Nick from PA asks:
I’ve just finished rewriting (mostly compressing) my script. It was 135 pages long, now it’s 112.
The acts break down like this:
Act 1 – 32 pages
Act 2 – 62 pages
Act 3 – 18 pages;
Now, obviously, the exposition seems to be too long. Is this slow start a problem?
I tried to shorten it, but just couldn’t. I still need every scene in it. Should I nevertheless cut it down, or I could use such detailed setup and ‘get away’ with it?
Analyzing a story in terms of pure structural paradigms is dangerous business. It’s not that structure is unimportant. On the contrary, structure is critical. The problem is, solid structure arises from many other aspects of the writing. Simply looking at act breaks provides no insight into whether a story works nor does it assist the writer much in improving the story unless other central issues are well understood.
Structure is dictated by the needs of the story. For example, in “The Sixth Sense”, the inciting incident is simply announced; Malcolm tells Cole he is there to help him. Somewhere between Malcolm being shot and Malcolm meeting Cole, something happened to incite him, but we never know what it is. And there is no first act break to speak of, either. Yet, because the story is very focused around its central theme and maintains escalating tensions and stakes, it is structurally sound.
Similarly, in “Casablanca”, we do not even meet Rick until well into the first act. We do not meet or know anything about Ilsa until the second act. We do not know of the connection between Ilsa and Rick until after that. Yet, the story is very structurally sound.
In your story, you need to examine more than just act breaks. What happens in the first 32 pages? What keeps the audience engaged? When do you create a “contract” with the audience, to use Alex Epstein’s terminology? All of these issues and more play into whether a story works. The fact that the first act break is on page 32 means nothing in the abstract.
One clue to whether your story works is in the wording of your question. It suggests you already believe it does not work. You mention a “slow start” and “getting away with it.” I have found two things to be true. First, I will always doubt my work. And, second, most of my doubts are well-founded. The trick is to push the story as far as you can, which is always much further than you think you can (and many more drafts), and then live with its imperfections. Based upon your question, my guess is that you are not there yet.