If you ever saw the trailer for a movie called “Bridge to Terabithia,” the trailer made it seem like the story was about two kids who make up a fantasy kingdom in a forest and have wild adventures there. However, that’s not really what the movie is about and the wild adventures they have there are actually pretty minimal. The movie’s not bad, but its expectations don’t match what it actually delivers, which is probably more a fault of the marketing department than anything else.
The problem with any story is to make sure you know what you’re offering your audience. A horror story better scare people. An action-thriller better have lots of action. A comedy better have lots of laughs. Perhaps the three most important points in your story are the beginning of Act I (the 0-15 minute segment), the beginning of Act IIa (the 30-45 minute segment), and the climax at Act III (the 105-120 minute segment).
In the beginning of Act I, you have to show what the story is really about. In the beginning of “Star Wars,” we get to see one spaceship attacking another one. That’s basically the whole premise of “Star Wars.” In “Rocky,” we get to see Rocky fighting. “Die Hard” is a slight exception in that we don’t see any battles, but we do get a hint of conflict when a passenger sees that Bruce Willis has a gun and tells the other passenger that he’s a cop.
In the beginning of Act IIa, we get another hint of what the story’s about. This is often where we see the villain visually demonstrate the Horrible Consequences his victory will create for innocent people and the hero’s loved ones. In “Star Wars,” this is where Darth Vader blows up Princess Leia’s planet, which basically repeats the idea of a battle in space. In “Die Hard,” this is where the terrorists start hunting down Bruce Willis. In “Rocky,” Act IIa is where Apollo Creed learns that his boxing opponent got hurt and decides to give an unknown a shot at the championship, which is what “Rocky” is all about.
The ending of Act III should be the finale of your story. In “Star Wars,” it’s the ultimate the space battle. In “Rocky,” it’s the championship fight. In “Die Hard,” it’s the battle to the death.
So the progression of your story’s main idea looks like this:
- Act I — Show or hint what your story’s main conflict is all about
- Act IIa — Set up the final conflict such as showing the Horrible Consequences of the villain’s goal
- Act IIb — Reminder of the villain’s power
- Act III — Give the audience what they really came to see from your story
In “Star Wars,” Act I shows us a battle in space. Act IIa shows us the Death Star so we can see the Horrible Consequences of watching an entire planet get blown up. Act IIb shows us the stormtroopers chasing everyone inside the Death Star and Act III is the final battle between the Death Star and the rebels.
In “Rocky,” Act I shows us Rocky fighting. Act IIa sets us his chance for a shot at the championship. Act IIb shows Rocky training to fight Apollo Creed and Act III shows us the championship fight.
In “Die Hard,” Act I hints at conflict by showing Bruce Willis’s gun. Act IIa is where the terrorists first start hunting Bruce Willis. Act IIb is where the terrorists detonate the explosives on the roof. Act III is where Bruce Willis battles the head terrorist to the death.
In designing your screenplay, start off with your main idea. If you’re writing a love story, Act I would show the lovers apart and looking for love. Act IIa would be their first hint at love. Act Iib would be where the couple nearly breaks up for good, and Act III would show whether they find each other or not. These three points guide your story and keep you on track.
Where “Bridge to Terabithia” slipped up was its marketing led us to believe the story was mostly about two kids having adventures in a fantasy world while the bulk of the story has nothing to do with fantasies at all and more to do with friendship. When you give the audience what they came to see, you won’t disappoint them.