I once took one of those film writing courses, which gave some interesting information about the structure of narrative. Mainly the three act play, which is basically the structure of the Holywood drama movie.

The three acts : beginning, middle and end. Joined by two turning points.

Beginning

Must introduce all relevant important characters within the first 20 minutes. (Famous people in cameo roles could come in later, but everyone who's an agent or protagonist must come in now.

Must introduce a problem for the main protagonist(s). This is something which must be solved.

Now, the rest of the dynamic of the first movement is the protagonist following the logic of solving the problem. Narrative is all about causality or apparent causality, so this attempt to solve the problem is, in some sense, obvious or intelligible. But ...

First Turning Point

At between 20 - 30 minutes (or the end of the first act) we encounter the first turning point. Turning points are structural elements in the plot. They are surprises or twists which give it more energy and vitality.

At the first turning point, the protagonist, following the obvious logic of trying to solve the problem, thinks he / she has solved it, and then BANG! it turns out the protagonist made a mistake, or didn't expect something, and in fact the problem, far from being solved, just got worse : either the same problem is revealed as bigger than expected, or the same problem got harder to solve or a new problem was caused by the attempt to solve the previous one.

Middle

Now the protagonist must try to solve this new, bigger problem. He / she must rethink strategy, try new plans, but the problem is revealed as larger ...

Half-way through the middle, (and therefore half-way through the story, at the top of the story arc is the Point of No Return. This is a point which reveals that the protagonist is changed by the dynamic of the story. In some way he or she will never be able to go back and be the same sort of person as before. This signals a sense of character development, which we look for in satisfying narrative.

The second act continues with the protagonist struggling against the major problem.

Second Turning Point

The second turning point is the mirror of the first. Here the protagonist seems to have failed in solving the big problem. It's almost a moment of despair as nothing the hero tries seems to work. But then, surprisingly, something which the hero set in motion earlier, or something which is natural for the hero to do, actually works to solve, or reveal the solution to the problem.

But be careful not to make this too DeusExMachina. The surprise solution can't be too surprising. Viewers of films are very conservative in their model of causality. They need the thing to be both surprising but intelligible in retrospect, to use people or objects or powers introduced much earlier in the narrative (when they were still expecting new things).

Third Act

No more surprises, just follow the logic of the problem being solved. Usually this means get out of the film as fast as possible. But in action movies it can mean a big spectacular car chase or final battle. The point is though, that there are no more surprises to come, there's no real doubt about who will win, no more character development.

Does it work?

Well, there are many great films which don't have this structure. Doesn't work for RichardLinklater. But if you look at standard Holywood output of adventure, thrillers, romances, action, science-fiction etc. then you can observe this pattern in good ones, and when you think about lousy, boring ones, ones which are worse that you might expect given the budget involved, then you typically notice that they don't have the structure, or have very weak turning points. Often these follow a simple two-act arc of introducing characters and problem in the first act, and solving it in the second.

See also :

  • In a sense, this kind of analysis of structure in a narrative is deriving a pattern for narrative. So see OnPatterns.

And this is amazing : TelevisionTropes