The Journey from Zero to Hero
Welcome to another Friday Fiction Breakdown your place to learn from the storytelling greats and apply it to your own writing. Let’s get into it.
I wrote about plotting, pantsing and the three act structure this week for Wednesday Writer’s Workshop. The article argued that whether you are a plotter or pantser, the three act structure the simplest, easiest, and most effective at delivering a compelling story to your reader. It has everything you need to tell a great story: the introduction, action, climax(es), and conclusion. Regardless of writing your first book or tenth, you should consider using the three act structure. Story structures are for plotters, in the case of Tolkien, and pantsers, in the case of Stephen King.
Today, I’ll focus on a fantastic example of the three act structure. I gave the example of the Fellowship of the Ring in Wednesday’s article, but you may not have read any Tolkien or have dozen hours or so to read it. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), will be the model of the three act structure since the two-hour movie is more easily digestible than a twelve hour Tolkien or King novel as well as a testament to the method due to the success of the whole film franchise.
Act One – Set Up
The story began in space where a small ship was first dwarfed, then engulfed by a much larger ship controlled by the Empire. Immediately, the audience understood the bigger ship shooting at the smaller one was the enemy. We were meant to cheer on the smaller ship and were crushed when it was taken over. A fast paced battle raged through the halls, killing many on both sides. The action was loud as the Imperials overwhelmed the smaller security force of the vessel.
This first action sequence lasts only minutes, but everyone in the theater was riveted. Start your book with some action or tension to catch the reader’s attention and hold it. These first pages are critical to captivate new readers since they are likely to read the first few paragraphs or pages in either a bookstore or online since Amazon Kindle provides the first few pages as a preview. After your cover, this is the second step in selling your book. The opening action does not have to a space opera style battle scene if your book is mystery or romance. Regardless, it should open with tension and make the reader forget they are reading a book; instead, they are watching real people in some kind of peril in their mind’s eye. Back to Star Wars.
Introduction to the Main Character
A few minutes later we are introduced to the main character, Luke Skywalker. Luke is a young man with adult aspirations of leaving his uncle’s farm on Tatooine and exploring the greater galaxy. He’s a dreamer in search of something bigger.
The first act is where you establish your main character(s), the setting, and hint to the tension your hero must overcome. Everyone is equal and the status quo is in full force. Here, Luke is supposed to leave his home and battle the Empire. He is yet to have his inciting incident; but we know from the foreshadowing of the previous scene as well as his interaction with the droids, R2 and C3PO, that Luke must move on to bigger and better things. Right now, we see him in his element and learn to like him. It’s from this early template that watching him grow, change, and react to new situations through the rest of the films that makes him interesting. We are given the opportunity to become attached to him; thus, when he is in peril, like the trash compactor scene, we worry about his well being since we have had time to like him.
The Inciting Incident
Luke returned home after looking for R2 across the desert sands of Tatooine. He found that his aunt and uncle, who raised him from birth, were killed and their house destroyed. Luke assumed it was the Stormtroopers looking for the droids his uncle had recently bought. There was nothing left for Luke on the farm. It was bittersweet for him to leave, but he had no other choice than to follow Ben Kenobi and head for Planet Alderaan.
This is the inciting incident and the first plot point of the story. A plot point always brings the conclusion of an act. The inciting incident is the action or trauma that breaks the main character(s) out of their normal lives and thrusts them into action. For Luke, it was the death of his aunt and uncle. For Frodo, as we learned Wednesday, it was the disappearance of his uncle and the passing of the Ring of Power. These incidents turn the average moisture farmer, or Hobbit with a little bit of Took in him, into the main character and they begin their Hero’s Journey.
Act Two – Confrontation
Luke and his friends are now on a quest to deliver whatever R2 is holding to Princess Leia’s father on Alderaan. They moved from the isolated moisture farm to Mos Eisley, a populated spaceport. There, they meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, who pilot the Millennium Falcon. The crew left Tatooine and head for Alderaan only to discover the entire planet had been destroyed by the Empire’s secret weapon, the Death Star. Han Solo’s ship is captured by the Death Star using a tractor beam to pull the ship from space. Luke and the crew snuck onto the space station after hiding in secret smuggling compartments. They split up, some of the crew looking for Princess Leia, who they discover is on the station, and Ben Kenobi heads to disable the tractor beam. Several gun battles erupted between Luke’s team and Stormtroopers before and after they find Princess Leia. Ben disabled the tractor beam so the Millenium Falcon could get away.
Act two concluded with a confrontation of Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader, Kenobi’s former pupil, turned enemy. Luke and team, with Princess Leia in tow, fight their way to the hanger. Luke stopped to watch Ben and Vader battle. Ben saw Luke watching and allowed himself to be joined with the Force and struck down by Vader. Luke’s team continued to fight their way to the Millennium Falcon, board and speed away from the station.
Stakes Get Higher
The second act holds most of the action. There is a constant, rising tension from beginning to end. A New Hope’s second act began with the confrontation in the cantina, which is minor compared to the later tension of the trash compactor or the battle between Ben and Vader. Most of the story lives in act two and we get to see the main character do things they would not normally do. Here, they are out of their element and the audience can see a new side of this character they did not see before. The second act breaks the status quo. Some people lead and some follow. It’s important to have an act one so the reader can see the progression of your main character. The beginning of the story we find a young man, more in the love with the idea of an adventure than actually doing it. Then in act two, we see him doing things greater than himself. He’s in the action.
