IN FILM SCHOOL, I learned that stories, especially movies, follow a three-act structure.

Three acts … with a vast, intimidating middle to fill.

But, as a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder about other story templates I’d encountered. What about the five stages of Gustav Freytag’s pyramid? Freytag said all good plots have five parts.

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling action
  5. Denouement

What about the five acts in Shakespeare’s plays? The Five Books of Moses? The five seasons of Breaking Bad? I’m good at math, but I couldn’t figure out the difference between three and five.

Then, I learned the second act contains three parts within itself. So, a character’s story is really that of five journeys.

  1. The journey you think you’re on
  2. The unexpected journey you’re forced on
  3. The journey you choose
  4. The journey you surrender
  5. The final exam journey

Let’s look at each journey, using Star Wars* — and some popular musicals — as examples.

*In this case, I mean Episode IV: A New Hope, or — as my generation calls it — Star Wars.

The journey you think you’re on

Where I am
In Star Wars, an opening crawl lets us know about the ongoing galactic civil war. In musicals, a location often is set up like Beauty and the Beast’s “little town, it’s a quiet village.” Literal or situational, there’s unrest, overt or simmering below.

In this universe, a main character emerges, also restless. Sometimes they’re aware of their restlessness, sometimes not, but they actively pursue or latently harbor a goal: a WANT. Luke Skywalker wants off his desert planet just like Belle wants much more than this provincial life — on an adventure in the great, wide somewhere.

What it is, or why I want
Why do these characters want? Ask that question aloud in your script, and your story answers, forming its theme.

Musicals ask the question in lyrics: “How do you connect in an age when strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray?” Spoiler alert: In Rent, the answer is lo-o-o-o-ove.

The “question” can be implied in a fleeting moment. Luke Skywalker whines he wants to go to the Tosche Station to pick up power converters. How can this immature kid grow up, join something bigger than himself, learn the Jedi ways, and save the galaxy?

Knock knock, who is it?/No, thank you/Hm …
Enter the inciting incident, the chance for the character to move forward.

Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel in West Side Story.
Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel in West Side Story. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo sees Juliet, or in West Side Story, Tony sees Maria. “It’s the witch from next door,” says The Baker in Into the Woods — or a droid reveals a hologram of a princess asking for help.

Characters are sometimes reluctant. Luke doesn’t try to find Ben Kenobi until R2D2 rolls away, and even after meeting Kenobi, Luke hesitates to join the Rebellion.

But, that’s all about to change …

The unexpected journey you’re forced on

When stormtroopers destroy Luke’s home and family, his only choice is to follow Obi-Wan on the quest to Alderaan. An explosion can build gradually, like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or its equivalent “Tonight” number in West Side Story, where the couple’s earlier glance is sealed into an inextricable bond.

New plans hatch: Dorothy follows the yellow brick road. Moses leads his people’s exodus to freedom (hence the name of the second book of Moses).

Who are these people?
Characters can’t exactly depend on their usual coping skills to adjust to the new world. Enter Han Solo. Or Hamilton’s Schuyler sisters.

New characters begin to transform the main character’s story: It wasn’t enough they were kicked in the butt to do {…}; here’s an even more unexpected adventure to do […].

Hamilton, on his journey to greatness, finds love and conflict between his feelings for two women. (It’s not enough he’s on his way to glory; now, he’s on his way to his humanity.) Luke grapples with a decision: Does he follow the spiritual path of Obi-Wan or the pragmatic path of Han Solo? Spoiler alert: He does both. After all, they need Han’s ship.

I can’t deal/Maybe I can deal/I like this
At some point, the main character moves a step forward. Luke, though blind-helmeted and zapped by a training orb, persists in his lightsaber training. In Wicked’s “Popular,” Glinda’s makeover of Elphaba takes them from loathing to friendship.

The characters are on their way to succeeding.

The journey you choose

I love this
Now that the character has dipped their toes into the new world, it’s time to take the full plunge. They flirt with new challenges. In romantic stories, they, well, flirt. Evan Hansen, more comfortable in his new (though deceptive) skin, can now connect with Zoe, his crush.

The character gets what they want — kinda. So far, the story’s about HOW to reach the goal. Elphaba wants to meet the Wizard. Great, she does! Story over.

Not so fast. Something throws our character into a new and HUGE bind. Hello, flying monkey oppression. Unlike before, though, the character has developed new skills and pledges to take on the challenge. It’s their point of no return.

Don’t stop me now
The Death Star’s tractor beam pulls in the Millennium Falcon, leading to Luke’s resolve to rescue Leia (and to convince Han to help). In musicals, the song before intermission is often a character declamation.

