Producer Lindsay Doran recently gave a talk at Sony Pictures Animation on the topic of constructing a first act. As part of her talk she listed ten elements one might expect to find in the first act of a screenplay. She's happy to share the list but would be interested to hear if anyone thinks she left something out.
ELEMENTS OF A FIRST ACT
a. Establish the main character(s)
b. Establish what they want (this might change scene to scene, or even within a scene, so make sure it's clear what they want every second) (My most basic rule is: Nothing can happen till somebody wants something.)
c. Create a rooting interest -Do we want the main character to get what he wants, or are we rooting against it? (Stranger Than Fiction is an example of a character who wants his life to stay exactly the same while the audience wants to see his life shaken up. But once he realizes he's going to die, we're on his side.)
d. Establish the stakes - Why does it matter that the various characters get what they want? What will happen if they don’t? If the stakes aren't life or death, they still have to feel like life and death. (Wall*E isn't going to die if he never gets to hold someone's hand, but I can't bear the idea that he might never get to know that feeling for himself rather than watching it endlessly on an old tape of Hello Dolly. Annie in "Bridesmaids" isn't going to die if she loses Lillian's friendship, but underneath the comedy there are plenty of moments that show me how desperately lonely and unhappy she is, and that her life is spiraling downward, so I believe that it matters that she hangs on to that friendship.)
e. Establish the obstacles – These might also change from scene to scene or in the middle of a scene
f. Set up ticking clock - What creates time pressure for these characters?
g. Set up tone – Sometimes it's not clear that a script is supposed to be a comedy, or a drama mixed with comedy, or even a parody.
h. Set up theme (My talk was to the filmmakers at Sony Pictures Animation, and in animated movies theme is a crucial element. But I think it should be a crucial element in every movie.)
i. Create Suspense (Unless you're making The Tree of Life or Meek's Cutoff, every story should have suspense.)
j. Start the story – In other words, get to the premise. But take enough time with the other elements so that when the rubber band snaps - assuming the first act up until that moment has felt like a rubber band being pulled back - we really care.