Tag Archives: three-act structure

Star Wars 4: A New Hope breakdown

A desert farm boy, an old hermit, and two space pilots get entangled in a princess’s rebellion against a galactic empire.

Many years ago, I did a commentary for this movie, both the theatrical version and the special edition.

I’m breaking down movies by their three-act structure. What is three-act structure? I explain it here.

Note: I break the story down into five-minute blocks to make it easier to see the length of each section. Rough time codes follow.

Prolog

Legend: It is a period of civil war. 2

Act 1

Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s ship (introducing the villain). 5

Leia hides the Death Star plans in R2-D2. R2 and 3-P0 flee in an escape pod. 10

R2 and 3-P0 are captured separately by Jawas. 15

R2 and 3-P0 are sold to the Skywalkers. 20

Luke activates Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in R2 (introducing the central conflict). 25

Luke pursues the missing R2 and is rescued from Sand People by Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. 30

Act 2

Ben explains Luke’s father was a Force-using Jedi knight killed by Darth Vader. 35

R2 shows Ben the message from Leia. 40

Luke finds his aunt and uncle murdered. Luke and Ben go to Mos Eisley. 45

Ben and Luke make a deal with Han Solo and Chewbacca to take them to the Alderaan. 50

Han kills bounty hunter Greedo. Ben and Luke board Han’s ship. 55

The heroes flee Mos Eisley….

Midpoint Crisis

…The Death Star destroys Alderaan. 60

Ben teaches Luke about the Force. The heroes discover Alderaan is destroyed and get captured. 65

The heroes hide and sneak out of their ship in stormtrooper uniforms. 70
Luke and Han take Chewbacca to the detention unit so they can rescue Leia. 75

Han, Luke, & Chewie rescue Leia and end up in a trash compactor. 80

R2 and 3-P0 rescue the heroes from the trash compactor. 85

Ben shuts down the tractor beam. The heroes race to the ship under fire. 90

Vader finds and kills Ben. (All is lost!) The heroes escape in Han’s ship. 95

Act 3

The heroes go to the rebel base. The rebels prepare for battle. They must hit a small port in the central trench of the Death Star. 100

Han leaves with his payment. Luke meets old friends and preps for battle in a fighter. 105

The rebels attack and fare poorly against the Death Star’s defenses. 110

Vader enters the fight personally. Luke goes in for his run using the Force to do his targeting. 115

Han and Chewie return to keep Vader off Luke. Luke destroys the Death Star… (resolving the central conflict)

…Han and Luke are awarded medals by Princess Leia. 120

Back to the Future (1985) breakdown

Teenager Marty McFly goes back in time and accidentally keeps his parents from making a love connection. With help from friend and time machine inventor Doc Brown, Marty has to get them to fall for each other before time itself “corrects” him out of existence.

Many years ago, I did a commentary for this movie.

I’m breaking down movies by their three-act structure. What is three-act structure? I explain it here.

Note: I break the story down into five-minute blocks to make it easier to see the length of each section. Rough time codes follow.

Prolog

Marty goes by Doc’s. He’s been away but now needs Marty’s help. 5

Act 1

Marty is berated by Strickland. Marty fails an audition. 10

Jennifer consoles Marty. A woman gives Marty a clock tower flyer. 15

The McFlys are losers. Biff has wrecked the McFly car, ruining Marty’s big plans to take Jennifer to the lake (introducing the central conflict with the villain). Lorraine lectures on proper behavior in her day. 20

Marty video records Doc’s time travel experiment. 25

Doc preps to go into the future. Libyans shoot Doc (creating a second conflict!). Marty escapes to the past. 30

Act 2

Marty crashes, drives to his non-existent house, and runs out of fuel. 35

Marty can’t believe he’s in 1955. He discovers his father was a square. 40

Marty is injured saving George. Lorraine becomes attracted to him. 45

Marty goes to 1995 Doc’s and convinces him to help. 50

Doc and Marty retrieve the DeLorean and examine the video and Marty’s photo. They can get Marty back to 1985 if they can charge the time machine with the lightning bolt that will strike the clock tower in one week (introducing a ticking clock)….

