April 4, 2014

Get Your First Act Written! This Animated Video with Pixar's Michael Arndt Shows You How

Michael ArndtSome of the greatest pieces of screenwriting wisdom that I've come across in my journey of learning the craft have come from Pixar alumni. Regardless of what kinds of stories you're trying to tell, Pixar has offered many great tips on how to form the structure of your screenplay, and in this animated video, screenwriter Michael Arndt walks us through, step-by-step, how to construct the most difficult first act. So, if you're currently struggling to get your screenplay off the ground, you're gonna want to check this out!

It doesn't matter if you're writing a psychological horror, live-action comedy, or emotionally charged drama, knowing and understanding basic story structure will help you become a better screenwriter (even if that just means knowing which rules you're breaking). Not all stories need to be told in the same way, and granted, Pixar stories are very formulaic in their structure -- writing them has come down to a science -- but if you're having trouble setting your script into motion, there is absolutely plenty to learn from Arndt.

I've read my fair share of texts on screenwriting, read countless scripts, and maybe I'm just a simple-minded person when it comes to screenwriting, but this is one of the single greatest explanations on how to construct the first act of a story that I've ever come across (or maybe I'm just a visual learner?). In the video below, Arndt takes us through the basic story elements that will take your characters through the first act, like establishing your main character's environment, their grand passion, and their hidden flaw. The animations and movie clips help to show you visually what a character's flaw actually looks like on-screen, or what would happen if they made the "right" decision at the crossroads.

To be clear -- there is no one right way to write a screenplay. Absolutely not. Even though Arndt's says that your character should reach the crossroads that will take them on their journey by page 25, that doesn't mean that you have to follow that model. In fact, Taxi Driver doesn't reach that point until around page 45. However, these tips will really help if you're a beginning screenwriter, stuck on your first act, or if you really just want to write a story with a Pixar structure. It should be said that these structures are so prevalent because -- they just work. They're great at establishing the narrative and "emotional fuel" needed to carry your story through to the end.

Personally, none of the screenplays I've written even come close to a Pixar story, and I'm honestly more attracted to telling stories that challenge classical story structure (I'm rebellious, maybe -- or a stubborn contrarian). But, one of the best screenwriting tips I've ever received is to not be precious about what you write, because you can always go back and change it, and maybe by following this formula, you will get the help you need to at least get your ideas out of your head. The hardest part is to get something on paper, after all.

What do you think about the video? Did it help? What other resources would you recommend to struggling screenwriters to get through their first act? Let us know in the comments below.

Link: Michael Arndt on setting a story in motion -- John August

Your Comment

17 Comments

Amazing.

April 5, 2014 at 1:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Really good stuff here! Very informative. Now for that second act...

April 5, 2014 at 1:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Stephen Herron

Having a proper structure for a script is of course important. It is collectively agreed by top writers that the most common mistake screen writers make is to be strict with structure because STORY should be king. Structure is second. There has to be a balance between the two for one's own style and voice to take place.

April 5, 2014 at 2:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Roshdi

Without a doubt, he almost says this himself in here. He is speaking about Pixar's voice and the connection of structure and story in that.

April 5, 2014 at 3:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I see this idea a lot: that the biggest mistake screenwriters make is to be formulaic. I've read about 150 scripts a year for the past five plus years and my experience is not that most screenwriters are too formula, it's that they don't really understand structure at all. Unless you're an accomplished screenwriter and/or have written ten or fifteen scripts to master the basic structure, I would suggest you use that conventional model. You don't have to stay there. It's a starting point. But you do have to know it inside out before you are able to consistently break the rules in a productive and effective way. Pixar may be formulaic but we should all write as well as a Pixar movie.

June 8, 2014 at 7:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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A-HA!

April 5, 2014 at 12:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ryan

Ah yeah, sure. Let's all learn this and keep producing same generic nonsense. Uh wait, we already did.

April 5, 2014 at 2:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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coil torne

I don't know what generic nonsense has to do with basic story structure. That's like saying using bricks to build a house means it will be a generic structure because other houses use bricks. Almost all of the greatest films ever made follow the arcs mentioned in this video. Educate yourself kid.

April 5, 2014 at 6:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Filmpunk

You're right. Actually poor use of structure is usually when I'll care less. Or at least poor USE of structure.

April 6, 2014 at 12:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Right on

April 6, 2014 at 2:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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William Goldman's books 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' and 'Which Lie Did I Tell' are must-reads.

April 8, 2014 at 12:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ed

Wonderfully encouraging! Thank you.

April 8, 2014 at 10:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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BC

i love most pixar movies. definitely loved toy story 3. but i wonder.
is this really the way to make art? following rules?
oh and rules are not bricks.
also not all houses are made of bricks

April 8, 2014 at 11:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ck

I guess, we're not talking art here, we're talking business. nothing worse than a structure overwhelming the story, the mood, the atmosphere, the author's voice and everything which makes up a film. i dont care about structure i dont even need 3 acts. look what structure did to Bladerunner for instance. I love that film but the third act it utter BS for the hell of it.

April 10, 2014 at 10:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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coil torne

"I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3."
- Michael Arndt

June 7, 2014 at 7:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Johan

Great info. Thank you for sharing.

June 7, 2014 at 8:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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If this were just formulaic and uncreative, why is it so hard to accomplish? There are so many crap movies/films that try to use it but fail. Far more than there are successes. Pixar rules!

I'll leave you with a workshop on story structure by Pixar animator and story artist Austin Madison. The basics. Best I've ever seen. He even manages without using all the jargon that's out there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whnJSSkR_B0

June 17, 2014 at 10:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Frank