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12 Act One Script Beats You Should Include In Your Script

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
September 8, 2014 15 comments
SCRIPT BEATS

Add these 12 Act 1 essential script beats to the beginning of your screenplay to punch it up and turn it into a real page turner. They work so well because these 12 Act 1 screenplay beats are all scenes that emotionally connect the reader to the protagonist.a

Not only that, they reveal to the audience, step by step, the nature of the antagonist, and the conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist.

They also communicate the emotional beats your protagonist goes through as they become aware of this conflict, before finally reacting to it at the end of Act 1.

The 12 Act 1 Script Beats

In his book, “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story”, Jeffrey Alan Schechter reveals 12 specific plot points that should occur in Act 1.

We’ll start by describing them here, before breaking down the 12 Act 1 script beats of Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten’s Identity Thief by way of example.

In most cases, these 12 Act 1 screen plot points can be thought of as scenes. They are a great way to focus your story and make sure the audience is clear on its conflict. So let’s get to it.

PLOT POINT 1: We meet either the protagonist / antagonist / victim or stakes character.

PLOT POINT 2: We see the protagonist’s flaw in relation to the stakes character.

PLOT POINT 3: We meet the antagonist, or amplify what we already know about them.

PLOT POINT 4: A deflector slows down the protagonist. His / her problem is amplified.

PLOT POINT 5: The Call to Action. The protagonist is hit by a major blow by the antagonist. Their world is tipped upside-down and they are now aware they have a big problem.

PLOT POINT 6: The statement of the protagonist as it relates to the stakes character. Problem is made clear to the audience.

PLOT POINT 7: An Ally helps propel the protagonist out of his / her comfort zone.

PLOT POINT 8: The protagonist seems ready to move forward in their goal and / or towards the stakes character but just can’t do it.

PLOT POINT 9: The antagonist / deflector attacks / shocks the protagonist — the dramatic question is raised as the protagonist realizes what the movie’s about.

PLOT POINT 10: The depth of feeling between the protagonist and the stakes character becomes evident.

PLOT POINT 11: The antagonist or deflector threatens to take the stakes character away from the hero.

PLOT POINT 12: The protagonist decides he / she must act to save the stakes character.

Now, these are just basic outlines of the scenes / script beats / screenplay plot points, but if you want to get a more in-depth analysis of them, I suggest you get on Amazon and order yourself a copy of “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

As an example we have broken down the 12 Act 1 script beats from Identity Thief  into an outline. (You may also want to re-watch the first 25 or so minutes of the movie to get the most out of the break-down.)

script beats

Act 1 Script Beats Example: Identity Thief 

PLOT POINTS 1 & 2

At work, Sandy Patterson answers his cell—it’s a woman from the fraud protection department who says they’ve just stopped his identity being stolen. She asks if he wants to take out their protection plan. We see that she’s an overweight woman, Diana, making the call from a mall in Florida. Sandy gives her his financial details and she celebrates silently.

We meet either the protagonist / antagonist / victim or stakes character: So here, in the first scene of the movie, we meet Sandy and Diana— protagonist and antagonist—in direct conflict with one another.

We see the protagonist’s flaw in relation to the stakes character: This scene melds Plot Points 1 and 2 together as we also see how easily Sandy is duped by Diana, showing his flaw. Note that Diana may not be a stakes character at this moment in time, but she becomes one as the story progresses.

PLOT POINT 3

At home, Diana makes another fake credit card. Her whole house is a forgery den.

That night, Diana enters a club. At the bar, she calls herself “Sandy” and starts a tab with his fake credit card. She starts chatting to a couple of guys. Later, she’s incredibly drunk and buying rounds for everyone as they chant her name. She falls down, but is okay. The barman tells her these people are only her friends because she’s buying them drinks.

Outside the club, Diana is arrested by two cops. She throws up on one while doing a breathalyzer test. At the precinct, she has a mug shot taken.

We meet the antagonist, or amplify what we already know about them: This scene amplifies what we already know about Diana—not only is she a con artist, but she’s elevated forgery to an art-form.

PLOT POINT 4

At home, Sandy blows out his birthday cake with his wife, Trish, and two little girls. Later, Sandy tells Trish how he worries about money—the new baby etc. She tells him he’s going to get promoted and everything’s going to be fine.

A deflector slows down the protagonist. His / her problem is amplified: We see that Sandy is a guy with a family to support, but is not doing too great financially.

PLOT POINT 5

Next day, Sandy sits in traffic. He arrives at work. His immediate boss, Daniel, talks to him. Another colleague tells Sandy he’s wanted in Harold’s office. Harold tells Sandy to cut some bonus checks, but they’re only for partners, not Sandy. Sandy complains—they haven’t had a bonus for three years. Harold is a real jerk and brushes him off with “the economy is changing,” etc.

The screenplay’s Call to Action. The protagonist is hit by a major blow by the antagonist. Their world is tipped upside-down and they are now aware they have a big problem: Sandy realizes he’s not getting that bonus. Ever. Is he going to be able to survive with another kid on the way?

