If you divide a movie into four acts, you get a basic structure like this:
- Act I — Exposition
- Act IIa — Positive rising action
- Act IIb — Negative rising action
- Act III – Climax
By using this structure, you can define the growth and change of your hero. In Act I, you introduce your hero, the hero’s problem, and the hero’s goal. (Act I)
Once we know who the hero is and what the hero wants, the next step is to show the hero steadily moving towards that goal. (Act IIa)
Just as it looks like the hero may achieve his or her goal, the villain steps in and complicates matters. (Act IIb)
Now with the villain on the verge of achieving his or her goal, the hero makes one last stand to stop the villain once and for all. (Act III)
Looking at this structure, you can see that in the beginning, your hero is relatively safe in a dull world. Next, your hero starts exploring a new world that the villain forced the hero to enter. Finally, the villain starts putting the pressure on the hero until the end when the final battle takes place.
In “Avatar,” the hero is a paraplegic. Gradually he learns the ways of the alien race. When his commander finds out he’s getting too friendly with the natives, the commander (the villain) starts putting pressure on him. First, he threatens to have the hero removed from the avatar program altogether so he can’t contact the natives any more. Second, he goes ahead with his plan to wreck the native’s sacred Hometree. This puts immediate pressure on the hero to respond, which helps the story move along.
In “Die Hard,” the hero just wants to get back with his wife. When the villain shows up, they force the hero into hiding where he tries to contact the police. When the hero starts interfering with their plans, the villain stats putting the pressure on the hero by sending more men after him and personally confronting the hero. Finally, the villain is on the verge of getting away with his plan until the hero has to stop him.
The key to each act is for the villain to gradually put more pressure on the hero than the previous act. In Act I, we learn who the villain is but we don’t quite know what he wants. In Act IIa, we get a glimpse of the villain’s power but we still don’t quite know what the villain wants. In Act IIb, we finally learn what the villain wants as the villain takes active measures to wipe out the hero for good. Finally in Act III the villain and the hero face off for the climactic battle.
Gradually putting the pressure on the hero keeps your story moving forward. As the pressure tightens, your story gets more interesting. If the villain doesn’t continue applying pressure to the hero, the story would simply get boring. Think of “Star Wars” where in Act I Darth Vader demonstrates his power of the Force that can choke a man from a distance. Then in Act IIa, Darth Vader and his generals demonstrate the Death Star’s ability to blow up entire planets. In Act IIb, Darth Vader’s storm troopers start shooting at Luke while Darth Vader hunts down and kills Obi-wan. In Act III, Darth Vader is finally going to blow up the rebel base with the Death Star.
Keep increasing the pressure on your hero. When in doubt, make your hero’s life worse. You want your story to gradually build up towards a final end and you do that by having the villain continuously put pressure on the hero until the very end.