Three Act Structure, the hero’s journey and The Lost Ark

This episode we discuss how The Hero’s Journey fits within the three act structure. We then break down Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best screenplays ever written as an example.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Paradigm Breakdown

Inciting Event: The U.S. government informs Indy that the Nazis are seeking the Ark of the Covenant in Cairo and asks him to go after it himself.

First Plot Point: The Nazis burn down Marian’s bar in pursuit of her father’s medallion, and Marian travels with Indy to Cairo.

First Pinch Point: Indy thinks Marian has been killed.

Midpoint: Using the medallion, Indy discovers the location of the Ark

Second Pinch Point: Indy and Marian are imprisoned in the Well of Souls and left to die.

Third Plot Point: Marian and the Ark are kidnapped off Katanga’s ship.

Climax: Indy tries to save Marian, but Belloc calls his bluff about destroying the Ark and captures Indy as well.

Climactic Moment: The Ark consumes Belloc and the Nazis.

Resolution: The Ark is hidden away by the U.S. government; Indy and Marian leave together.

The Three-Act Structure

Novelists can learn a lot from scriptwriters who have developed a number of tools for story development. One such tool is the three-act structure.

Screenwriters often use “Acts” – a concept more familiar to staged drama – to breakdown the structure of their movies into major parts. Of course there are no curtain calls in movies, and the audience need not have an understanding of the structure the screenwriter is using to appreciate the movie. It is simply a model screenwriters use to develop their story.

The simplest and most widely used structure is the three-act structure. One of the strongest advocates of this approach was Syd Field who put forward a story paradigm composed of three acts defined by their dramatic purpose: story set up (introduce the characters and set up the story), confrontation (where the main character starts his quest and the action occurs) and resolution (the climax and end). Syd Field noticed that there were two important plot points at the end of act 1 and act 2 where the story is thrown in a new direction. These he asserted were critical plot points holding the story together. He also identified that the mid-point of the movie was also often an important point of revelation, that often broke the second act into two separate sub-dramatic contexts. Most movies are two hours long and correspond to a screen script of 120 pages (one minute per page). Syd Field’s story paradigm can be used with mythic structure as shown below.

three act structure mythic structure and the lost arc

One seemingly straightforward but surprisingly complicated things about writing a screenplay is story structure. Plenty of screenwriting gurus have offered their two cents on what a well-structured script should look like, but Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, is perhaps the most widely known and template for crafting stories, and is arguably one of the most accessible for new writers. If you want to get a real handle on story structure, Film Riot has shared an excerpt from Seth Worley’s Writing 101 online screenwriting course that will really help you out.

Even though the excerpt is just an introduction to screenwriting basics, it breaks down the most important and fundamental elements of the craft. Not nailing down your story’s structure is like dropping your audience in the middle of nowhere without a map and expecting them to make it all the way home. It can be done, but 1.) it probably won’t, and 2.) if it is, your audience will be super pissed when they get there.

Now, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to any part of screenwriting; if you don’t like the monomyth, you don’t have to follow it. Not all monomythic scripts are good and not all good scripts are monomythic. For some, the Hero’s Journey template is the answer and works like a charm, but for others it may be Syd Field’s plot points paradigm or Robert McKee’s story beats that gets it done. Maybe you don’t like the three act structure and you want to go with five, six, eight, or nine.  

The most important thing is that you provide your audience with a clear roadmap of your story so they always know where they are and can navigate from beginning to end, and sometimes that means being flexible with whichever paradigm you’re following.

SYD FIELD- THE PARADIGM

Picture

It starts with a setup and inciting incident, has regular turning points in the plot called Plot Points and Pinches in the middle and ends with a climax and resolution. Though not apparent in the illustration below, the Paradigm describes both the external journey involving the attempt to achieve the story goal and the internal journey of the main character.  The main difference to the classic Three-Act plot structure – and what stands out about Syd Field’s The Paradigm – is the two Pinches during Act Two.

Pinch 1 should be utilised to bring the story back on track right when things probably feel like they’re sagging or straying off track.  The effects of the pinch should equal those of the plot points; however, instead of spinning the story into a new direction, the pinch concentrates the story toward the point which comes next.

Pinch 2, like the first one, is designed to usher your story to the next plot point.

