Look at the difference between a mediocre story and a great one. A mediocre story drags along with nothing much happening. On the other hand, a great story holds your attention and never lets it go. In screenplays the way to do this is to keep introducing one or more life-changing events in the hero’s life in every Act.
Divide a typical 120 minute movie into four equal parts and you get four 30-minute Acts. Act I introduces the characters, the setting, and the problem. Act IIa shows the hero moving towards a solution. Act IIb shows the hero running into problems. Act III shows the hero confronting the villain in the end.
What makes each Act interesting is that each one introduces massive, life-changing events into the hero’s world that forces the hero to react. Then we want to see what happens next. Just as we learn what happens next, the next act introduces another massive change in the hero’s life. This constant stream of massive change keeps a story interesting.
In “Star Wars,” look at the four Acts and the life-changing events introduced in each one:
- Act I — Luke sees the hologram of Princess Leia, then discovers that Darth Vader’s stormtroopers have murdered his aunt and uncle.
- Act IIa — Luke learns about the power of the Force from Obi-wan and leaves his planet in the Millennium Falcon.
- Act IIb — Luke gets caught by the Death Star and sees Darth Vader kill Obi-wan.
- Act III — Luke gets to be a fighter pilot to attack the Death Star and gets to blow it up.
Notice that in each Act, major life-changing events occur that keep the story moving forward. Without such life-changing events, this tory risks stagnating.
Sometimes the life-changing events are nothing more than something out of the ordinary, such as when Luke first sees Princess Leis’s hologram. This by itself is interesting, but not as life-changing as Luke finding his aunt and uncle murdered by stormtroopers.
In the latest animated film, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” you can see how each Act introduces at least two life-changing events. (SPOILER ALERT)
- Act I — Miles, the hero, is bit by a radioactive spider and witnesses Peter Parker’s death.
- Act IIa — Miles meets an older, jaded Spider-Man from another universe and discovers spider-Men from other dimensions.
- Act IIb — Miles discovers his beloved uncle is a criminal, working for the villain (Kingpin) and hears an apology from his dad.
- Act III — Miles learns to control his powers just in time to helps send the other Spider-Men back to their alternate universes, and he gains the love and respect of his father.
In “The Little Mermaid,” the life-changing events look like this:
- Act I — Ariel rescues and falls in love with a prince, but when her father finds out, he destroys all her artifacts from the human world that she’s collected.
- Act IIa — Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, the sea-witch, to become human, and almost gets the prince to kiss her.
- Act IIb — Ursula disguises herself as a woman and uses Ariel’s voice to convince the prince to marry her instead of Ariel. Although Ariel foils ursula’s plan, Ariel winds up back as a mermaid and a prisoner of Ursula.
- Act III — Ariel’s father trades places with her so Ursula can become the ruler of the seas, but Ariel and the prince help kill Ursula which so Ariel can marry the prince.
When outlining your own screenplay, make sure you have at least two life-changing events in each Act. Examine any life-changing event and see if it truly changes the hero’s life. In “The Little Mermaid,” having Ariel’s father destroy all her human artifacts is a disaster because it’s what she treasures.
This by itself isn’t life-changing as turning from a mermaid into a human, but it’s definitely an event that makes her life worse. Think of every life-changing event that totally upsets the hero’s current way of life. If a life-changing event makes it impossible for the hero to go back to his or her current way of life, then it’s truly a life-changing event.
Now just make sure you have at least two of them in every Act and your story will be much stronger as a result.