PLOT POINT 6

Later, Sandy processes the bonuses and sees one to Harold for over $1,000,000. He answers his cell—it’s a hairdresser in Florida calling about his appointment. Daniel interrupts and asks Sandy to meet him in the parking lot later.

The statement of the protagonist as it relates to the stakes character. Problem is made clear to the audience: Now we know just how slow on the uptake Sandy is. He gets a call from a hairdresser in Florida and yet is still oblivious to the fraud.

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PLOT POINT 7

In the parking lot, Sandy meets Daniel and a group of other colleagues. They tell him they’re starting their own firm and taking all of Harold’s clients. Sandy will be a VP at a salary of 250,000. Sandy smiles.

At their kid’s soccer game, Trish is overjoyed when Sandy tells her the news.

An Ally helps propel the protagonist out of his / her comfort zone: Sandy gets a lifeline from Daniel who offers him a great opportunity to be part of his new company. It’s a risk, but one Sandy can’t resist.

Montage — Diana goes shopping: In a mall, Diana tries on a new ring. She shows her ID—“Sandy Patterson”. She sees a couple of women giggling about her as she has her make up done. She flirts with a check out guy. Another guy says her card was declined, so she gives him another one.

PLOT POINT 8

Next morning, Sandy brushes his teeth with his kids. He drives, but runs out of gas. At the gas station, his credit card is declined. Inside the station, he gives it to the attendant who says he has to cut it. They argue, but the card gets cut.

Sandy drives. He receives a call and a woman from the bank tells him he’s in debt since spending all his money in Florida. He’s pulled over by the cops and arrested.

At the police station, the officer tells Sandy he’s being booked for assault in Florida, and that he missed his court date. Sandy tries to explain it’s not him.

The protagonist seems ready to move forward in their goal and / or towards the stakes character but just can’t do it: Sandy is repeatedly told he’s got a problem with his credit, but refuses to believe it and eventually gets arrested. Note how his actions relate directly to his flaw established back in Plot Point 2.

PLOT POINT 9

Later, Sandy’s un-cuffed. The officer explains how he’s had his identity stolen by Diana, but they can’t arrest her because they’re Denver PD, but she’s being handled by Florida PD. Not only that, only 5 to 10 percent of cases are solved.Sandy can’t believe it.

The antagonist / deflector attacks / shocks the protagonist—the dramatic question is raised as the protagonist realizes what the movie’s about: Finally, Sandy realizes what’s going on—his identity’s been stolen by a woman named Diana in Florida.

PLOT POINT 10

Sandy arrives at work. Daniel knows about Sandy’s finances being screwed. Sandy tries to explain, but the officer arrives and says his name and credit cards have turned up in a narcotics bust. They have a warrant to search his workplace for drugs and guns.

The depth of feeling between the protagonist and the stakes character becomes evident: In this scene we learn that not only has Sandy had his identity stolen but, thanks to Diana, he’s now a suspect in a narcotics ring. The “depth of feeling” between protagonist and antagonist becomes more evident as the stakes for Sandy are raised even further.

PLOT POINT 11

Later, the officer says Sandy is in the clear, but Daniel says he has to let him go.

The antagonist or deflector threatens to take the stakes character away from the hero

Daniel is the deflector character who threatens to take away Sandy’s job, which would take Sandy further away from his real stakes character(s)—his family. Unless…

PLOT POINT 12

Later, Sandy is looking at his call register on his cell and realizes he knows Diana. The officer says he needs her to be here, not in Florida. Sandy says he can get her. He will bring her back and convince her to get him his job back. Daniel is reluctant to let him go, but gives in and gives him one week. Sandy rushes out—that’s all he needs.

At home, Sandy calls the hairdresser in Florida for their address. He packs and argues with Trish who’s afraid he’ll get hurt. He shows her the mug shot of Diana again, saying she’s not dangerous. He says goodbye to the kids.

The protagonist decides he / she must act to save the stakes character: Sandy makes the big decision at the end of Act 1—he must go to Florida to bring Diana back within one week. He thinks he’s just saving himself and his family, but he will in fact end up saving the movie’s other stakes character as well—Diana.

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And that’s the 12 act one screenplay key plot points… Now it’s time for you to go through your first act and see if you can tighten it up by applying these scenes and emotional beats.

Please remember, these kind of tools are best employed when you’ve already written your own outline or draft of Act 1, and want to tighten them up, rather than using these screenplay plot points as a starting point of your creativity.

It’s never a good idea to stick too rigidly to a set formula. So if your Act 1 dictates a different direction in certain places, just go with it and then use these script beats to focus your ideas, your character intros and conflict as needs be.

Check out our analysis of the 12 act one script plot points in 500 Days Of Summer for another example of how these script beats work. We hope you found this analysis useful. The most important thing, above anything else, is that you keep writing!