Act Two ends with the second plot point to propel the story into the third act. This plot point is the climax of rising tension experienced throughout act two. Climax one should have higher tension than the inciting incident at the end of act one, but not more than the final crisis in act three. Luke and his friends were sneaking around the Death Star to find a way off. They run into Princess Leia and take her with them. The second plot point is the death of Ben Kenobi and everyone else’s escape from the space station. This climax sets up even greater tension and the crisis of act three.
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Act Three – Resolution
Princess Leia revealed the location of the rebel base on Yavin 4, a small habitable moon in a remote region of space. Unbeknownst to the crew of the Millennium Falcon, the Empire had placed a tracking device on the ship and followed them to Yavin. The rebels must defend their base from the Death Star using a small contingent of fighters, one that Luke joined. With their plan in place to attack the Imperial station, based on schematics provided by R2, the rebels launched an offensive to destroy the Death Star before it could destroy the moon and the entire rebel fleet. Han Solo, true to his character, left the rebel base with prize money in tow, abandoning the small organization to their fate against the Galactic Empire. A massive space battle ensued with several failed attempts to strike the station’s weakness. It fell to Luke, who had to trust in the Force, with little training. Darth Vader swooped in to disrupt Luke’s attempt but was covered by Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon, returning to the cause after a change of heart. Luke tried again and destroyed the Death Star. The movie concluded with an award ceremony, honoring the former farmer and a smuggler.
The Final Crisis
Act three is often the shortest of the acts; however, it is densely packed with action, conflict, victory or defeat, and resolution. The tension released by getting away from the Death Star is momentarily relieved before the rebellion learned the Millennium Falcon was tracked to Yavin 4. The tension resumed in the story to its final crisis. This is it, do or die. Act three should always have the highest stakes where failure often means death or destruction. The climax of act two, with the crew finding the Millennium Falcon and Kenobi dying, did not have the most to lose. If the Luke and his friends failed to board the ship and get away, then they could have continued to wander the Death Star until they found another way off or hid until the rebellion attacked the station –however unlikely. The crisis of act three does not provide an alternative way out. Either the rebellion defeats the Death Star, or the Death Star destroys Yavin 4 and the whole rebellion with it.
This is the time for the characters to undergo the most change. In act one, they were introduced as they were in the world: Luke, a boy with dreams, Princess Leia, a snarky, yet fierce fighter for freedom, and Han Solo, scoundrel and smuggler only worried about himself, his ship, Chewbacca. Their actions in act two were merely acts of survival. There as less heroism and more reactions than anything. Act three is where the characters shine. Luke became a heroic fighter and trusts in the Force. Princess Leia inspired and lead the rebellion. Han Solo forgot his selfishness and fought for a cause greater than gaining money to pay off a bounty.
Act three is also the place where any previous questions are answered that were asked throughout the story. The movie opened with Princess Leia placing something inside of R2 and recording a message. In act three, we learn it was the schematics of the Death Star. When Ben and Luke first watch Leia’s message, she mentions the rebellion, but the audience does not know how the rebellion operates. In act three we see the rebellion in action at their home base.
Star Wars: A New Hope, is a perfect example of the three act structure. It has the Setup with the introduction of characters, setting, and plot with an inciting incident to get the main character into action on their hero’s journey. Act two is the confrontation and where all the action happens on the Death Star: the Millennium Falcon was boarded, the crew snuck around the halls, they found Princess Leia, escaped from the trash compactor, fought several battles, Ben disabled the tractor beam and the confrontation with Vader. The second act nearly had it all. The final act had the crisis and resolution where the stakes were the highest. The Death Star followed the Millennium Falcon to the rebel base. The rebels defended themselves against total annihilation, and characters complete their arcs transitioning from selfishness to selfless sacrifice and commitment.
The three act structure is not the most sophisticated way to tell a story and does have its criticisms as I wrote on Wednesday. Still, it is a time-tested way to tell a story. Many modern screenplays and books follow this example. Despite being a plotter or pantser, you should still realize that every story must have some form of structure and logical flow. The next time you watch a movie or read a book, look to see what structure it’s using. You may be surprised to find the three act structure.
Thank you for reading this installment of Friday Fiction Breakdown. Please like, share on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ if you liked it. You can follow me, Ryan A. Ross, on Twitter @ryanthebossross. Don’t forget to check out the Archives, lot’s of great stuff including the Daily Download and Wednesday Writer’s Workshop.
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Until next time.
Featured Image Credit: http://thereformedbroker.com/2012/01/01/binary-sunset/
Image One Credit: http://screenrant.com/luke-skywalker-gay-star-wars-characters-mark-hamill/
Image Two Credit: http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/star-wars/news/a790799/star-wars-obi-wan-kenobi-was-originally-going-to-survive-his-fight-with-darth-vader/
Image Three Credit: http://www.starwars.com/news/parallel-journeys-why-the-star-wars-films-are-more-connected-than-you-think