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JJ Barnes

JJ Barnes writes about parenting, feminism, current affairs and writing

By - JJBarnes

How to write in a three act structure – SPOILERS – Die Hard

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I’ll be writing about the video How to write in a three act structure. How to write a book or film. SPOILERS – Die Hard, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

A three act structure is like a framework for your story, and is how you move your plot along in a controlled way that keeps your story organised and making sense. However, as with most things there is fluidity to it and if a three act structure doesn’t work for your story that’s okay, but if it does work, and it does help you, then this is a good guide on how to implement it and why you might want to.

Following a three act structure will give you the framework to help you move your story from the beginning to the end in a really satisfying way that the audience will enjoy.

To write in a three act structure, it’s a good idea to remember this.

ACT ONE – Put your character up a tree

ACT TWO – Throw stones at him/her

ACT THREE – Get your characters back down from the tree

It’s a really effective way of understanding how to use this, and how to write within it.

The example I’m going to use to demonstrate this structure being used is the film Die Hard. It’s not just a perfect example because the film is so exceptionally excellent, which it is, but because the format is a perfect three act structure in use.

ACT ONE – put John McClane up the tower

ACT TWO – throw terrorists at him

ACT THREE – get John McClane back down the tower

In Act One we meet John McClane, a New York City cop, who’s travelled to LA to spend Christmas with his estranged wife, Holly, and their daughter. He goes up to the top of Nakatomi Tower to Holly’s office, meets her boss and colleagues, and with the Act One goal of winning back Holly’s love.

We see the emerging plot for the film during Act One as the criminals break into the building whilst John and Holly and the office party are up at the top of the tower. It tells you that there will be more to this story than just John’s desire to win back Holly, but John doesn’t know it yet. He’s just going up the metaphorical tree.

Act One ends when the terrorists announce their presence by busting into the Christmas party with their guns. That changes the story both for the audience an in terms of John McClane’s goals. He’s now having the metaphorical stones thrown at him.

John McClane isn’t with the rest of the party when the terrorist enter as he’s in a bathroom having a shave in his vest. This puts him in position to spend Act Two of the movie trying to figure out how he’s going to stop the terrorists, save all the party guests (including Holly), and get everybody back down the tower, or the tree.

Act Two changes John’s story goals from win back Holly, into save Holly, plus everybody else, and follows him on his quest to do that.

Act Two finishes when John McClane has weapons, a guy out front to work with, and he’s ready to put his plan into action to get everybody out, and on the revelation to John McClane that Hans Gruber, the wonderful Alan Rickman, is actually the main bad guy terrorist.

Act Three follows John McClane acting out his plan, proving to the suspicious cops outside that he’s not crazy and he was right all along, and rescuing Holly.

For your story, don’t feel trapped by the idea of putting your character up a tree or a tower. This idea can come in so many different forms. You can do the same thing by showing your character wanting something, then learning about how to get it through experiences, and then finally going after the thing they wanted.

You can trust yourself to be creative and play with the format, rather than feeling trapped by it, but the three act structure is a really great framework to use as a base to build a satisfying story around.

There are other structures used in different kinds of stories that will accomplish different things and I will go over those in another blog so look out for that, but for now, I highly recommend using a three act structure for writing your story.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll be releasing a piece of writing advice every day to help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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