Keep Your Story’s Promise Four Times

Every movie consists of four Acts. In a 120-minute movie, each Act is 30 minutes. Within each Act, you absolutely must keep your story’s promise to the audience. “Star Wars” promises lots of battles in space, so each Act has its own major fight scene:

  • Act I — Darth Vader’s starship overtakes and boards Princess Leia’s starship
  • Act IIa — Stormtroopers trying to stop Luke from boarding the Millennium Falcon as it takes off and the Death Star blowing up Princess Leia’s planet
  • Act IIb — TIE fighters trying to stop the Millennium Falcon as it escapes the Death Star and Luke shooting lots of stormtroopers with a laser gun
  • Act III — The rebel forces trying to blow up the Death Star as TIE fighters try to stop them

So first identify the main promise of your story. Then make sure that promise occurs four times in each Act of your screenplay. What happens if you violate this promise? Then you wind up with a boring story that drags because you’re not fulfilling your promise to the audience.

In the latest remake of “The Fantastic Four,” the main promise is to see super heroes fighting. Yet we only really see the super heroes fighting at the end. Through the beginning and middle of the movie, the super heroes aren’t fighting anyone. That’s why “The Fantastic Four” is such a horrible movie because it promises super hero fights but delivers nothing more than super heroes standing around talking and not fighting anyone until the very end. By then it’s too late because 90% of the movie is already over and has proven boring so the last 10% of the movie can’t be saved by a solitary fight scene.

Look at “Iron Man” to see how a super hero movie should work:

  • Act I — Tony Stark’s convoy is ambushed and he’s taken prisoner
  • Act IIa — Tony Stark fights his way out of imprisonment by building a prototype Iron Man suit
  • Act IIb — Tony Stark flies to Afghanistan to fight terrorists
  • Act III — Tony Stark fights against the villain wearing a more advanced iron suit

In “Iron Man,” the promise is that you’ll see a super hero fight and that’s exactly what you see in every Act. Every movie has a promise and delivers on that promise in every Act. In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the promise is romance, so the movie delivers that in each Act:

  • Act I — The hero’s son convinces him to call into a radio talk show and tell his story, which earns the sympathy of women all over the country
  • Act IIa — The hero starts dating a woman the hero’s son dislikes, but the hero chances upon Annie, a woman he really likes but doesn’t know
  • Act IIb — Just as things start getting more serious with the hero and his new girlfriend, the hero’s son flies off to New York to meet with Annie
  • Act III — The hero flies to New York to rescue his son and finds him, then finds and meets Annie

In “28 Days Later,” the promise is a world filled with zombies:

  • Act I — The hero wakes up in an empty world and gets chased by zombies, only to be rescued by two survivors
  • Act IIa — The hero and one survivor fight their way to a beckoning light on a skyscraper where they meet two other survivors
  • Act IIb — The hero and three other survivors fight their way out of the city towards a military base promising safety
  • Act III — Hordes of zombies attack the military base as the hero rescues the surviving women from the military personnel

Focus on what main promise your story offers and then make sure you deliver that at least once in each Act. Then you’ll have delivered your promise as long as you make each promise bigger than the previous one until the very end.

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