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How To Effectively Create The First Act Set-Up

By Marilyn Horowitz

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All of us writers know how hard it is to set the scene for a screenplay.  There’s so much you have to convey. I am always reminded of a favorite scene in a favorite movie, The Matrix, wherein Morpheus explains to Neo how everything in the Matrix is a construction of reality and that as they speak they are in a blank loading program and are creating the details as they go. I think good writing is like that: you start at the beginning and fill in the details.

My students always ask, “How do I know what to include?” The solution is surprisingly simple. You ask a single question: “What does my reader need to know to understand the scene they are reading?”  The answer to the question is also simple and concrete: answer the “five Ws.” You may have learned them in school when you were very young, and I will remind you of them here.

The 5 Ws are:  "Who, When, Where, What, and Why."

Think about it – this is a cool thinking technique that really makes sense.

Let’s apply the 5 Ws to the film, The Matrix, as an example.

  • Who: Neo, an alienated drug dealer
  • When: In an imaginary post apocalyptic world
  • Where: In a Sci-fi version of Earth
  • What: It’s a story about a battle for the Human Race
  • Why: Because Neo wants to know the truth about reality and fulfill his destiny to save the Human Race

Whether you agree with my answers or not, notice that I have made not only choices about what the answers are, but also about what each of the 5 Ws mean. This is what makes a good writer – the ability to make creative choices that make sense in relationship to each other.

Now here’s the trick: once you make these choices for your script, you can use your craft to decide how to present them to your audience.

Will you use a title card and TV clips from the period as the film, Argo, did? 

Will you use a written crawl as the original Star Wars movie did?

Will you use a Voice Over as so many movies do...or will you simply begin at the beginning?

This is the critical choice you must make now that you know what must be conveyed to your audience.

Once again, let’s revisit The Matrix.  The opening of the film introduces the Matrix by following Trinity’s flight. This sequence answers two of the 5 Ws in the best possible way – by showing, not telling. The moment we see Trinity in flight we know when and where: on an Earth in a future, post apocalyptic world.

In the next sequence, we meet Neo, as he is noodling on his computer, waiting for his customers so he can close a drug deal.  Just before they arrive, he speaks briefly to Morpheus and is told to “follow the white rabbit.” The customers arrive, and he sees there’s a tattoo of a white rabbit on the customer’s girlfriend’s arm. Impulsively, he accepts their invitation to go out clubbing with them. That is where we meet Trinity, who leads him to Morpheus.  We learn the answer to another 5 W- who, because we have met Neo. Once Neo meets Morpheus we learn the What and Why of the story after Neo takes the red pill, and escapes from the Matrix.

This is the action of Act 1 of the film and you can see the answering of the 5 Ws created an organic structure and suggested the order in which the events occurred. 

Here’s the exercise.

Step 1: Answer the 5 Ws for your current screenplay.

Step 2: Watch the first act of a film you feel has a similar story to yours and analyze how out how the first act of the film answers the five questions.

Step 3: Look at your story and compare the two.

Step 4: Make any improvements to what you have.

I think you will find that you have just improved your screenplay.

Good luck and Happy Writing.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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