A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not. Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?
Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line. The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically. So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train. But how?
Who are the heroes? I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train. A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center. A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.
In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie. Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.
The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.
Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains. But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress. The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.