SYD FIELD’S CHECKPOINTS FOR WRITING A BETTER SCRIPT

  • Make sure your characters and story are set up within the first ten pages.  Did you introduce your main character(s), establish the dramatic premise, and indicate the dramatic situation, the circumstances surrounding the main character?
  • Check your structure and see whether it’s dramatically effective in holding your storyline together.
  • Take another look to see if your dialogue is too explanatory, or too wordy.  Do your characters need to explain everything to keep the story moving forward?
  • Remember – all drama is conflict.  See whether your character’s dramatic need drives the action forward.  Film is behaviour, either the character drives the action, or the action drives the character.
  • Make sure your script is formatted properly.

SYD FIELD’S SCREENPLAY & THE TEMPLATE OF DOOM 

This is a template made for writing a screenplay using the method Syd Field teaches in his book “Screenplay.” In “Screenplay,” Field describes the three act structure that most stories follow and the approximate points in a film which certain key events occur. Not all films follow this formula and it is, by no means, set in stone. It is, however, a useful tool for outlining and setting up your story to see what areas, if any, need further development. “Screenplay” is one of the definitive books on Screenwriting ever written. If you are a beginning Screenwriter, We recommend you buy a copy of Syd Field’s”Screenplay” and a copy of “The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers  by Chris Vogler.

three act structure mythic structure and the lost ark
The Hero’s Journey with Three-Act Structure

Syd Field’s Paradigm Screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote the seminal book Screenplay, and posited a new theory, which he called the Paradigm. Field noticed that in a 120-page screenplay, Act Two was notoriously boring, and was also twice the length of Acts One and Three. He also noticed that an important dramatic event usually occurred at the middle of the picture, which implied to him that the middle act was actually two acts in one. So the Three Act Structure is notated 1, 2a, 2b, 3, resulting in Aristotle’s Three Acts divided into four pieces. Field also introduced the idea of Plot Points into screenwriting theory. Plot Points are important structural functions that happen in approximately the same place in most successful movies, like the verses and choruses in a popular song. In subsequent books, Field has added to his original list, and students of his like Viki King and Linda Seger have added to the list of Plot Points. Here is a current list of the major Plot Points that are congruent with Field’s Paradigm:

Opening Image: The first image in the screenplay should summarize the entire film, especially its tone. Often, writers go back and redo this as the last thing before submitting the script.

Inciting Incident: Also called the catalyst, this is the point in the story when the Protagonist encounters the problem that will change their life. This is when the detective is assigned the case, where Boy meets Girl, and where the Comic Hero gets fired from his cushy job, forcing him into comic circumstances.

Plot Point 1: The last scene in Act One, Turning Point One is a surprising development that radically changes the Protagonist’s life, and forces him to confront the Opponent. In Star Wars, this is when Luke’s family is killed by the Empire. He has no home to go back to, so he joins the Rebels in opposing Darth Vader.

Pinch 1: A reminder scene at about 3/8 the way through the script (halfway through Act 2a) that brings up the central conflict of the drama, reminding us of the overall conflict. For example, in Star Wars , Pinch 1 is the Stormtroopers attacking the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley, reminding us the Empire is after the stolen plans to the Death Star R2-D2 is carrying and Luke and Ben Kenobi are trying to get to theRebel Alliance (the main conflict).

Midpoint: An important scene in the middle of the script, often a reversal of fortune orrevelation that changes the direction of the story. Field suggests that driving the story towards the Midpoint keeps the second act from sagging.

Pinch 2: Another reminder scene about 5/8 through the script (halfway through Act 2b) that is somehow linked to Pinch 1 in reminding the audience about the central conflict.In Star Wars, Pinch 2 is the Stormtroopers attacking them as they rescue the Princess in the Death Star. Both scenes remind us of the Empire’s opposition, and using theStormtrooper attack motif unifies both Pinches.

Plot Point 2: A dramatic reversal that ends Act 2 and begins Act 3, which is about confrontation and resolution. Sometimes Turning Point Two is the moment when the Hero has had enough and is finally going to face the Opponent. Sometimes, like in ToyStory , it’s the low-point for the Hero, and he must bounce back to overcome the odds in Act 3.

Showdown: About midway through Act 3, the Protagonist will confront the Main Problem of the story and either overcome it, or come to a tragic end.

Resolution: The issues of the story are resolved.

Tag: An epilogue, tying up the loose ends of the story, giving the audience closure. This is also known as denouement. In general, films in recent decades have had longer denouements than films made in the 1970s or earlier.

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