3-act Structure — Star Wars (original)

This post is part of the Background to the series
Learning from Alfred Hitchcock
— for writers, movie makers, and viewers

Alec Guinness as Obiwan Kenobi in Star Wars

Don’t blame me. The screenwriting books ruined everything. It’s almost impossible now to sell your script to Hollywood without paying lip-service to “3-act structure.”

The thing that gripes me is that it’s such simple-minded stuff. They keep chanting, “Every good screenplay has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Yeah: like every good donut has a top, a center, and a bottom. Right. Sure. Of course.

Not automatically a useful concept for analytical purposes . . . or, if I make donuts and want to get good at it.

To be practical, the definitions would have to fit an operational reality: “Some donuts have a donut, a filling, and a glaze.” This would tell me that, for that particular type of donut, I’d need to mix my batter, my filling, and my glaze separately. Though I’d need more information, I’d have a start.

But, if you question these people, they just repeat it again, slowly, patronizingly — “Every good screenplay has a beginning, a middle and an end.” — as if I’m the one too dense to understand.

All right. All right. I see that I’m letting my sarcasm run away with me.

I’ll try to be more constructive.

Why is 3-act structure an important concept that needs to be understood?

Three reasons:

  1. As mentioned above, if you want to sell to Hollywood then, somewhere, some one of the gatekeepers empowered to say “No” will eventually refuse to let your project past unless s/he can see three acts. You can have other things in addition to the 3-act structure — as long as you don’t mention them any time the suits can hear you.
  2. As mentioned in Post 01 of this series, using the 3-act structure in your screenplay is the most effective way of formulating a logline or a pitch so that your project appears to have complications, drama, and forward motion. “If you can structure your screenplay, you can pitch it; if you can pitch your screenplay, you can structure it.”
  3. In fact, 3-act structure is a simple, sturdy choice of method. Though it isn’t the best choice for every single story, it has worked with complete satisfaction countless times, and will do so countless more times. Optionally, it can be combined with 2-act structure, or chapter structure, or both to create sophisticated, powerful movies like Vertigo.

Okay. So what is “3-act structure?”

The screenwriting books give different criteria depending on which movie they’re analyzing at the minute — which, of course, tends to make the idea useless. You might want more than one definition, but you’d need to be clear about them ahead of time.

Many people seem to feel that you have 3-act structure if you have two big, impressive scenes, called “turning points” — let’s say, approximately on pages 30 and 75 in a 105-page screenplay — and so these turning points accordingly divide the movie into three segments, or “acts.”

This is the version that I call “The Snowman Theory” of screenplay structure: all you need are three balls of snow, and you just stack them up. (I suppose I’ve fallen into sarcasm again.) Even if you subscribe to this idea, you’d have to see that we’d rightfully be more interested in the snow balls (the acts) than in what’s between them (the turning points).

And the acts themselves shouldn’t merely be undifferentiated balls of snow.

Here’s a concept that’s mentioned in some of the screenwriting books. I find it appealing. Criterion 1: You don’t have true 3-act structure unless you have a protagonist. The end of Act 1 occurs when the protagonist makes a commitment that leads to the main action of the movie: Acts 2 and 3.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in the original version of Star WarsStar Wars fits this criterion perfectly. Despite the importance of other characters, Luke is clearly the protagonist. The first act ends at the end of the sequence in which Luke has just discovered that his family’s farm has been burned and he asks Ben Kenobi to be taken along on the mission and to be trained as a Jedi to fight for the rebellion.

Criterion 1 has operational significance.

If you were assigned to write the screenplay for Star Wars, you might be tempted to choose a different scene as the end of Act 1.

For example, the scene where Ben first appears and rescues Luke from the Sand People is an important one, and it’s one that George Lucas handles effectively and with a certain beauty. If you were the writer, could you pump this scene up and make it be the end of Act 1? Well, if you’re trying for real 3-act structure (which you may not be) then this isn’t an option. Luke doesn’t make any commitment here — in fact, he’s unconscious at the crucial moment.

Or, there’s the scene where the planet Alderan is blown up. Dramatically, this is a very important plot reversal. And, there’s no end to the potential for CGI special effects work to make it impressive looking. Could you pump it up and make it be the end of Act 1? Not if you want real 3-act structure: because in it Luke is no more than a horrified, and not really comprehending, spectator.

According to Criterion 1, the end of Act 1 has to be the scene where Luke commits to following Obiwan and helping the Princess.

This tells me where I have to place that scene; and it tells me how much ceremony I need to surround it with, so that the viewer feels its importance.

It also tells me what Act 1 is about: it’s not just an undifferentiated mass of snow; it’s about the events that lead the protagonist to make the commitment.

The story of Act 1 of Star Wars is organized around a single principle: it explains its 1st Turning Point, Luke’s decision to follow Ben. To do this, it focuses on the key factors: The Princess’s plight, Artoo’s mission, Ben’s situation, and Luke’s dreams. It’s about how Luke came to own Artoo, and how Artoo led Luke to Ben.

