Take a two hour movie and divide it into equal 30-minute segments and you have four acts. Overall, you always have a single goal posed at the beginning of the story that’s finally answered in the end. Often times this initial question is easily buried behind the main action of the story.
For example in “Die Hard,” all the action centers around defeating terrorists, but the real story is whether John McClane will get back with his wife or not. In the beginning, he’s on his way to make up to his wife and by the end of the story, he’s finally back together with her.
Every story needs an overall question that’s finally answered in the end. However, to get from this initial question to the final goal, each Act needs a goal of its own and that goal centers around the Symbol of Hope.
Initially, the hero has a goal but has no way of achieving it. Then the villain introduces the Symbol of Hope that provides the hero with a concrete path towards his or her emotional goal. The way this four Act structure works is as follows:
- Act I — The hero has a dream, the villain introduces the Symbol of Hope, and the hero chases after it into a new world.
- Act IIa — The hero nearly loses the Symbol of Hope in this unfamiliar new world, but finally achieves it.
- Act IIb — After getting the Symbol of Hope, the hero needs to protect it form the villain.
- Act III — The villain threatens to destroy the Symbol of Hope for good unless the hero defeats the villain and saves the Symbol of Hope forever.
Dividing your story into four Acts makes it easier to plot, and to keep you focused on that plot, make sure each scene drives the Act towards its purpose.
In Act I, that purpose is to give the hero motivation to enter a new world. In “Star Wars,” this Symbol of Hope is Princess Leia, who gives Luke motivation to chase after her. After storm troopers kill his aunt and uncle, Luke finally decides to leave his planet and go with Obi-wan to deliver R2D2 to Princess Leia’s planet.
In Act IIa, Luke finally achieves his goal of getting to Princess Leia’s planet, except it has been blown up by the Death Star.
In Act IIb, Luke discovers that Princess Leia is scheduled for execution so he rescues her from her prison cell.
In Act III, the Death Star threatens to blow up the rebel base and Princess Leia unless Luke destroys the Death Star and saves Princess Leia.
In then beginning of “Star Wars,” Luke wanted an adventure. By the end, he’s gotten his adventure.
In your story, define your story’s main goal (the hero’s emotional dream) and then make each Act focus around the Symbol of Hope that gives your hero a concrete path towards achieving that emotional dream. By doing this, you can insure that your story keeps moving forward and stays focused.