Star Wars is the perfect three-act play.
So, what is this three-act play stuff? Easy, it’s a formula that writers of all types use to guide their plots so a story doesn’t just ramble on. Face it, we’ve all read fiction that lacked direction, the characters, and the reader just wander in the woods until the author runs out of ink in his pen…boring.
The three-act play gives your story a concrete beginning, middle and end. What’s more, this format is so widely used in western fiction that most readers expect to see it, even if they couldn’t describe it (I know, people are weird).
Is the three act play a law authors must obey? No! But beginning writers would do well to know what the mold looks like before they try to break it. So, here goes; free writing advice from me (struggling, yet published author) to you.
Now, do you remember the first Star Wars movie?
Good, most folks have seen the original Star Wars, whether they consider themselves fans or not. But, most people who’ve seen it don’t know how perfectly, how EXACTLY, it uses the three act play boilerplate. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look…
ACT ONE: In this act, the author opens with a threat to hook the audience’s attention, and then introduces all the principal characters.
Forget the boring text crawl. What people remember most about the beginning of this movie is the gigantic space battle it opens with. A big, threatening ship swallows a teeny-tiny ship, and soon storm-troopers are bursting through an exploding door, shooting it out with rebel crewmen. Bang! The audience is hooked.
We meet Darth Vader, Princess Leia, and the droids before we’ve finished our popcorn. Soon, the action draws us down to Tatooine where we meet Luke (our protagonist on a hero’s journey), Obi-wan, Han and Chewie. Now that the characters have all been introduced we send them on a quest to deliver the plans to Alderaan. Once that little chore is done, the characters think everything will be okay…but the audience hopes it won’t be so easy.
Face it, nobody sitting in the theater wants the show to end now. Escaping from Moss Isley Spaceport in the Millennium Falcon is only the end of act one, not of the movie.
ACT TWO: The middle of the play begins with the “first catastrophe” and ends with the “second catastrophe.” In between those two events we see the characters come together as a team and the hero moving forward on his journey.
The first catastrophe is the destruction of planet Alderaan. So much for our nice, simple quest to deliver the plans. Now our heroes must deactivate the tractor beam, rescue the princess and escape the frigging garbage monster. During this time of struggle, we see Luke taking initiative, leading the assault on the detention center, and becoming less farm boy and more Jedi (as his journey progresses).
The second act ends when they face the second catastrophe. True, they escaped the Death Star. Unfortunately, the darn thing is following them back to the rebel base and will soon destroy the only resistance to the evil empire’s control of the entire galaxy. Thanks Obama!
ACT THREE: Climax and resolution for the hero and his friends.
Act three begins on the fourth moon of Yavin, where Luke receives his briefing with the other fighter pilots. The climax is, of course, the biggest space battle yet. The dogfight over the Death Star is so intense that we almost completely forget about the space battle that opened the movie. The audience is treated to several near misses as rebel, after rebel, fails to hit the target. Final victory is achieved when Luke uses the force for the first time, thus giving him kinship with Obi-wan as a force wielding warrior (if not a Jedi yet).
The resolution comes with medals for everybody (except Chewie and the droids…what’s up with that?). Our plot is concluded, and the audience feels satisfied that they’ve had a full meal with all the meat and potatoes proceeding the desert. And there you have it; the three act play.
Watch any movie, read any book and I’m willing to bet you’ll see 80% of them follow this formula. Why? Because it works, and it’s what readers have come to expect. Yes, you can monkey with it. Yes, you can scrap it all together. But if you do, you will need to give your audience something else in return to satisfy their hunger. In other words, don’t try jumping your motorcycle over the house until you learn to ride the darn thing around the block.
Thus endeth the lesson.