just arrived in a town, and we see them going to a meeting or going to meet a hitman, or whatever it might be — but nonetheless, it has to convey [that] this is who this character has been for some time and it has to create empathy.”

An example mentioned in the video is First Blood.

The premise of the screenplay doesn’t begin at Page 1. We first meet John Rambo as he hitchhikes to one of his Vietnam buddy’s farm, hoping to reunite with him. He sadly finds out that his friend has died due to complications from cancer.

During the exchange between Rambo and his friend’s family, we see a fun, loving, and peaceful side of Rambo — not the warrior we will eventually see wreaking havoc on a police force that wronged him. That creates empathy.

If that film had started with a vagrant disobeying a direct order to leave the town, the audience wouldn’t have empathy for the character and wouldn’t be as invested in his story and circumstances.

“That empathy must occur immediately. We have to empathize before we start seeing what the flaws to the character are. Before we start recognizing what this inner conflict is or what this identity is, or what dark places they might go. First, we just have to connect with them emotionally.”

Jumping From the Setup Right to the Outer Motivation

“I think because screenwriters are inundated with the idea that you gotta grab the reader right away, and you gotta get things going, and so on. All of that is true, but it doesn’t mean that you rush the story. What it means is that you start building in conflict as soon as you can. But you don’t rush the story. It’s going to take all of Act I to get your hero to the point where they really begin pursuing that visible finish line. And if you start on page 10, with them pursuing the goal, your script is going to die around Page 70.”

Yes, you do need to introduce your concept as early as possible, but that visible finish line — the protagonist’s goal — still has time to develop within the next ten pages or so.

You have to build up to that goal by showing the character in their world, present some conflict, and let them discover what goal it is that they have to accomplish.