Midpoint Crisis

However, because Marty interfered with the moment his parents fell in love, time is correcting Marty out of existence. 55

Marty and Doc decide Marty must get George to take Lorraine to the dance so they can fall in love (introducing a catch). 60

Biff ruins Marty’s effort to get George to ask Lorraine to the dance. Marty tricks George into asking her. 65

When Biff bullies George again, Marty humiliates him, gaining more of Lorraine’s admiration. 70

Doc explains his plan. Lorraine asks Marty to the dance, but Marty plans for George to stop him from getting fresh. 75

At the dance, Marty is shocked by Lorraine’s behavior. 80

Biff bullies Marty. George decks Biff to save Lorraine. Marty is desperate to get George & Lorraine to kiss (all seems lost!). 85

Act 3

Marty plays guitar at the dance (callback to his failed audition!). After a final scare, Lorraine and George kiss (resolving the catch, and creating a turn that is distinct from the bottom earlier). Marty’s playing overwhelms everyone. 90

Marty goes to the town square and tries to warn Doc about the Libyans (the secondary villains). 95

Marty gets the DeLorean set. Doc struggles to reconnect the cables. The ticking clock is literally the ticking clock. 100

Marty hits the wire at the right moment and returns in 1985. He can’t stop the Libyans! But Doc lives! (resolving the secondary conflict) 105

Marty discovers his life, family, and even Biff are much better. He even has a truck now, so he can take Jennifer to the lake (resolving the central conflict). 110

Epilog

Doc arrives from the future, requesting Marty and Jennifer come to the future with him. 115

Three-Act Structure

I’ve been studying three-act structure again and trying to get a better understanding of it as it is applied in actual stories. As a result, I’ve plotted out a number of films with the act structure called out. Before I start posting those, here is my understanding of three-act structure.

Three-act structure is the method by which most modern stories are plotted in order to produce a series of satisfying dramatic moments. There are other ways to plot a story (Shakespearean five-act structure, for example), but three acts is generally thought of as the simplest useful way, and five-act and other structures can pretty easily be mapped onto it.

One of the most obvious aspects of three-act structure is that it is really four-act structure, because the crisis at the half-way point completely changes the direction of the story. And four equal-sized acts make more sense than talking about the “first half of the second act”.

In this diagram, we see the emotional state of the hero rising and falling with triumphs and setbacks. The first act is one quarter of the length of the story (including the prolog, if there is one), the second act is half the story, and the third act is the final quarter (including the epilog, if there is one).

Prolog

This is a brief, optional opening, often with action that shows how the hero and perhaps other characters got to the point where the story to be told actually starts.

This is back story, a flashback, sometimes merely a printed legend or narrated montage. If this is a murder mystery, the murder is typically committed here. If the hero features, it typically shows the hero’s life improving to where it is “today”.

Act 1 – Intro & Motivation

The introduction to the conflict and the motivation to resolve it.

The Introduction

We are introduced to the setting and the main characters, usually including the hero or heroes. This establishes the steady state the heroes live in.

Then villain is revealed, perhaps with action, often of a sort that the heroes witness but don’t participate in, such as seeing the aftermath in a news report.

The Conflict & Motivation

Then the central conflict is introduced: the heroes want something (money, fame, each other, just to live in peace…), but something stands in their way: a villain or circumstances. We establish the nature of the conflict and obvious complications. If there is a catch (a problem that has to be remedied before the heroes can resolve the central conflict), it may get introduced here; perhaps they don’t know who the villain is or where he is.

Often, if the heroes don’t act to resolve the conflict, there will be disaster. The heroes are often reluctant to embark on the adventure, but circumstances or rewards convince them.

Act 1 ends one quarter of the way thru the story with the heroes committed to resolving the conflict.

Act 2 – Struggle, Crisis, & Bottom

The struggle to resolve the conflict and a crisis and apparent failure.

