Big Picture Story Structure – Part 2: Three-Act Structure

vader-vs-benThis is the second part of a three-part series on story structure.

The first part began a discussion on the Three-Act Structure.  This part continues that discussion.  Part three will discuss Seven-Point Story Structure and plot weaving.

When I last left you, I had just addressed breaking into Act-2.

Now, it’s on to Act-2 and the story world.

Three-Act Structure: Act-2 part 1

Act-2 is generally split into two equal parts. The first part, as Blake Snyder calls it in his awesome screenwriting book, is the fun-and-games section. It’s where you make good on the promise of the premise.

The promise of the premise is essentially what the back cover blurb promises, or in movie terms, what the trailer promises. This is where things can go wrong if the writer doesn’t come through on that promise or the blurb/trailer misrepresents the story. If that happens, the audience may feel cheated and tricked, like going into a supposedly profitable business meeting and coming face-to-face with the people from Enron.

This should be the most fun part of the story. Most of the cool stuff you see in trailers happens here. In road movies, this is where your characters hit the trail and begin meeting all those interesting people and begin doing all those interesting things. In superhero origin stories, this is where they explore their powers.

In Star Wars, the promise to the audience is you will see the Empire being bad, the good guys being good, and the good guys fighting the Empire in a grand adventure.

This is where Ben first introduces us to the Jedi mind trick. This is where Ben shows us what a lightsaber can do in the cantina. This is where HAN SHOT FIRST. This where the Millennium Falcon blasts-off under a hail of Stormtrooper fire. This where we get to see for the first time the destructive power of the Death Star, and most importantly, where we see Ben training Luke in the ways of the Force.

With that said, all that swashing and buckling needs to have a point. It has to go somewhere and that somewhere is the Midpoint.

Three-Act Structure: Midpoint

After the first part of act-2 comes the midpoint. As the name suggests, it’s the middle of the story, and it’s very-very important. Why? Because having a good midpoint and being able to build towards and springboard off that midpoint in an effective way ensures your story won’t have a saggy middle.
In many ways writing the beginning of a story is easier than writing the rest of it. You start off setting things up, so there’s a lot to discover and get all excited about. But once that’s done, you face the dreaded what-happens-next?

It’s also at this time, the new and shiny begins to lose its luster, and if there isn’t anything of substance beneath, a point to it all, nobody will want to stick around.

It’s like when you meet someone you think is really swell, and better yet, they think you’re kind of nifty too. You go out for sodas and milkshakes, and it’s all unicorns, rainbows, and the Beatles song I Want to Hold Your Hand continuously playing as the soundtrack to your courtship.

But then, kick it forward six-months to a year. You’ve told this swell person all your funny stories a dozen times over. You’ve seen them with their messy hair tangled about their shoulders, smelled their bad breath, and curled your nose at their farts.

If there’s no substance, no point, after the honeymoon period, things aren’t going to end well. It’s going to sag and stagnate.

For reference, other names for the Midpoint are Midpoint Climax, and Point-of-no-Return.

I’ve rambled a bit, so I’m sure many are asking, “Hey herky-jerky-lemon-turkey, what heck is the midpoint, besides…well… being the middle?”

Just as the story as a whole builds towards the final climax, the midpoint climax is what the first half of the story builds towards. Think of it as a key point of attraction along a long road trip. If that point meets or exceeds expectations, you’ll be in a good mood and be ready for more. If it falls flat, the big letdown is all you can think about after, and you can’t wait for the ordeal to end.

The midpoint is either a high-point in the story, a false victory, or a low-point in the story, a false defeat. It should be an emotional moment where your reader either wants to shout, “In your face bad guys. Good guys win! Good guys win!” or they want to curl up into the fetal position and mumble, “We’re all doomed.”

In Star Wars, it’s a false defeat. The Millennium Falcon arrives at the coordinates for Alderaan to discover the planet destroyed. To make things worse, they run into the Death Star, and it snags them with a tractor beam. The Boy-are- they-screwed meter hits eleven, leaving us wondering how are they going to get out of this?

But don’t just take my word for it. Check your favorite books and movies. Skip to roughly the middle and see for yourself. Unless it’s a weird exception, and there are always exceptions, I’m sure you’ll find something special happens there in the form of a midpoint climax.

Three-Act Structure: Act-2 part 2

Now that we’ve passed the midpoint, and our heroes are cheering or sobbing, we move into the second part of act-2. This ends the fun-and-games, and it’s time to get serious again about the story. Depending on what happens at the midpoint, a false defeat or false victory, this will play out slightly different.

If there’s a false defeat, the second part of act-2 is where our heroes pull themselves off the ground, dust the dirt off, and formulate a plan to extract themselves from the deepest pit of They-Are-Screwedness.

In Star Wars, after hiding in the smuggling compartments, they formulate a plan where Ben goes to cut the tractor beam power. While the rest are waiting for him, R2-D2 discovers the Princess is aboard the Death Star too. With this new information, Luke and Han, with a bit of persuasion by Luke, head off to rescue her with a plan of their own.

If there was a false victory, the second part of act-2 is where the villains regroup, drop the kid-gloves, and stop playing nice. They’ll come at the heroes even harder. If they didn’t take the heroes seriously before, they will now.

Regardless of false victory or false defeat, as act-2 heads to a close, things will begin to hit the fan. It’s time for the villains to close in and kick the heroes in the teeth.

Luke’s plan to rescue the Princess goes to crap, and even though the Stormtroopers can’t hit the broadside of a Death Star, they manage to pin Luke, Han, and Leia down in the detention wing. In a desperate attempt to escape the waist-deep muck they’re in, Leia leads them into the trash compactor, and they end up neck-deep instead.

