If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Act 1

The first act in storytelling introduces the protagonist, setting, and type of movie, with the goal of hooking the audience. It also shows the world and the inciting incident, which sets the story in motion. The antagonist acts as a force that blocks the protagonist's goals.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- In the last two videos, we talked about our theme and how to break your story into beats using the story spine. The next step is to divide your story spine into larger sections, which we call acts. Throughout history, storytellers have experimented with everything from one act to eight acts or more, but the most common structure for film is the three act structure. Act one consists of the first three steps of our story spine, "Once upon a time." This is where we meet our main character, known as the protagonist, and we find out when and where the story takes place. For example, in Finding Nemo, we're introduced to Marlin and Nemo who live in the safety of the reef, and we learn why Marlin worries about the dangers lurking in the open ocean. The first act also tells the audience what type of movie they're about to see. Is it a science fiction, a romantic comedy, a historical drama, or something else? Every day. This is where we learn more about how the world works. For example, in Finding Nemo, we learn about the other creatures who inhabit the reef and what life is like there every day. Until one day. This is often called the inciting incident. It's an event which leads to a key obstacle your protagonist faces and sets the rest of the story in motion. In Finding Nemo, Nemo ignores his father's instructions, swims out to touch the boat, and is captured by a scuba diver. In order to save him, Marlin is forced to face his biggest fear, the open ocean. The first act can also introduce something called the antagonist. You probably know this as a character we sometimes call the villain, but it can take many forms. Generally, the antagonist is a force that gets in the way of your character's wants and needs. Marlin's antagonist is something, something that stands in his way, the ocean and his fear of it. Getting this first act figured out is critical, so let's ask our storytellers for some more information. - In act one, we want to introduce our characters, introduce the story, and get a landscape of where the story is trying to go. - What's essential in the first act is that you meet the main character in her or his world and you understand their place in the world and you understand their problem in the world. - You learn enough about this character that you like this character and you want to go on this journey with the filmmaker and the character. It's very important to hook your audience in act one. - For our movies, I think Wall-E has one of strongest first acts. The world is set up. I mean, it's a trash planet and it's an abandoned dystopia, and yet you have an idealist, you have Wall-E, who believes as a robot that love is possible in an environment where he's meant to clean up the remnants of the opposite world view, and it's beautiful that he doesn't, he has almost no evidence other than a little green leaf that what he believes and feels is real, and then Eve comes in and confirms to him his idealistic tendencies that we can rise above our programming and that we can be more than we're told and we can be more than what's around us. - Sometimes the inciting incident will introduce a conflict that will launch the main character into a journey that will take place throughout the film. - In most cases I can think of, the inciting incident comes toward the end of the first act. You spent the first act setting up who the characters are, what's important, what the status quo is in the world, and the inciting incident that's gonna pull the rug out from under that status quo is gonna launch you into act two. - In Wall-E, the inciting incident is when Eve is taken off of earth into the axiom, and Wall-E follows her up to the axiom on the rocket 'cause he now has a goal which is to get Eve back. Even though he's a robot and he cannot be further from me, I completely empathize with him and I want for him connection and love and the things that he aspires to. To me, it's an elegant, beautiful, heartbreaking first act. - And I think a successful first act gets you to invest in your character, care about your character, care about what they care about, so when the thing they care about is threatened or the rug is pulled out from under them in some way, you're rooting for them to launch into the second act and solve that problem. - Ultimately, the first act is the setup for the story. It's where we learn everything we need to know about our main characters and the world, and we find something out which gets us invested in the journey which follows. In the next exercise, you'll have a chance to identify the first act in your favorite films, as well as start developing the first act for the story you want to create.