Series Info...#22: Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part One

by Shannon Appelcline

February 22, 2001 - Of the four or five creative writing classes that I've taken, my current class on screenwriting emphasizes structure more than any other. Movies have a lot of constraints, the biggest one being the two or so hour timeframe, and so it's probably not that big of a surprise that the structure is so tight... but it is intriguing and worthy of discussion.

Every once in a while, I've talked about plot in this column – the types of stories that you want to develop for your games. My most recent co-conspirator, Travis Casey, talked about ideas in his first column, helping to point you in the direction of how to come up with those plots. But, once you've got the idea and you've got the plot... what in the world do you do with it?

There are a ton of ways that you can structure plots, and again I can point you to another column for a great overview; Plot Strategies talks about the three-act structure, episodic plots, heroes' journeys, mountain plots, "W" plots, and embedded plots. I'd like to build upon that article a little bit by outlining the way that a typical movie plot is structured, and offering up as an example a movie that we're all familiar with.

When next week rolls around I'll offer up an example of how to use this type of plot in an online game.

As you've no doubt guessed, this column's primarily directed at StoryTellers again, though StoryBuilders will have plenty of plots to juggle as well when they're creating their worlds.

The Structure of Movies

The basic structure for movies is based upon ideas thousands of years old. It uses Aristotle's three-act play as its basis, dividing the story into a beginning, a middle, and an end. However the structure of movies is considerably more rigid than Aristotle's basic idea – though that doesn't necessarily mean that all movies follow that rigid structure.

Hollywood films tend to follow a "W" plot structure, like that described by Kimberly in her article on plots: Act I ends on a low; Act II has a high in the middle and ends on a low; and Act III ends on a high (usually). Act I is usually 20-30 minutes long, Act II an hour or so, and Act III 20-30 minutes again. I'll get into what tends to be in these acts as I proceed through this article.

Before I move on, let me offer credit where credit is due. The structure of movies that I'm working on is based on lectures and handouts by Megan Siler, an instructor at UC Berkeley Extension. The excerpts that I'm going to use in this article are from Star Wars: A New Hope, by George Lucas.

Act I: Setting the Scene

As I've already noted, Act I tends to take up the first 20-30 minutes in a two-hour movie. It's the part of the movie that really sets the stage, introducing the main character and the setting and establishing the tone.

A few specific things tend to happen in the first act:

  • An inciting incident
  • The establishment of characters and setting
  • A turning point

The inciting incident is something that makes things happen. It answers the question: why does a story occur now? Stories don't just begin; something makes them start, and that something is the inciting incident. In general, inciting incidents tend to happen right at the front of a film; if they get pushed down too far, the audience gets bored.

I figure the best example to use in this article is a film that everyone is familiar with, so I've chosen Star Wars: A New Hope. The inciting incident here is clear: as the Princess Leia is captured, she sends off her droids, who contain valuable information.


              Secret mission?  What plans?  What 
              are you talking about?  I'm not 
              getting in there!

    Artoo isn't happy with Threepio's stubbornness, 
    and he beeps and twangs angrily.  

    A new explosion, this time very close, sends dust 
    and debris through the narrow subhallway. Flames 
    lick at Threepio and, after a flurry of electronic 
    swearing from Artoo, the lanky robot jumps into the 

              I'm going to regret this.

Despite the fact that we have an inciting incident, it doesn't usually lead immediately to action. Rather, we tend to have a main character who is unhappy with his current life, but isn't quite ready to set out into the dangerous unknown. It's only through the course of Act I that things finally reach a boiling point. Throughout this period of resistance, we tend to learn a lot about the principal characters in our drama: who they are, what they want, and what their world is like.

Finally, though, there's a turning point that forces the main character to leave behind his potentially unhappy but fairly comfortable life. It tends to be something pretty big, and it sends the main character out into the unknown. It marks the end of Act I, and the end of the first quarter of so of a movie.


    The speeder roars up to the homestead.  Luke 
    jumps out and runs to the smoking holes that 
    were once his home.  Debris is scattered 
    everywhere and it looks as if a great 
    battle has taken place.

              Uncle Owen!  Aunt Beru!  Uncle 

    Luke stumbles around in a daze looking for his 
    aunt and uncle.  Suddenly he comes upon their 
    smoldering remains.  He is stunned, and cannot 
    speak.  Hate replaces fear and a new resolve comes 
    over him.

Act II: Beginning the Journey

Act II of a three-act motion picture is what Aristotle so aptly called "The Middle". It tends to take up the central half of a movie, perhaps an hour's worth in a two-hour film.

Because Act II is twice the length of the two other acts, it's actually broken up into two parts. The first part, which is about thirty-minutes long in a two-hour film, is a time of ever-increasing success, as the main character resolves some of the issues that caused him to set out on his journey. He finally reaches a high point at the approximate middle of the film. The second part of Act II, also about thirty minutes long, is another period of facing challenges, but this one results in a low point.