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Do you struggle with writing plot structure? Is your first act hitting these same emotional 12 act one screenplay beats? Are you making the protagonist’s problem and the core conflict of your story absolutely clear to the audience? Let us know what you think about this method to bullet proof your act one in the comments section below.

Hire us to get your screenplay where you want it to be, get an agent and get sold. You can check out our script coverage services by clicking the image below.

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15 Comments
  1. Steven H. says:

    I believe that applying these beats will in many cases tighten up or improve most conventional stories. And most likely this grid will lay the groundwork for a better Act 2 and 3. But there’s an enormous gap between “better” and “good.” A better script (statistically) is still likely to be a bad script, no matter which formula / advice has been used to improve it.

    There are simply too many variables within the above beats to ensure that following this (or any other) formula will create an enthralling story.

    Writer A may use the formula to create a good story.
    Writer B may use the formula to create a bland, derivative story.
    Writer C may avoid the formula altogether and turn out a an innovative masterpiece.
    Writer D may avoid the formula altogether and churn out a frustrating mess.

    What the above approach omits (I’m not familiar with the book) is a consideration of how an audience responds to the content of particular beats and the transitions between them / direction of the story.

    The use of any familiar formula reassures the audience that the movie will be understandable, but it does not promise them that the movie will be enjoyable.

    1. SRP says:

      Hey Steven, thanks for your comment. No, of course these beats in the hands of an awful screenwriter are not going to help him/her create a masterpiece. But they can help many, many aspiring, learning screenwriters keep on the straight and narrow and set up their Act 1’s in a clearer fashion. What they bring to the actual beats is up to them, but they help keep writers on the right track.

  2. Jim says:

    I think there is a marked difference between a screenplay that “sells” and a screenplay that is a riveting story. Terrence Malik screenplays would get people fired at CSA or WM but his screenplays have resulted in the creation of masterpieces. Charlie Kaufman also writes atypical screenplays but many hail him as the greatest screenwriter around. Neither of the aformentioned writers really stick to the norm. On the flip side you have countless comedies (when did comedic writing die???) being written for Adam Sandler or Molly Mccarthy that are truly garbage but they sell. There is a dude out there selling a book about cats and writing. He’s never made anything of merit but his advice is gold. I HIGHLY recommend his books for those looking to work as screenwriters. For those who want to make movies however, I would lead with caution. The Hollywood formula is hackneyed and dead. Pixar flipped off Disney back in the day and went on to rule the animated film world. Go research Brad Bird and his struggle to make The Incredibles and Iron Giant since he wrote them the way he wanted (and not the standard way). Funny how Disney tanked and begged Bird to return years later. Honestly, the 12 key scenes mentioned here are very worthwhile but I can name several movies regarded as classics that did not use at least half of these types of scenes until after Act I.

  3. Melanie says:

    Well, here in the New Orleans metro area we’re having our usual temps of high 90s/low 100s, but–unlike usual smuemr weather–we’re not having the afternoon deluges of rain, almost drought-like conditions for us. And we’re heading into hurricane season and the temps in the Gulf of Mexico are so warm you could take a bath in there (not that you’d want to), which means lots of incubation for a hurricane to develop. Joy!As for characters, I like them developed to the level they need to be in the plot. I hate novels where the “best friend” seems to have no other life than being there for the hero/heroine–please give them something else to do, a hobby, a relationship, something that makes their interaction with the protagonist not seem like it’s the only thing in their lives (which is either creepy or evidence of a lazy writer).IMHO, someone who handled minor characters really well was Margaret Mitchell in GONE WITH THE WIND. There are a huge number of characters in the book and each of them has just enough fleshing out for us to know who they are and how they relate to Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, & Ashley without taking the spotlight off the main characters.

  4. AndrevanHaren says:

    Hi, just wondering, but when looking at a movie using this 12 plot points structure, how would this work in a movie without a stakes character as for example in the movie “Room 1408?

    1. Hey Andre,

      I can’t remember Room 1408 that well but doesn’t the John Cusack character have an ex-wife he has to reconcile with? Also in Thrillers and Horrors, sometimes the only thing at stake is the protagonist’s life itself.

  5. Cassie says:

    Thanks, I didn’t realize this. Will go back now and tighten up my Act 1! 🙂

  6. Dane says:

    Super interesting. Gonna buy the book now.

  7. Patrick says:

    Never heard of these beats . Is this legit?

  8. Laura says:

    I never knew about this beats in act one. Thank u!!!

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  10. Jahn says:

    Amazing article ! Thanks a lot !!!
    Could you explain what stakes character is? and an example, please.

    Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Jahn! The stakes character represents what’s at stake for the protagonist in the movie. For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, the Belloq/Nazis are the antagonists and the future of the world is at stake, represented in Marion as the stakes character. In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character. It’s this three way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

  11. Larry Dutton says:

    What happened to the beats for Act 2 and 3?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Unfortunately Jeff doesn’t break down acts 2 and 3 in the book.

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