Every story is about a promise, and that promise must be delivered at least once in each Act. In “Star Wars,” the finale is about a big battle in space (blowing up the Death Star) while the beginning foreshadows that ending by showing a smaller version of a space battle where Darth Vader’s spaceship boards Princess Leia’s spaceship.
In every superhero movie, the promise is about a superhero fighting. That’s why the latest remake of “The Fantastic Four” failed so badly because the entire movie failed to show the superheroes battling anyone until they fight Doctor Doom in the end. By providing only one promise, “The Fantastic Four” turned out to be a dull movie.
Think of any good movie and you’ll notice that the beginning is a smaller version of the end. To structure your own screenplay, start with the big finale of your story. This big finale must be the biggest battle scene of all, much like the big finale in a fireworks show. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the big finale is when the hero finally gets to perform in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. In “Trolls,” the big finale is when the hero goes back to confront the monsters who eat trolls. In “The Magnificent Seven,” the big finale is when the good guys battle against the villain in the town.
When plotting the structure of your story, make this big finale the greatest scene with a winner take all attitude. In “The Martian,” this big finale is when the hero finally has a chance to get rescued. If he fails, he’ll die. The big finale is not just big in scope but final in its consequences. Through the movie, the hero may make mistakes but in the big finale, the hero absolutely cannot make a mistake or all hope will be lost forever.
In “Edge of Tomorrow,” the hero has been able to reverse time and replay battles until he gets it right. However in the big finale, he loses his time reversing skills, which means if he dies now, there’s no second chance.
The big finale must be the biggest battle ever with irreversible consequences for the hero.
Once you sketch out your big finale (for Act III), the next step is to go back to the beginning and sketch out a way to foreshadow the ending for Act I. This Act I promise must not only foreshadow the ending but provide the inciting incident that gets the story started.
In “Star Wars,” the story gets started when Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s starship. In “Edge of Tomorrow,” the story gets started when aliens invade Earth. Once you know the big finale in your ending, you can easily create the foreshadowing event that gets the story started in Act I.
That means you still need to deliver on your story’s promise in Act IIa and Act IIb. Act IIa delivers a positive promise while Act IIb delivers a negative promise. The positive promise of Act IIa shows the hero moving towards a goal. The negative promise of Act IIb shows the hero on the defensive to avoid losing. The promises of Act II and IIb are related in the sense that the beginning and end of a mini-story.
This is how the four promises appear in “Star Wars”:
- Act III — Luke must blow up the Death Star before it blows up the rebel base
- Act I — Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s starship to retrieve the stolen Death Star plans
- Act IIa — Luke barely escapes his planet by blasting off while stormtroopers fire at him
- Act IIb — Luke barely escapes the Death Star by blasting off while stormtroopers fire at him
Notice how the major promise of action in Acts IIa and IIb are much like mirror images of each other. Here’s how the four promises appear in “Die Hard”:
- Act III — John McClane must defeat the villain to save his wife
- Act I — John McClane arrives in Los Angeles to get back with his wife when terrorists take over the skyscraper
- Act IIa — John McClane kills several terrorists and gets their detonators
- Act IIb — John McClane kills several terrorists but loses their detonators
In your own screenplay, think of the four main promises of your story idea. If your story is a war story, then you need to show major war scenes in each Act. Structure your story by starting with the big finale in Act III, go back to the foreshadowing, inciting incident event in Act I, then create mirror image major scenes in Act IIa and IIb that first show a positive development (Act IIa) and then a negative development (Act IIb).
Once you have the four major promises of your story outlined, you’ll have the beginning of a solid story structure to build the rest of your screenplay around.