Thursday, April 1, 2010

Teen Inklings, Vol. 9: THREE-ACT STRUCTURE

This month’s ezine is a continuation of last month’s article on The Outline. An outline consists of three major acts. Your outline needs to have each part, because, like a snowman, without all three parts the outcome isn’t pretty.

Not all acts are created equal. The first act takes up ¼ of the story, the second takes up ½, and the third takes up the remaining ¼. The Middle should be twice as long as the Beginning or End.

Each act contains a disaster that propels the story forward. The first disaster comes at the end of the first act, where your Main Character is forced past the Point of No Return. The second disaster comes smack dab in the center of act two, and it’s there to keep your story from getting boring. The third disaster comes right at the front of act three and drives your Main Character to the End. Simple, huh?

Let’s look at the three-act structure of the popular movie, Star Wars: A New Hope. The movie is 125 minutes long, so the first act should take 30 minutes, the second should take 60 minutes, and the third should take up the remaining 30 minutes. This leaves us with roughly 5 minutes for the credits, which have absolutely nothing to do with anything.

Act One and the First Disaster
The movie starts with a large ship attacking and docking a smaller craft in outer space. Vader is introduced. Leia is captured. R2D2 and C3PO escape with critical information involving the Death Star. On the planet they’ve escaped to, the droids are captured by Jawas in a massive tank thingy.

But Act One isn’t over yet, we’ve only passed the fifteen minute mark!

The Main Character, Luke Skywalker, is introduced. He buys R2D2 and C3PO from the Jawas, but R2 runs (rolls?) away and the trio is attacked by Dread Sand People! An old man named Ben saves them, and they discover the secret message that R2 holds. Ben asks Luke to join him in the rebellion against the Empire, but Luke will have nothing to do with it. Instead he returns to his uncle’s farm—only to find it burned to a crisp by the Imperial forces tracking the droids.

This is the first disaster. Because of it, Luke returns to Ben and says, “I'll come with you now. There’s nothing for me here. I want to become a Jedi like my father.” Ahh, the Point of No Return.

Act Two and the Second Disaster
Ben and Luke need a ship in order to reach the Rebels. They find Han Solo, a smuggler and the captain of the Millennium Falcon, and convince him to take them on as passengers. Luke practices Jedi skills and the ship is attacked by a Tie Fighter, which drives them into being captured by the planet-destroying travesty, the Death Star. Ben goes off to shut down the tractor beam while Luke stumbles upon Princess Leia and decides to rescue her.

After accomplishing his goal, Ben faces off against Vader and ends up perishing in the act. Luke is on his own now and must deliver R2’s secret intel to the Rebels by himself. This is the second disaster, and it comes halfway into act two.

Luke and Han escape with Leia and, after a space battle, the Millennium Falcon reaches the Rebel base. They present R2’s intel about the Death Star and a desperate plan is conjured to destroy the planet-wrecking Death Star, and thus abolish the Emperor’s plans forever (yeah…sure).

Act Three and the Third Disaster
Han Solo turns his back on the Rebels and tries to get Luke to come with him. But Luke, on his quest to learn the Force and avenge his adoptive parents’ deaths, sees that the only way to bring Justice to the Empire is to abide by the Rebels’ suicidal plan. This is the third disaster, and it draws everything into focus.

The attack begins. Every Rebel ship that approaches the Death Star is destroyed, and only Luke is left to try. R2 is damaged. Darth Vader is on his tail. Luke turns off the computer and hears Ben’s voice in his head, “Use the force, Luke.” Darth Vader has his finger on the trigger and… Han Solo shows up and drives Vader away. Luke uses the force and blows up the Death Star. All conflicts are resolved. Luke has discovered the Force, his family is avenged, and the rebels have triumphed. The end!

So that was a full outline of Star Wars: A New Hope. If you’re one of those Star Wars obsessed people who know everything from the name of Yoda’s first love to Chewbacka’s middle initial, you’ll note that the acts don’t exactly correspond to the times we gave at the beginning. Act one took 40 minutes, act two took 58 minutes, and act three took 22 minutes. In fact, the credits are the only thing that stuck to their allotted 5 minutes. But guess what… that’s fine. Writing is an art, and like any art there’s some leeway that goes with it. But the tried and true way to structure a novel is this: three acts, three disasters. Stick with it, and you’ll soar with the Jedi Masters of the craft.


  1. ::coff:: I think I'm one of those aforementioned *Star Wars people* any rate, excellent post. I love these, and I read them every time you post! Especially since I'm in need of as much writing help as I can get...

  2. Hey, I'm not hating on Star Wars! When I was younger I absolutely loved Star Wars! haha
    I'm glad you find the articles helpful, Madeline. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thanks so much for the post Chris!!! They are all very helpful! *dashes off to go organize the unorganizable*

  4. You're welcome, Ivory! And I'm sure whatever you're organizing isn't unorganizable.

  5. Okay. This makes sense. But I thought Star Wars was a classic example of mythic structure...I dunno. I guess you can look at it both ways. An article on mythic structure and Star Wars:

    Nevertheless, the way you outlined the three act structure is perfectly fine. Besides, it's more popular nowadays than mythic structure anyways. Good work.

    As always, Write Big.

    Brayden Hirsch

  6. Yes, Star Wars: A New Hope is both a three-act, three-disaster structure and the mythic structure listed on that site combined. Seems impossible, no?

    Let me elaborate.

    All of the plot-points listed in your link can fit within the three-acts, because every plot point in a story should propel your Main Character forward. But there are three main disasters in Star Wars: A New Hope, and those are the ones I pointed out.

    Feel free to disagree with me, though. I'm the first to admit I don't know everything.

  7. I just want to say, I think your blog is awesome.

    Are you aware of Writing Excuses? Their podcast on the three-act structure is quite good.

  8. Thanks very much, Thursday!

    I'll check out those links.

  9. I have that without even meaning to! Wee!
    1. FMC's sister and MMC run off
    2. FMC's family dies
    3. MMC's father dies

    Yes, they all involve death.

  10. Haha I loved this :) and YESSS someone finally mentioned my hero Han Solo xD
    Good point makes a lot of sense. I never would have thought of looking at Star Wars for writing help but... It's right there!

  11. Thanks this info will help me out VERY much. :)
    I wonder if my novel matches up...