Act 1 of Star Wars isn’t a static tableau illustrating its characters. And it isn’t a series of disconnected snapshots. It’s a movie: It moves. It unfolds. It grows organically out of the ideas inside it.

It’s the 3-act structure that enables this.

Here’s a second concept I find appealing. Criterion 2: In a 3-act movie, the characters begin in a state of equilibrium, a status quo ante. Something happens that disturbs the equilibrium and starts a sequence of events. At the end, the characters come to rest in a new, different equilibrium. Act 3 shows the events that immediately bring about that second equilibrium.

Star Wars fits this. At the beginning, Luke is a farm boy dreaming of being a star fighter for the rebellion; at the end he is a star fighter for the rebellion and, in fact, a hero. Act 3 starts when Luke and the others escape from the Death Star, and it’s devoted to the final battle in which Luke relieves the immediate threat to the rebellion.

The writer needs — and the audience needs — to feel this clearly: that there’s an equilibrium at the beginning and a different one at the end.

Again, this concept is dynamic, not static. Things don’t just happen; they happen in ways that change the nature of the status quo. We’re making a movie.

There is a third concept that isn’t always necessary for 3-act structure but often goes well with it. Criterion 3: In a 3-act movie, the external changes, or “outer story,” are often accompanied by an “inner story” in which the protagonist changes or grows emotionally. Often, these changes are romantic.

Star Wars has a classic version of this: the hero gets his goal; and, thereby, he also gets the girl. All 3-act inner stories aren’t necessarily like this, but in the fairy tale version the inner and outer stories are practically identical. Leia is so closely identified with the rebellion that, for Luke, fighting for one is the same as fighting for the other.

Here’s a diagram of the 3-act structure of Star Wars. The heights of the bars indicate the relative length of time.

3-act structure timeline for original Star Wars

Each act tells an easily described story in itself. It can be grasped unconsciously by a viewer without analyzing. The turning point at the end of the act is felt as a  satisfying milestone because it completes a sequence of action that has lasted the whole act. That sequence of action seemed like an agenda, something that needed to get done. The viewer buys into the movie by accepting that need, for feeling responsible for getting it accomplished. In these circumstances, any spectacle in the presentation of the turning point isn’t just empty excitement: it accentuates the viewer’s needed feeling of release.

This isn’t the only way to make a movie, but it’s one way that works. 

For more on the structure of Star Wars, please see:
Star Wars (the original: is there any other?)

This post is part of the Background to the series
Learning from Alfred Hitchcock
— for writers, movie makers, and viewers

This entry was posted in Alfred Hitchcock, Screenwriting, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 3-act Structure — Star Wars (original)

  1. Pingback: Sit down and I will tell you a tale like none that you have ever heard… « Think, Design, Play

  2. Hmm says:

    LTTP, but when is the end of act 1? Is it when Luke commits to help Ben or when they escape from the Death Star?

  3. derp says:

    loved this article, very informative. (and snarky too!)

  4. Pingback: The Roots – Determining the structure of your novel: Novel Writing Prep-Series | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer

  5. at what point do you see Act 3 beginning for this movie? is it once the Falcon leaves the dock, the next scene starts Act 3? would you include the followup Falcon/Tie-Fighter battle part of Act 2, and the followup cockpit scene w/ Han/Leia and Han/Luke the beginning of Act 3, or does that scene conclude Act 2 and the opening of Yavin beginning Act 3? seems like pacing-wise, the latter, when we first arrive on Yavin, is the opening of Act 3. anyway, i’d look at the movie but don’t have any access to it currently :-(

    • Dustin says:

      I believe Act 3 begins when we find out that the Millennium Falcon is being tracked back to the rebel base. That’s the disaster that sets up the final showdown battle.

      • S. says:

        That’s a bit early in the story for Act 3 to me. I follow the split-ups that were made here. This afternoon, I read Syd Field’s book about screenplaywriting, and did an test for myself to see if I understood the setup of the 3 Acts. I took a piece of paper and tried to synthesize Star Wars.

        ACT 1 – The Setup
        Inciting Incident: Vader is looking for the plans of the Death Star and captures Leia.
        Droids escape with plans to Tatooine, come in position of Luke, lead Luke to Ben, Ben is a Jedi and tries to recruite Luke. He is not ready to leave his balanced life.
        Plot Point I : Luke finds his death aunt and uncle. Now he is ready to leave.

        ACT 2 – The confrontation
        Begin: they need a ship, find Han, obstacle: imperial troops, leave Tatooine, MF in space, Death Star pulls in the MF.
        Middle: getting into the DS, rescue of Leia
        End: Ben fights Darth Vader, rest escapes
        Plot Point 2: they have the Death Star plans, but Ben is dead. Now what?

        ACT 3 – The resolution
        They destroy the Death Star, due to Luke who learned how to listen to the force

  6. Pingback: Structure in writing : BubbleCow

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