The Progression of the Villain’s Goal in Four Acts

Divide a 120-minute screenplay into four equal segments of 30-minutes and you can plot your villain’s story.

In Act I (the first 30 minutes), the villain has started pursuing a goal but we don’t know what that goal might be. Somehow, this pursuit of a goal interferes with the hero’s life and jolts the hero into action.

In Act IIa (30 – 60 minutes), the villain is still pursuing an unknown goal, but this pursuit inadvertently causes problems for the hero.

In Act IIb (60 – 90 minutes), the villain is just on the verge of achieving the initial goal. In Act IIb, the villain finally realizes the threat of the hero and tries to destroy the hero.

In Act III ( 90 – 120 minutes), the villain’s goal is crystal clear but the only way the villain can achieve his or her initial goal is to fight the hero.

So the villain’s progression through each Act looks like this:

  • Act I — Start pursuing an unknown goal
  • Act IIb — Continue pursuing unknown goal that inadvertently interferes with the hero
  • Act IIb — Almost achieves goal and recognizes the hero as a threat
  • Act III — Can only achieve the initial goal by fighting the hero

In Act I of “Star Wars,” Darth Vader captures Princess Leia and is looking for the stolen Death Star plans, although we don’t know what his real goal might be.

In Act IIa, Darth Vader’s storm troopers nearly stop Luke from getting to the starport where he meets Hans and finds a way to leave for Princess Leia’s planet.

In Act IIb, Darth Vader has captured Luke but lets him escape so he can track him to the rebel base, which was his original goal all along.

In Act III, Darth Vader is finally trying to achieve his initial goal of finding and destroying the rebel base. To do this, he must fight Luke.

In stories driven by a strong villain, the villain’s goal is initially hidden and mysterious. However, when there isn’t a dominant villain, the hero’s goal can be mysterious instead.

In “Shadow in the Cloud,” a woman during World War 2 climbs aboard a B-17 bomber about to head off towards a mission. When she climbs on board, she carries a package that she insists nobody open. So the progression of the hero’s mysterious goal looks like this:

  • Act I — The hero initiates a mysterious goal by boarding a B-17 bomber with a mysterious package with orders to take her to the bomber’s destination.
  • Act IIa — The crew members learn that the hero was faking an accent and that her orders don’t make any sense. Now the entire crew is suspicious of her.
  • Act IIb — The crew discovers that the hero’s mysterious package is a baby.
  • Act III — The hero must fight a gremlin to protect her baby and get away from her abusive husband, which was her original goal from the start.

Whether you have a strong villain who drives the story or a strong hero who drives the story, the initial goal (usually the villain’s) drives the story from start to finish. By gradually revealing what that goal is and then telling us at the end whether that goal is achieved or not, is the whole point of telling a story.

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