The Struggle

The heroes start out with optimism to resolve the conflict. They are in a chase, but they might be the hunters or the hunted. This is a series of confrontations with heavies the villain controls and complications from things the villain doesn’t control. There may be a subplot here that introduces a secondary conflict. Secondary conflicts should be resolved before the primary conflict, but catches, by definition, must be.

During this time, the heroes may get a pointed warning or else encounter the villain’s chief henchman or even the villain himself in a social setting or as a social superior, perhaps without knowing that he or she is a heavy.

The Crisis

Just when things seem to be going pretty well, there is a crisis half-way thru the story that threatens to ruin the heroes’ chances. A key member of the heroes’ team may die (or appear to). The villain slips thru the heroes’ fingers. Or a catch is introduced here. Or circumstances (such as a storm or wrong-headed authority figure) constrain the heroes’ progress. If there is a subplot, both it and the central conflict should have a crisis in quick succession.

The Bitter Struggle

The heroes continue struggling with complications, plot devices, and bigger confrontations, such as multiple bad things happening at once, a betrayal, a chase, and/or a fight. Typically, a ticking clock is introduced to ratchet up the tension. It becomes an all-out race against time!

The Bottom & Turn

Things don’t go well, and the heroes are reduced to the bottom: their lowest point emotionally and perhaps physically, often with a particular moment where all seems lost.

But then there is a turn. Perhaps an expert or mentor provides some aid, or the heroes resolve the catch or secondary conflict, possibly by figuring out where the villain is or what the real villain’s identity is. Or a clue makes previously confusing pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Note that some people consider the turn to be a separate plot point from the bottom and to be the beginning the third act, but they can occur so close together they are practically the same event (discovering a betrayal but resolving the catch of who the villain is). The bottom can last a substantial amount of in-universe time, with the heroes essentially giving up or spinning their wheels until they get a break or otherwise recommit to achieving a resolution.

Act 2 ends three-quarters of the way thru the story with the heroes at a physical and perhaps emotional low but committed to resolving the conflict once and for all.

Act 3 – Turning the Tables, the Climax, & the Resolution

The final struggle before achieving success and resolving the conflict.

Turning the Tables

The heroes turn the tables on the villain and put their (new) plan into action. There are still complications in the form of henchmen to battle or confirmation of the clues to be done, but their actions are now swift and confident.

However, there can often be a setback here, with the heroes getting captured or wounded or having to convince authorities they aren’t crazy.

The Climax & Final Challenge

At the climax, the heroes end up in a final confrontation with the villain (“So, we meet again…”) and win the day.

Often, there is one last challenge or twist before success (or failure). Here is where the heroes might have to sacrifice something to resolve a conflict or perhaps there is a betrayal, but these things have quick (if not easy) solutions.

The Resolution

In the end, the heroes are successful (or dead). They return triumphant (or on their shields). Either way, the conflict is resolved, and the heroes settle into a new, higher emotional state (but not as high as the climax). Any loose ends are tied up, such as the heroes getting their reward, injured characters getting aid, and bothersome authorities getting their comeuppance. This can sometimes be very brief.

A common mistake here is carrying on with story after the central conflict has been resolved because there are loose ends (subplots or mere questions) that weren’t resolved earlier and can’t be resolved quickly. It’s dull, because the audience is rapidly losing interest now that the point of the story has been reached.

The opposite is also a common mistake: “leaving the story open” or presenting an ending that is ambiguous, meaning the central conflict is never actually resolved.

Not all open or ambiguous endings are mistakes. Audiences expect certain characters to go on to further adventures, for example, and that not every ending leaves the characters entirely happy. The middle story in a trilogy, for example, typically ends with villain winning the day and the heroes mourning their loss (conflict resolved in favor of the villain); this is the end of the second act of the trilogy as a whole.

Epilog

This is a brief, optional closing that shows the heroes at a new, higher emotional state, often after a substantial amount of time, demonstrating that they have improved their standing in life and do indeed live happily ever after (or are mourned).