Writing Challenge: First Act Decision

This is it. This sequence is the moment that your audience showed up to see. In the Pre-Existing Life (sequence one) we established who your character is and what they want. In the Inciting Incident (sequence two), something happened to get in their way. Now, something is going to happen that will push your protagonist to make a decision that drives the whole movie. So when I say “this is the moment that your audience showed up to see,” I’m saying this is the plan of actin that was laid out in the trailer. It has to make sense for the character by hitting against their emotional need while also being grounded in the world/tone you’ve established.

In our previous examples, the decisions were big and palpable. “Birds of Prey” is a big commercial movie and we have Harley clearly state what her mission is: retrieve the diamond so Roman won’t kill her. And she’s doing this because her ultimate want is to prove that she can be her own woman without the Joker. “Being John Malkovich” has a much more surreal tone but still follows a predictable structure through this seemingly unpredictable world. The protagonist, Craig, is going to use John Malkovich (by way of being inside the actor’s head) in order to win Maxine.

For today’s example, I didn’t want to pick a movie where the sequence structure is as obvious. One that focuses more on the character relationships. The reason for this is because there are lots of people who argue that focusing on structure creates predictable stories with flat characters. But if you look at character driven stories, a basic structure is still there. Greta Gerwig is a fantastic writer-director who creates stories based completely out of character and with a very “indie” tone. So today, we’ll look at “Lady Bird”, a film that garnered significant praise for the love and care it takes in telling the story of a mother and daughter.

Logline: A California high school student plans to escape from her family and small town by going to college in New York.

The Breakdown

Set Up
– Mr. Bruno passes back algebra tests. He praises Julie while an oblivious Lady Bird cusses Bruno under her breath for her own bad grade.
– Lady Bird wonders why she’s bad at math, especially when her dad and brother are both good at it. Julie suggest it’s because of Lady Bird’s mom, Marion.

– At a dance, Lady Bird asks Danny to dance with her, to which he says yes. As they do, he pulls her close and she’s thrilled.
– After the dance, Julie’s step-father arrives to pick her and Lady Bird up. Lady Bird rudely sends Julie home without her so she can stay with Danny.
– Lady Bird and Danny talk, getting closer. He pulls her into a kiss.
– Lady Bird comes home in a daze from kissing Danny. Her mom is already mad and when she heads Lady Bird come in, she sets her sights on her daughter.

– Lady Bird and Marion argue over the state of her bedroom. Lady Bird pointlessly argues back about Marion using her given name.
– Lady Bird doesn’t understand why her mom thinks how Lady Bird’s clothes look matters. Marion says Lady Bird’s dad lost his job and blames part of their struggle on how the family looks.
– When Lady Bird asks if Marion ever wanted her own mother to let this kind of stuff go, Marion simply says her mother was an abusive alcoholic.

– Lady meets with a guidance counselor, telling her what schools she’s interested in. The counselor laughs at the mention of Yale, saying she’s trying to keep Lady Bird realistic.
– Lady Bird shrugs at the guidance counselor surprise at her high SAT scores. The guidance counselor can’t get Lady Bird an in person alumni interview, so she tells Lady Bird she can only get into her dream schools with how she looks on paper.

As I mentioned before, the outcome of this sequence means we find out what the protagonist is going to do to get what they want. We know what Lady Bird wants, she wants to go to school on the east coast at a school like NYU. She’s taken a small step prior to this, in joining the theater department, in order to make herself stand out but she’s not full invested. She’s more focused on Danny. With her dad losing her job, it will make things that much harder for her to afford an east coast school. It will also be that much more difficult for her to get her mother to agree, but when her mother scolds Lady Bird for basically acting like a teenager, the know-it-all and rebellious Lady Bird is more determined to get out. Her way out is stated by her guidance counselor.

Does this sequence feel as predictable and paint-by-numbers as any other script that is usually given in screenwriting books? Nope. And it shouldn’t. Greta’s protagonist, Lady Bird, is incredibly emotional. Her want is to go to college but she gets in her own way every step of the way, thinking she doesn’t have to work that directly on it. If she approached school the way she approached winning over Danny, or Kyle later on, she’s have no problem getting in and getting scholarships to pay for it. So whenever Lady Bird has a sequence set up, she’s going to get distracted by her temporary wants/desires to be seen as someone cool and artistic, instead of as “the small town girl” she believes everyone sees her as.

When you’re looking at your plot push to first act decision, don’t feel like it has to be overt unless it’s a situational-driven script. But it does need to feel like a palpable moment to the audience. You’ll know if you have that if you can look ahead to the end of the your act two. There is a moment in every movie where the protagonist appears to get what they want before it all comes crashing down around them. In Lady Bird, it’s when she’s waitlisted at NYU. To her, getting waitlisted is just as good as getting in. And it all comes crashing down when her mom finds out about it. She when she gets that waitlist letter, we know that she has succeeded in making herself look good on paper, and how people physically view her didn’t matter at all. But we need to know that was her goal at the end of act one to connect those two moments.

I always say to writers who are pitching me ideas for fixes in scripts “you can do whatever you want, as long as you justify it.” So if you want to play with the structure here and how the decision is verbalized, go for it, just make sure that the audience knows what it is.

Happy Writing!

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