  • “I am what I am.”
  • “Nobody in all of Oz … will ever bring me down.”
  • “Don’t rain on my parade.”
  • “I will get him back even as he gloats. In the meantime, I’ll practice on less honorable throats.” (And later: “We’ll serve anyone … to anyone at all.”)**

**in La Cage aux Folles, Wicked, Funny Girl, and Sweeney Todd, respectively.

Wait, this is harder than I thought
As the character commits more to their journey, opposition escalates. Reaching the “how” goal causes more problems. Luke frees Leia, but the stormtroopers pursue. Hamilton might be treasury secretary, but new foil Jefferson arrives.

Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen.
Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Emotional stakes rise. In Dear Evan Hansen, the people Evan’s been deceiving offer to pay his college tuition. A character might face stasis: Though still longing to reunite with his daughter, Sweeney Todd resigns himself to his daily routine … of murdering his barbershop customers.

Still, it gets bleaker.

The journey you surrender

Argh, this sucks
Luke’s dead in a trash compactor?! Wait, phew, he’s alive. Yay, they escape — but OMG Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan!

This fourth journey, the “falling action” of Freytag, is the darkest part of the story.

Maybe I shouldn’t have
At this point in Into the Woods, the survivors lament, “Maybe I shouldn’t have.” Other musicals ask: “What’s the use of wonderin’?” (Carousel), “What did I have that I don’t have?” (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), “Is anybody there?” (1776), or “What would you do?” (Cabaret).

Sometimes a calamity forces the character to revert to old habits, which is worse than stasis. In Gypsy, just when Herbie thinks Rose will leave show business, Louise’s opportunity to perform jolts Rose back into stage-mother high gear, decimating her future with him.

Worst case becomes best case
In such dire straits, the character must find the answer from within and externalize it. Though Luke Skywalker grieves Obi-Wan, the Millennium Falcon must escape. He’s bolstered by Obi-Wan’s Force-voice: “Run, Luke. Run!”

Musicals can transform the moment in one song: The Baker’s surrender gives way to resolve in Into the Woods’ “No More.” Forgiveness blooms in Hamilton’s “It’s Quiet Uptown.”

The solution was there all along
Stories can also answer from outside — a “Deus Ex Charactera” based on earlier interactions. Maybe it’s a song of inspiration, like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel.

Maybe it’s a reappearance from someone in the character’s past. In Hamilton, Jefferson re-emerges to ask, “Can we get back to politics, please?” In Star Wars, the Rebels discover the Death Star’s weakness (thanks for the prequel, Jyn Erso).

Failure breeds success. Elder Cunningham’s debacle with the Ugandans’ warped tale of “Joseph Smith, American Moses” may enrage the Mormon officials in The Book of Mormon, but it inspires Elder Price to reclaim his lost faith.

With the revelations, reversals, and solutions in hand, it’s time for the last journey.

David Prowse and Alec Guinness in Star Wars.
David Prowse and Alec Guinness in Star Wars. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox/Photofest.

The final exam journey

Before I understood the five journeys, writing third acts always felt inert: Then they realize […]. They talk and make up. Here’s the secret: Act three is a microcosm of the entire five-journey story. I call it the BONES method.

Our character is reborn, a new BEGINNING, their previous ordeal enabling them to forge the plan to conquer the ultimate challenge. But OBSTACLES derail them, forcing them to choose a NEW strategy until a final EXPERIENCE seemingly renders them helpless so they must reach inside and outside for a final push, showing the SYNTHESIS of their growth. They resolve the story’s global, personal, and character problems. Let’s look again at our Star Wars example.

  • GLOBAL (plot) — The Death Star explodes. The Rebellion wins!
  • PERSONAL (external journey) — Luke issues that final blow, reaching his goal of leaving home and joining the Rebellion.
  • CHARACTER (internal growth) — After the Empire destroys the other X-wings, Luke trusts the Force and disables his computer to shoot manually (the “inside”). But Vader’s now on his tail. Han Solo swoops in to save him (the “outside”). Han returns because Luke had previously called out his selfishness. Luke’s growth later transforms Han to rejoin the fight. His return also synthesizes the belief in an ether-bound Force with a reliance on Earth-bound (or Yavin-bound) tangible equipment, and most of all, people.

As you embark on the five journeys of your story, keep in mind that structure is not a rigid formula. Not every moment must happen in these specific places, but all these moments are reflections of our lives and, consequently, the lives of your characters. They are the moments when we begin, face obstacles, and reach inside and outside for new ways to experience our humanity — in the synthesis of vibrant stories.

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