This post continues my Story Structure series.
In an earlier post Two Frescoes, by Giotto and by Taddeo Gaddi, I questioned how many famous movies really are most usefully analyzed as having “3-act structure” — despite the claims of the screenwriting books and the examples they give. Are their analyses fair? And are they typical of the best movies?
Here’s an example of a good movie that does have 3-act structure: the original Star Wars. But it’s also an example of a movie in which it’s useful to ask questions the screenwriting books don’t cover.
Several reasons why it’s useful to see Star Wars as having 3-act structure
The books give differing definitions of “3-act structure,” but Star Wars fits the best parts of all of the definitions.
One criterion for 3-act structure
One of the most satisfying ways that a movie can have 3-act structure is by adhering to the following schema:
- Act 1. The main character is stuck in some status quo that he perhaps doesn’t like,
- Act 2. then a whole bunch of stuff happens, and as a result
- Act 3. there’s a crisis with a slam-bang resolution — after which the main character is now in a new, hopefully better, status quo.
In Star Wars this is just what happens:
- Act 1. Luke Skywalker is stuck being a farm boy, but he dreams of being a pilot for the Rebellion.
- Act 2. A whole bunch of stuff happens.
- Act 3. Luke is now a pilot — and, even better, the Rebellion crucially depends on him — and, even still better, he comes through for them.
Another criterion for 3-act structure
Star Wars is a movie that has an “outer story” and an “inner story” that fit perfectly:
- In the outer story, Luke wants to be a pilot for the Rebellion.
- In the inner story, Luke wants to gain the love of the Princess.
It’s set up so that doing either one automatically means doing the other.
A third criterion for 3-act structure
The first act ends in a clear, decisive way. Luke and Ben Kenobi return to the farm intending to split up, but the farm has been destroyed by the Empire — and, as a result, Luke changes his future by going off with Ben to find the Princess and help the Rebellion.
A fourth criterion for 3-act structure
In particular, the first act ends with a decision by the main character in which he commits to the main action of the rest of the movie.
Some problems and questions
As good as the 3-act analysis of Star Wars is, there’s still a lot more to be said and thought about this movie that isn’t covered in most screenwriting books.
Star Wars 3-act structure: question 1
Although the end of the first act of Star Wars is very clear and satisfying, it’s not clear or satisfying at all where the second act ends.
The following are several candidates for being the crisis where the second act ends — and the conflicting reasons why each of them could be it:
- The moment when R2D2 finds that the Princess is in the Death Star, and where in it she is. This is a candidate because the subject of the second act is “finding the Princess” and, through her, finding the Rebellion — and here she is! Now all the main characters can join forces to fight the rebellion.
- The moment when Luke finally is face-to-face with the Princess. This is a candidate because it’s more concrete to see her than just to know where she is — and because it’s something that Luke does (and earns) rather than something R2D2 does.
- The fight between Obiwan Kenobi and Darth Vader. This is a candidate because its outcome means that Luke is now on his own: before it was General Kenobi who has to save the Princess and the Rebellion, but now it rests on Luke to do it.
- The moment when the Millennium Falcon has “escaped” the Death Star and they’ve arrived at Rebellion headquarters. This is a good candidate because it divides two phases of the action that are completely different in location, in nature, and in flow. This is what “turning point” should mean. On the other hand, this moment comes relatively late in the screenplay.
Some people come away from the screenwriting books impressed with the (to me) empty truism that there’s “a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
But when it comes to practically analyzing real movies, you need to know a lot more and to be able to make much more careful distinctions.
Star Wars 3-act structure: question 2
The first act ends at a point where all of the questions have been answered except the main one — and we’re in suspense on it. We have only the most general idea how the main question can get answered, and we’re waiting eagerly for new developments.
The questions that have gotten answered at the end of the first act:
- Will R2D2 complete his mission by delivering the message from the Princess to General Kenobi?
- Will General Kenobi agree to help her?
- Will Luke be able to escape the farm?
- Will Luke escape the farm in a way that makes him feel good about satisfying his obligations to his Aunt and Uncle?
- If Luke does escape, how would he succeed in getting the Rebellion to notice him or let him help?
The all-encompassing, but vague, question that hasn’t gotten answered at the end of the first act:
- Will Luke be able to rescue the Princess, gain her love, and help the Rebellion?
I’ve noticed that in the movies I’ve seriously tried to analyze this principle is important. It’s effective when an act ends because it’s dramatic material is exhausted: all the questions have been answered except the biggest ones — and for the big ones, you don’t even know how an answer could start. You want new material to come into the movie, you’re in suspense looking for it, and you’re excited when it arrives: it propels you into the new act.
I don’t see a lot written about this in the screenwriting books.
Star Wars 3-act structure: question 3
Good movies often have structure within their acts, and this may be one thing that makes them better than others.
If I focus only on the first act of Star Wars, it has a plot (only a subplot of the movie as a whole) that looks to me like a complete story:
Princess Leia sends R2D2 on a mission to deliver a message to General Kenobi asking his help,: R2 encounters a series of obstacles but keeps trying; and finally R2 succeeds.
The completeness of this story has a lot to do with the audience’s feeling that Act 1 is over and their accompanying expectation that it’s time to move on to something new — namely, Act 2.
The protagonist of this Act 1 mini-story is not Luke — it’s R2D2. In fact, Luke (rather than Darth Vader or Luke’s uncle) is R2D2’s antagonist in this “message to General Kenobi” subplot.
In fact, the tension between Luke’s role as protagonist in the whole move and his role as antagonist in Act 1 is one of the fine and sophisticated things about this screenplay — it makes Luke’s character deeper and more convincing.
How many of the screenwriting books discuss the structure within acts in any depth?
Star Wars 3-act structure: question 4
After Act 1, R2D2 appears only sporadically:
- when he finds the Princess,
- when he saves them from the trash compactor,
- and when he provides the brains of Luke’s fighter in the final battle.
For me, R2 isn’t nearly as involving in these scenes as he is in Act 1. This is hard to understand: why shouldn’t he be involving when in all three of these scenes his role is crucial and indispensable?
I conjecture that the reason is that in these later scenes R2’s part has two features that prevent me from getting as involved with him.
- He does what he does relatively quickly without buildup and suspense in a subplot where he’s the protagonist.
- What he does in them is some internal computer manipulation that I can’t see or follow.
In contrast, his role in Act 1 takes the whole act for him to develop and carry out — and he does what he does in ways I can see.
For further posts in this series, see my Story Structure page.