The first workshop in the Introduction to Screenwriting series is now available as a downloadable pack under Resources

Star Wars in acts

How the screenplay of Star Wars divides the story into the three-act structure.

Introduction

There are few films as well and widely known as Star Wars. One of the greatest successes of all time, in 1977 Star Wars eclipsed the box-office record set two years earlier by Jaws. Before Jaws the record had stood at the US box-office since 1939, when Gone With the Wind set the bar.

It may seem strange to do an analysis like this of such a well-known film, but that is exactly the reason to do it. Deconstructing films like this allows everyone to follow the plot.

Act 1

A space-ship is pursued by a much larger vessel. Shots are exchanged. The large ship swallows the smaller one into its hangar bay.

Aboard the small ship alarms sound and the crew arm themselves. An explosion breaches the hull, armoured stormtroopers charge in, heedless of casualties, and swarm over the defenders. Behind them we see the figure of Darth Vader, snior figure in the Empire. Stormtroopers hunt for enemies aboard. They discover a young woman with a droid, R2-D2. The droid flees as the troops stun the woman. She is brought before Vader. We learn she is a Princess and a member of the Senate. Vader believes she is a spy. R2-D2, along with C-3P0, another droid, board an escape capsule and leave the ship, flying to the planet of Tatooine. No living creatures on the escape pod means the warship doesn't fire on it.

On Tatooine we meet teenage Luke. He is whining about the restrictions on his life made by the demands on him from his adoptive Aunt and Uncle. He and his uncle visit a travelling group of scavengers who have both droids for sale. Luke buys the two for the farm. When cleaning R2-D2 he sees the first part of a message recorded by the princess, Leia. It mentions a 'general' Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke asks if that's related to Ben Kenobi, a hermit who lives nearby.

Overnight R2-D2 escapes the farm and goes in search of Kenobi. Luke pursues. When they are reunited at Kenobi's home we hear the tale of the Jedi, warrior knights who fought for justice in the past. Kenobi is the former general and a Jedi. He tells Luke that his father was also a Jedi. The remainder of the message indicates that there are secret plans to one of the Empire's weapons inthe droid and they have to be taken to the rebellion. Kenobi decides to find her, at her home planet of Alderaan. Luke says he can't because of his responsibilities at home. However, on returning home his farm has been attacked, his family murdered. He has nowhere to go, so he agrees to join Kenobi.

Act 2

Leia is transferred to the giant Imperial weapon, to find the location of a rebel base. She refuses and the weapon's commander, Tarkin, threatens to destroy Alderaan, her home planet, if she doesn't reveal the rebel location. She relents, but Tarkin destroys Alderaan anyway.

On Tatooine, Kenobi and Luke hire Han Solo and his ship, the Millennium Falcon, to take them to Alderaan to meet Leia. On the ship Kenobi teaches Luke about the force. When they arrive at Alderaan, the planet is gone, but they are ensnared by the Imperials. Hiding in the ship, they sneak aboard the weapon to disable its tractor beams so they can leave. Kenobi goes off to do that, while the others discover Leia is being held aboard. They rescue her, Kenobi disables the tractor beams but Vader finds him and kills him. Luke, Leia and Solo leave on the Millennium Falcon.

They arrive at Yavin IV, the real rebel base, not the one Leia told the Empire. There the plans are downloaded from R2-D2.

Following a tracking device planted on the Falcon, the Empire's weapon has followed them. It manoeuvres to bring its massive weapon to fire on Yavin IV. Solo receives his promised fee and leaves in the Falcon.

Act 3

The plans reveal a possible weakness in the weapon. Luke, bravely, joins many other rebel pilots in launching a raid on the massive target.

Attack after attack fails, the target area being tiny. Their computers can't hit it accurately enough. Meanwhile almost all of their fighters are destroyed by defensive guns, with the ones that get really close destroyed by Vader in a fighter with some wingmen.

It falls to Luke to deliver the killer blow. Taking the last few fighters with him he launches his attack, but they too begin to fall prey to Vader's fighters. Just when he's going to be the next to be destroyed, Solo reappears in the Falcon, destroying the Imperial fighters and Luke, abandoning the computer, uses his mastery of the force, the thing that makes him a Jedi, to fire the perfect shot.

The weapon is destroyed, Vader's fighter is damaged but he escapes. The surviving rebels return to a hero's welcome and medals. Luke, Solo and Leia are firm friends.

Explanation

The first thing to note is that Star Wars follows the three act structure beautifully. It also follows all of the common paradigms for general storytelling. It is, in fact, a perfectly structured tale for this reason.

The second thing to note is that the description covers the entire plot, and Act 2, despite being the vast majority of the running time of the film, only contains about a third of the plot. There's a reason for this. The obstacles and triumphs of Act 2 are short-term. In essence, if you deleted Act 2 altogether, you would miss only a handful of critical moments. Many of the events in Act 2 are paired with their resolution. Kenobi goes to find the tractor beams. During this he ends up hiding from some relaxed stormtroopers, creeping around the Death Star, generally, finding obstacles and overcoming them. Meanwhile, rescuing Leia causes any number of headaches, from being cornered in a corridor by stormtroopers to being stuck in a garbage crusher. Each of these also has an immediate resolution.

Act 3, it must be said, is one of the strongest third-acts in all of cinema. Three main characters 'grow up' in front of us in different ways to meet the challenge. Luke uses the force, Solo turns from monomaniac to central member of the rebellion. Leia takes firm command of the battle, sends her troops to fight and die, showing courage, commitment and compassion.


"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them . . . well, I have others."

Groucho Marx