Writing Lessons from... Rogue One: Modified Three Act Structure

This is the start of a new series on this blog, looking at what we can learn about writing from great (and not-so-great) pop-culture hits, from movies to video games and everything in between. First up is Rogue One, where I want to talk about...

Modified Three Act Structure

The three act structure is traditionally the setup (who is the protagonist and what are they trying to do?), the conflict (the trying to do it), and the resolution (yay, they did it).

The quintessential three act structure is A New Hope. The first act ends with a key turning point for Luke, when he sees his family farm burned and agrees to go with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Act Two is their pursuit of that quest, ending in the rescue of Leia and a successful escape from the Death Star. Act Three is the destruction of the Death Star.

Rogue One is a very different movie, with a very different ultimate tone. And so, although it arguably has three acts, it's definitely not the traditional three act structure we see in Episode IV.

Spoilers (obviously) below.

Googling "Rogue One three act structure" brings up a lot of debate, where people can't decide where these three acts fall, because they don't fit that traditional pattern. Jyn agrees to help the rebellion as the start of her journey, but nothing really dramatic has happened to her yet to motivate that. And then how do you take into account the use of the Death Star? That feels like an act-ender. What about Galen's death? The start of Act Three would seem to be the decision to go rogue, but what about all that stuff in the middle? It's not a cohesive, escalating arc or Act for Jyn, like the trip to rescue Leia is for Luke.

I'd argue that Rogue One's "three act structure" is more like three acts in a play, or three story arcs in a serialised TV show. They pursue one ultimate goal in the movie -- find out how to destroy the Death Star -- but there are three smaller quests, each ending with an action sequence that has huge ramifications for the characters and their own personal story arcs. And each quest builds upon the last, with greater danger, and greater emotional impact.

In Act One, Jyn is captured by the rebels and ordered to help them find Saw Gerrerra, the man who raised her and then abandoned her. She's basically forced into agreeing -- she doesn't want to help, and there's no trust. On the quest to find him, they struggle against some Imperial mooks, meet more allies, and finally learn important information about where to go next... and then witness the destructive power of the Death Star, which they fairly easily, but thrillingly, escape from.

In the conclusion of Act One, Jyn learns a lot of stuff. She starts to understand how Saw acted, just before losing him. She finds out her father is alive, and has been rebelling in his own way, and she now knows where to find him. And she sees just watch the Empire is capable of, and perhaps starts to think about the value of fighting against it.

And so, we get Act Two! They know where Jyn's father is, so they're going to find him. They face danger on the way, along with some downtime where the team builds its relationship with one another. And this act is filled with tension, as we know Cassian has been ordered to kill Galen Erso when they find him. They do find him, but too late, as the Empire have also discovered his betrayal. The battle that follows is greater than the first on a personal, emotional scale. Jyn is in great physical danger. Cassian must make a huge moral choice about killing Galen that will define his character. Jyn is faced with her father's death, moments after being reunited with him. And in his dying moments, he tells them exactly what they need to do to learn how to destroy the Death Star.

So again, we have action, because this is a big blockbuster, and we need some thrills. But we also have deeper, more developed character drama running alongside it. By the end of this Act, Jyn has decided she must help get those plans. In fact, the whole team has bought into the idea, no matter the risk.

So, Act Three. We start with a bit more character downtime, dealing with the repercussions of the last Act, giving the audience time to breathe and see how things have changed. Then the Alliance refuse to go after the plans, so our initial group of misfits officially team up and go after them themselves. They fight bravely, with many twists and turns, and everything on the line. And although they succeed in the mission, they're all killed in the process, and their story arc ends with a quiet moment of Jyn and Cassian sitting on a beach, these one enemies holding hands as they face the death barrelling towards them. This is the big, world-affecting fight, and this is where the danger is greatest and the repercussions the largest.

This is also, notably, the first time we see Darth Vader fight. Right at the end, after a whole movie of build-up. It's what the audience really wants to see, and what will wow them, so it's held back and back, and becomes one of the shortest, but most memorable, action sequences in the movie.

Finally, we get a very brief denouement to tie everything up, with Leia taking the plans and saying they offer hope for the future. Our protagonists died in their mission, but the adventure continues.

This structure allows the movie to feel weighty and fast-paced, without being rushed. We have our ultimate goal, the Big Confrontation, but two smaller (but still very important) goals along the way that lead to danger, character development and action to help keep hold of those Blockbuster attention spans. Most importantly, those sequences are necessary to reaching the large one. They start off with a vague goal of learning more about the Death Star, but they don't know what exactly they need to do about it until the other sequences take place. We always feel like the story is progressing and the characters are growing, and we feel the world is exciting and dangerous from the very beginning, without risking the impact of the finale -- because hunting for information on plans is not as big as stealing the actual plans, and fleeing from the Death Star as we witness its destruction from a distance is not as big as seeing it kill our protagonists while witnessing its destruction first hand. The final confrontation is the biggest and most important, but we never feel like we're just wasting time with other confrontations along the way. All of them needed to happen, and all of them change the shape of the story

And about those deaths... they're another incredibly important element of the movie, but as this point got quite long, let's talk about those next Friday.