The Timeless Three Act Storytelling Structure

We’re long conditioned to respond well to the three act story structure: beginning, middle, and end. All good books have it. All movie scripts have it. Great presentations — which are rare — have it. These follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. All is well in the homeland. Suddenly, there is an inciting incident that jostles our hero, his people, and makes him leave home, thus beginning his journey. Our hero, like all good heroes in the first act, is flawed. He seeks transformation (whether he knows it or not) and meaning. While he may reject what he and others feel he needs to do, he nonetheless reluctantly accepts what he must do in order to save his people, his planet, his way of life. Off he goes into the unknown.

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Act 1: the calm before the storm.

We’re introduced to the hero in the first act. We’re shown his flaws, warts and all, and his relationship with his people. Producers will often insert a “save the cat” scene early on in the movie / script / book in order to endear the hero to the audience. The hero shows early prowess in saving people, animals, or his friends. We know he is a good, capable guy. Only we do not know what he is truly capable of.

Act II launches the hero into the unknown, the early prep stages to fight the forces he must fight, to take on the insurrmountable enemy that crushes everything in its path. The hero’s family, friends, and way of life rely on him to lead the opposition, though he may not realize it yet. The hero is typically figuring things out as he goes, with varying degrees of sarcasm and optimism expressed at varying points along the way. The hero figuring things out as he goes is more real — and more real life — because had he known the fight would be this difficult, he might not have gone. It makes more sense, and is more real, if he doesn’t know the entirety of his mission out of the gate. (How often are we told the entirety of our mission at the beginning?) Sometimes ignorance works to our favor; what we don’t know gives us the courage to begin.

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Act 2: the trials, tribulations, and crazy difficulties our hero faces.

We watch our hero get beat up, mentally, physically, and emotionally. He endures all kinds of psychological and physical attacks. The more dramatized this is, the more we’re into it. There’s something about this abuse that engages and endears audiences to the hero. We have complete sympathy and empathy for him. We root for him. We’re there for him when he’s beaten down. We want everything in the world to help him be successful, to rise, and to conquer the bad guys.

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Act 2: the Big Inferno. Will all be lost?

Our hero hits the All is Lost moment. He watches his home planet explode. His girlfriend has left him for the last time, never to return. He loses a loved one. Can things get any worse for our hero? Near the end of Act II, they can and often do.

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The Turn. The Hero breaks the chains that have been holding him back and begins the fight to victory.

The turn happens at the beginning of Act III. The hero rises from the depths of the abuse, attacks, and terrible things that happen to him in Act II. He proves to the enemy (and himself) that he is stronger than he thought. He’s more courageous. He’s tougher. He’s a better leader. The journey has transformed him. He was not this good in Act I. In fact, he had no idea how good he was or what his potential was. He riles up, gathers what’s left of his friends and comrades, and destroys the once-mighty enemy and saves the world and his way of life.

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Act 3: the Hero emerges victorious, saves his kingdom, his people, and planet.

This theme, this framework, has been the bones of movie scripts for nearly as long as movies have been made. You may notice it, you may not. It isn’t designed for you to notice that most every movie follows this sequence. It is designed for you to emotionally engage with the hero and his comrades’ trials and tribulations and eventual victory throughout a 90 to 120 minute run time.

Note one other thing about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey framework. It is relatable to modernity. It is not a stretch to apply this framework to a salesman’s life. One could apply the Hero’s Journey to a teacher’s first year of teaching. One could apply the Hero’s Journey to launching astronauts up into space, doing the mission, and trying hard to return home safely. We relate to the characters because we see ourselves within them. We see our struggles in theirs. We see our minor victories in theirs. We see ourselves saving the cat. (Maybe we just saved the cat yesterday.) We take on our own version of the mighty enemy (the big corporation, a romantic rival, standing in our own way), and try our best to win.

We get it. We empathize with the hero’s journey because we’re all on one ourselves. It is for these reasons that we keep going to movie theaters. We keep watching movies at home. We watch movies in airplanes and in airports on mobile devices. Some of us are adept at creating movies as a craft, a professional way of life. Movies and people are symbiotic, reflective of one another through timeless storytelling and engaging entertainment all told within the timeless Three Act structure.

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