Friday, November 21, 2008

The Three Act Structure of Star Wars


I use Star Wars (The first one…you know, episode IV. Written by George Lucas, of course) in my screenwriting class as an illustration of three act structure. It’s good for two reasons: first, pretty much everybody’s seen it and second, the structure is obvious and easy to find. Here’s how it works:

Main Character: Luke Skywalker.

Domino: Princess Leia putting the plans and message in R2D2. This is the act that kicks off all the events to follow. Without it, Luke would go on living unhappily as a farmer on Tatooine. But it is not the catalyst as we haven’t even met our main character yet.

Catalyst: Luke sees the hologram of Leia and decides he must help her. Now our main character has a problem. He doesn’t really know what it is yet, but we do: Darth Vadar does not want the plans in R2D2 to get to the rebels.

Main Conflict: Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar? Most action movies have pretty straightforward main conflicts. This one is set up at the catalyst because Luke has decided to take action that will put him in conflict with Darth. They have “mutually exclusive goals.” In other words, conflict results because the protagonist and antagonist can’t both succeed at their goals. This is a useful technique to make sure the conflict in your movie is strong. (You could quite easily tell the whole story as a tragedy from Darth Vadar’s point of view.)

Act One Break: Luke agrees to go to Alderan with Obi Wan to return R2D2 to Leia.

Midpoint: Luke rescues Leia from the prison cell. This is a big up point – he’s reunited Leia with R2D2. Unfortunately there’s still the little matter of being stuck in the bowels of the Death Star.

Act Two Break: Luke and the gang escape the Death Star. This may seem like an up moment – not the typical way the Act Two Break usually works. However this is an example of the kind of movie where the achievement of the initial goal at the end of Act Two leads to an even bigger challenge and problem.

In this case, that bigger challenge is destroying the Death Star before it can destroy the rebel base. Remember how immediately after the escape Leia says it was too easy? Darth Vadar has put a tracker on the Millennium Falcon that allows the Death Star to follow them to the rebels. They're out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Twist: The rebels discover the flaw in the Death Star by analyzing the plans. It gives them one hope to beat Darth Vadar.

Resolution: Luke succeeds in destroying the Death Star and defeating Darth Vadar, thus concluding the Main Conflict. This is followed by a denouement where we get to witness the awards ceremony and celebrate along with our main characters.

There you have it: simple, straightforward and incredibly watchable.

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