In the first few scenes of a play, the audience learns about a main character(s) everyday life. This includes what he/she does, who they communicate with, and the environment in which they live, among others. Once this everyday existence is established, the play will begin to take off as the character's world is suddenly turned upside-down and he/she is in a position where action is necessary. I wrote a little about this idea last year (http://njyoungplaywrights.blogspot.com/2008/12/creating-conflict-and-raising-stakes.html).
For an example, let's look at the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In our introductory scenes we want to create Little Red's everyday world so we explore her life and ask ourselves questions about where she lives (what is the house like? where is it located?), what she does (does she go to school? do chores around the house?), who she lives with (who is in her family). The answer to these questions can provide information that is used in the play to create Little Red's world as it exists day-in and day-out. Then, something needs to happen that changes everything. In your English/Language Arts classes your teacher might refer to this as the "Inciting Incident" of the story - we'll call it the "Emergency."
Depending upon how you interpret the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or even which version you consider, there are a couple of dangerous moments that Little Red has to face. The Wolf may come to mind - his actions certainly present a dangerous situation for Red and her Grandma - but this is not our Emergency. Instead, we need to look for an event earlier in the play that changes Little Red's life and sends her on the journey where she eventually confronts the Wolf. For me, the Emergency is the moment when Little Red's mom asks her to take a basket of goodies to her sick Grandmother in the woods. This journey is new for Red - something completely out of her everyday existence - and it is in the action of trying to get the goodies to Grandma that Little Red's story unfolds.
Also consider the story of Cinderella (http://njyoungplaywrights.blogspot.com/2008/12/emergency-situation.html). The arrival of the invitation to the Prince's Ball is the Emergency event that breaks Cinderella from her typical routine. Now, she has the chance to get a better life for herself (not that I'm suggesting that marrying a Prince is the answer for Cinderella).
Take a look at the first scenes of your play and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do these scenes show a typical day in the life of my main character?
- Is the character's goal/want clear?
- What happens that causes the character to go on his/her journey? (What is the Emergency?)
You may find that some of the answers to these questions will help to clarify the Emergency event that sets the entire play in motion. See where it takes you!