The specific things that tend to occur in Act II are:

  • The beginning of a journey (or an attempt for the main character to do something different)
  • A series of challenges
  • A high point where all appears well
  • A sudden turnaround, followed by a point of no return
  • Another series of challenges
  • A low point where all seems to have failed

Although I speak of this as a journey, the journey doesn't actually have to be a physical one. It could instead be a change of lifestyle, of occupation, or of philosophy. The real point is that the main character is doing something different in his life.

As the first half of the journey progresses, the hero tends to face a number of challenges which increase in intensity and jeopardy, ultimately raising the stakes for everyone involved. These challenges are met, however, and the hero emerges victorious, and it finally appears that he has ultimately succeeded in his goal.

And then, just as the movie edges past its midpoint, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, and something goes horribly wrong.


              What the...?  Aw, we've come out 
              of hyperspace into a meteor shower.  
              Some kind of asteroid collision.  
              It's not on any of the charts.

    The Wookiee flips off several controls and seems 
    very cool in the emergency.  Luke makes his way 
    into the bouncing cockpit.

              What's going on?

              Our position is correct, except... 
              no, Alderaan!

My teacher uses the term "Dynamic Acceleration" to describe the second half of Act II. Once you're past that point of no return ("We're caught in a tractor beam," Han shouts), everything begins to speed up. Things tend to get worse and worse for our poor main character until, at the bottom of Act II they reach a low point.

All seems lost.


    Vader brings his sword down, cutting old Ben in 
    half. Ben's cloak falls to the floor in two parts, 
    but Ben is not in it.  Vader is puzzled at Ben's 
    disappearance and pokes at the empty cloak.  As 
    the guards are distracted, the adventurers and 
    the robots reach the starship.  

    Luke sees Ben cut in two and starts for him.  
    Aghast, he yells out.


Interlude: Clarifying my Point

I've been laying out this structure for films as something close to dogma, and I want to take a second to say: not all movies are laid out like this. In fact it might well be that no movies are laid out totally like this structure. However, there's just enough truth to this structure - just enough of it that is used in just enough films – that it's a worthwhile way to look at films (and plots in general).

However, not all people will agree how this exact same structure applies to the exact same films. Perhaps not the writer and the producer; definitely not the author and all his viewers. A film, or really any drama, is a constant set of highs and lows, of successes followed up by failures followed up by points of no return, followed up by successes. Most movies tend to reach the highs and lows described here, but not everyone might see them in the same way.

I like the structure I've laid out for Star Wars because it nicely matches up the changes in actions (marked by the Acts) with the changes in setting. After the prelude, Act I is on the Lars Farm. The first half of Act II spans from Mos Eisley to space. The second half of Act II is all set in the Death Star. Finally, Act III carries the action back into space.

However, when I was talking to my wife about this article she offered up a different suggestion for the midpoint of Star Wars: that it occurs when they rescue the Princess; there's even a nice point of no return there, when they get dumped down the garbage chute. Her midpoint also has the advantage of being closer to the actual midpoint of the film than mine. (I still like mine.)

So, no dogma. This structure is a useful way to look at existing stories, and even better... a useful way to look at stories you're creating. But it'll never be 100% correct.

Now back to your article already in progress.

Act III: Breaking the Rules

After the low point that ends Act II there's only one direction to go: up. The final act of a movie tends to be about how the main character recovers from his low, usually by finding stores of strength within himself that he didn't know existed.

The third act of a film tends to include the following elements:

  • A moment of truth, understanding, or realization
  • Another series of challenges
  • A final battle

During the moment of truth, the main character might form a new understanding of himself and his place in the world. He might discover skills that he had previously refused to acknowledge or he might acknowledge emotions that he had previously ignored.


    Another TIE fighter moves in on the pirateship 
    and Luke, smiling, fires the laser cannon at it, 
    scoring a spectacular direct hit.

              Got him!  I got him!

With the benefit of the new understanding, the main character is able to draw upon a core of strength that he did not know existed, and via this method he is able to face challenges that before would have daunted him. He becomes increasingly successful and, at the end, when he enters the final battle, he is able to emerge victorious.



    Luke's torpedoes shoot toward the port and 
    seems to simply disappear into the surface 
    and not explode.  But the shots do find their 
    mark and have gone into the exhaust port and 
    are heading for the main reactor.

After the final battle, it's all over but the shouting. Some movies end right there, but in others there's a need to wrap up other plots and in general see how everyone fared.


              You must repair him!  Sir, if any 
              of my circuits or gears will help, 
              I'll gladly donate them.

              He'll be all right.

Credits: Summarizing the Structure

That, in a nutshell, is the structure of a movie, though there are other ways to look at it. I think my favorite goes something like this, again reflecting the three-act structure:

  1. Get your main character up a tree.
  2. Throw rocks at your main character.
  3. Your main character will get himself out of the tree.

Next week I'm going to look at how this structure for movies can be used to build plots in online game.

your opinion...