Classic Hollywood Movie Structure

Overtime, Hollywood has developed a basic structure that works for most movies (and makes for a nice comparison to the structures of other narrative media, like novels, epics and sagas, etc.). Notice how it privileges the beginning, middle and end of the narrative and how it conforms to the narrative schema

The Five-Minute Rule

The first five minutes of a film (or screenplay) will establish tone and stakes and orient the audience to important themes, characters and motifs.


Tone is the emotional disposition of the narrator or the main characters: serious, comic, ironic, playful, fantastic, etc. We recognize this narrative disposition because the first five minutes are wacky or somber or realistic or bizarre or violent. Look for some specific clues: what do the music, the color, the speed of action, and the type of events indicate about an attitude the narration wants you to take? 

Theme and Stakes

What is at stake in the thematic world of this movie? Life and death? Love? Money? Family? Property? Winning and losing? Recall the first few minutes of your favorite movie: how do the images set up the rest of the film and what, beyond the exact events of that particular movie, is being presented? 
For example, Gladiator opens with a man walking through the Elysian Fields and cuts to a Roman general preparing for battle and reviewing the troops. Thematically, these two images set up issues of life and death, good vs. evil, power, loyalty, male identity, violence, and history. Everything that you personally have ever associated with Rome or war or even Russell Crowe is a possible theme.


What are the visual devices in the design of the film that will underscore these themes and be repeated (with subtle variations) throughout the film?


Who are the main characters and what do they want or need? (Want and need are two very different categories). What are the defining traits of these people? With which characters does the narration align us initially? Whose movie is this?

Three Act Structure: 

Moulin Rouge

I will use the Summer 2001 movie Moulin Rouge as my example of the typical three act movie. The structure can of course be applied to almost any movie, and it might be fun and instructive to attempt to apply it to other narrative structures.

Emotional Need and Material Goal

Most Hollywood plots can be divided into two main plot lines: emotional need and material goal.
Emotional need is the character’s emotional predicament/conflict. This plot line is built around what relationship the main characters need to create. Usually this means the establishment or rediscovery of a man/woman love relationship. Moulin Rouge’s emotional plot obviously centers on Christian and Satine’s love affair. (Note: the emotional need is not always about love, nor is it necessarily recognized or understood as a need by the protagonist.)
The material goal, or want, is a conscious decision by the protagonist. In American movies, this often has to do with property, money, or skill: Robbing a bank, winning the big game, defeating the Empire, etc. In Moulin Rouge, Christian’s material goal is to write Spectacular! Spectacular! And Satine’s material goal is to be “a real actress.”
Usually, the two plots are cleverly integrated, climaxing at the same moment. For instance, when Spectacular! Spectacular! is finally performed, the original end of S!S! is restored (the material goals of Christian and Satine are met) and Christian and Satine declare their love for one another and the Duke’s plan to kill Christian is foiled (the emotional need is met). The two plot lines may also create complicating actions for each other. When Satine engages in an affair with Christian, she satisfies her emotional need for a love relationship, but she also jeopardizes her chance to be a real actress, which is her material goal.

Act One

Act One is the first quarter (22-30 minutes) of the movie and reveals two initiating events, as the protagonist chooses to act on each plot line, and a complicating event, often involving an antagonist.
In MR there are possibly three initiating events: Christian decides to write S!S!, Satine reveals her desire to be a real actress, and the two of them  meet and fall in love. The complicating event is the Duke’s involvement in the production of S!S! and his dangerous infatuation for Satine.

Act Two

Act Two is the middle half of the movie and plays out the problems set up in Act One. The choice our protagonist made at the end of Act One affects everything: complicating actions arise everywhere, and he adjusts to these new problems. As a result of these complications, we see or suspect that the character or the character’s relationships with others are changing dramatically.  This is the climax of the emotional need plot: the characters now have new relationships and emotional goals. These emotional changes lead to an adjustment of the material goal plot line. That, in turn, will cause the protagonist to make a conscious choice that will spin the plot into a new and unexpected direction (this choice usually occurs two-thirds or three-quarters of the wahy through the movie). By the end of Act Two, we usually know or strongly suspect what must happen in order for the material goal plot line to be resolved.
The emotional climax of MR is, arguably, the “Come What May” scene in which Christian and Satine confront the threat to their relationship. Act Two ends with the Duke’s discovery of the affair, his insistence that the ending of S!S! be changed, and Satine’s (unexpected) decision to sleep with the Duke in an attempt to keep the show alive.

Act Three

Now that the emotional needs of our characters have changed, the pursuit of the material goal accelerates, and often the scenes become shorter and faster-paced as the action builds toward a climax of the goal plot.  Will the crime get solved?  Will the aliens take over?  Will the Home Team win?  Almost always there’s a secret that needs to be revealed, a final twist that complicates the protagonist’s actions one last time.  This action will build, in the last 15 minutes, to a concluding conflict or goal climax sequence that will resolve the action plot and reveal the secret.
In the final act of MR, the emotional need and the material goal plots are satisfied on the stage of S!S! (I won’t give the ending away in case you haven’t seen the movie).


As the dust settles, the last 2 to 5 minutes of the film are an epilogue, a series of slow-moving, gentle scenes that revisit the themes and images of the rest of the film--often returning to the location of the first scenes--and gives a sense of completion to the conflicts of both plots.  Often, American movies conclude with the character(s) going away from the camera (or the camera pulling away from them); it's the world of the film letting the audience go.
MR contains an excellent example of the epilogue. The camera pulls away from the Moulin Rouge, from Paris, from France, and carries us safely back into our theatre seats – at the Moulin Rouge.


At the end of a Hollywood movie (or any good narrative) you should ask yourself, “How did the main character change? What did she want or need at first, how did she go about getting it, and what did she finally achieve or discover? What did that character learn?” Usually there is an obvious answer that hides some more problematic issues: the action plot may be over, but a new plot is just beginning.


Thanks to Jeff Marker our resident movie expert.