Meanwhile, Ben runs into his old friend, Darth Vader, and this time he doesn’t have high ground. In addition, Vader isn’t stupid enough to try to force jump at someone swinging a lightsaber, again. Honestly, what even made him want to do it the first time? It’s like jumping into an airplane propeller and expecting only sugar and sweetness to come out the other side. I know there’s the power of positive thinking and all but… *sigh*
Anyway, Ben doesn’t make it off the Death Star.

By the end of this section, the heroes will have faced their doubts, but not necessarily defeat them, and they will lose a mentor. Take note, there’s flexibility in the timing of this loss. This is just when it typically happens, and it’s up to you to determine where the best spot for it is in your story

I know the whole losing a mentor seems overdone, but it’s all in the execution. If done right, it will have an emotional impact, and not only be felt by your characters but by the reader too.

The reason I believe this works is we all have mentors in our lives. They take many forms, not just parents or siblings, and they all impact us in significant ways. In addition, the loss can take many forms too, from the obvious death to someone simply moving away. Because of this, we can all connect with this loss, especially in a time of need.

This leaves our heroes without a safety net. Now, there’s no parental figure to bail them out when things get tough. They have to do it on their own.

Three-Act Structure: Breaking into Act-3

As we transition into Act-3, the heroes should have everything they need to win the day, whether they know it or not.

In Star Wars, our heroes have one another, the plans for the Death Star, and the Force. All three will be instrumental in winning the day. Remove one and things would probably take a darker turn.

Three-Act Structure: Act-3

Act-3 is where the heroes take what they’ve learned and figure out a plan to defeat the bad guys. And as always, that plan goes to crap. This is also where the main character(s) find the strength to believe in themselves and bring victory home.

In Star Wars, this is where the Rebel Alliance discovers the Death Star’s big flaw, the thermal exhaust port. Bet the Emperor wishes he’d spent the extra coin and covered that thing up with a few extra sheets of plywood, huh?
I guess this is what happens when governments give contracts to the lowest bidder. As Judge Milian says, “Lo barato sale carlo.” The cheap comes out expensive.

With this information, the rebels formulate a plan to destroy the Death Star, and the pressure is on because the Death Star is hot on their tail. The stakes are raised when it goes into orbit, giving the rebels 30 minutes before it obliterates their base on Yavin-4.

It’s do or die.

Somewhere in this act, there will be a story beat opposite to what happened at the midpoint, either a false victory or false defeat. In Star Wars, the midpoint was a false defeat, so in this act there’s a false victory. This happens when an X-Wing hits the thermal exhaust port. There’s a big cheer, but the shot doesn’t penetrate.

But hey, that shot wasn’t powered by the Force, so of course it didn’t penetrate. This sets the stage for our big-damned-hero to carve himself a healthy piece of destiny.

On the brink of rebel defeat, Luke makes his last-ditch trench run. Lasers buffet his X-Wing as Tie fighters swoop in on his tail and take-out his wingmen.

Luke closes in on the exhaust port, but when he’s tries to use his targeting computer, Ben speaks to him from beyond the grave, telling him to use the Force instead. Luke clears his doubts, trusts in the Force, and turns off his targeting computer.

A Tie fighter unleashes a barrage of laser fire, and Luke loses R2. All seems lost as the Death Star begins its firing sequence, and a Tie-fighter piloted by Vader locks onto Luke. But then, Han shows up, blasts the Tie fighters, and the resulting chaos blows Vader’s ship into deep space. With the way clear, it’s all in Luke’s hands.

He uses the Force to guide his shot. The Death Star explodes, and it’s medals all around for our big-damned-heroes, well, except for Chewbacca.

No really. If you check the final shot of the film, Chewbacca isn’t wearing a medal, just his bandoleer. Apparently fuzz balls don’t get medals.

I bet if you turn on the subtitles, Chewbacca’s final roar translates into “Where the Force is my gosh darn medal?”

And that concludes the Three-Act Structure, but it’s not the end of this article. Going to have to cliffhanger you again.

Continue on to part three, where I discuss Dan Well’s Seven Point Story Structure and how to use that in weaving plots together.

For Further Discussion

Can you look at your favorite books and films and see how they break down into parts like I described?

Here’s a tricky one. Try Ridley Scott’s Alien. I was stumped on that one for a while. Maybe still am.

Can you name an example of the three-act structure being done in a shocking or creative way?

6 thoughts on “Big Picture Story Structure – Part 2: Three-Act Structure”

  1. This is really great. I have to confess to losing track of this level of story analysis since I left college behind lo, so many years ago. I really appreciate the detail and attention to specifics in the Star Wars movie, so the advice on structure really hits home.

    I’m really looking forward to Part 3!


  2. I know you’ve based it on Star Wars (and now I want to re-watch the whole series again!)But as I was reading this, the movie that came to mind, and it is not a series like Star Wars, though there are Parts 2 and 3….is the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson… me, that definitely has the 3-Act structure….and though the other 2 were predictable, as in he “will find them”….you just don’t know he’ll go about it. Kept me on edge definitely.:) Can’t wait to get to the last post of this series. I’m loving what I’m seeing so far. 🙂

  3. Well, I wasn’t actually thinking “hey herky jerky lemon turkey, but I’ll certainly do so in the future. Wow, I feel like I’ve been to a master class in screenwriting. Thanks for a lot of great information: I’ve bookmarked your blog so I can refer back to you in the future. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Very interesting and informative article. I’m wondering – do you think that in a trilogy the 3-act structure also holds, but on a grander scale? For instance, you could say that the end of Empire Strikes Back is kind of the oh-crap-we’re-doomed midpoint of the story, and Luke deciding he needs to confront the Emperor in Return is Act 3. Maybe that’s why so many middle movies/books of a trilogy never seem as good as the first or third…


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