What is the main conflict of your story? Every story is a promise of some kind. A horror story promises to scare you. An action thriller promises to show you over the top battles. Even a romantic comedy promises to show you the problems two people face when trying to find true love. Whatever the promise of your story, that’s the conflict you must deliver in each Act to provide a unified and satisfactory story.
What happens if your story is a war movie that promises battles but most of the story is about the hero falling in love with a woman? Then you’ve broken your promise with the audience and your story will fail. Whatever your story’s promise, that’s what you must provide in each Act. If you fail to do so, your story will drag and get boring because you failed to fulfill your story’s promise constantly.Think of the latest “Godzilla” movie that promises Godzilla. Yet beyond the beginning and end, the movie is largely not about Godzilla at all, which made it boring and disappointing. When you see a movie named “Godzilla,” you expect to see Godzilla wrecking havoc periodically.
Each Act must be a miniature of your main conflict. At the very least, that conflict must keep reappearing over and over again, but at least once in each Act. The title of “Star Wars” alone promises battles in space, and the movie doesn’t disappoint in each Act:
- Act I — Darth Vader attacks and fights his way on to Princess Leia’s starship
- Act IIa — The stormtroopers user their lasers to try and keep everyone from taking off in the Millennium Falcon
- Act IIb — The stormtroopers corner Luke as soon as he rescues Princess Leia. Then later the stormtroopers shoot at Luke and Hans as they try to get back to the Millennium Falcon
- Act III — The Death Star approaches the rebel base as X-wing fighters and TIE fighters dogfight while laser cannons blast away
In your story, identify the main promise of your story and then make sure that main promise gets repeated in each Act. In “Terminator 2,” the promise is a battle between two Terminators from the future:
- Act I — Two terminators fight. One is trying to kill John Connor and the other is trying to save him.
- Act IIa — Two terminators fight in the asylum where one is trying to kill John and his mom, Sarah, while the other is trying to save John and Sarah.
- Act IIb — The good terminator fights SkyNet and the police, which represents the bad terminator
- Act III — The two terminators fight to the death.
In “Alien,” the promise is that humans will have to battle an alien monster from space:
- Act I — The alien latches on to a crew member’s face
- Act IIa — The alien bursts out of the man’s chest and starts killing the crew members
- Act IIb — The alien kills the remaining crew members as they prepare to abandon ship
- Act III — The alien corners the hero alone in the escape pod and they battle to the death
Think of every romantic comedy and in each Act there must be a scene centering around love:
- Act I — Boy meets girl
- Act IIa — Boy loses girl
- Act IIb — Boy and girl may never get together
- Act III — Boy gets girl
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” Act I is about how the man winds up on the radio, talking about his problems and the woman hears it and starts to feel sorry for his plight. In Act IIa, the man is starting to date a woman that his son doesn’t like while the woman is starting to have doubts about her relationship with her current fiancé.
In Act IIb, the hero starts getting closer to a woman his son doesn’t think is right for him. Meanwhile, the woman decides to investigate the hero and sees him with a woman she thinks is his girlfriend. Afterwards she thinks her whole trip was silly and she resolves to go back to her fiancé.
In Act III, the hero’s son takes off to New York and forces the hero to follow. Then the woman decides her fiancé isn’t right for her and she takes a chance to visit the Empire State Building where they finally meet and fall in love.
Start with your story’s promise and make sure you deliver it at least once in each Act. If you’re writing an action thriller, every Act must have major action, gunfire, and fights that get bigger. In “Terminator 2,” the Act I battle starts with a fist fight, graduates to guns, and finally ends up with a semi-truck.
Then the Act IIa battle involves more guns, the evil terminator’s ability to turn his hands in metal spears that he uses to stab through the top of the elevator, and then ends with more gunfire the leads to the hero’s escape.
The Act IIb battle gets even bigger by blowing up the SkyNet building and having so many police around. The Act III battle is the biggest and baddest of them all as the evil Terminator hijacks a helicopter and chases the hero before finally crashing. Then the battle goes back to a fist fight before finally ending with a grenade launcher.
Not only does each Act have to deliver on your story’s promise, but it has to be bigger with more at stake each time to avoid repetition. The final battle is always the most crucial one that determines whether the hero wins or loses, so save the biggest action for the end.
By looking at your story as four major promises in each Act, you can make sure your story remains focused and delivers its promise to create an emotionally satisfying movie in the end.