My understanding of the three-act structure comes from Joseph Campbell and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He famously inspired George Lucas, who wrote Star Wars and co-wrote Indiana Jones. Lucas drew ideas from Campbell’s framework of a hero’s journey. Campbell studied myths from various parts of the world and denoted themes that they all had in common. According to him, the classic hero’s journey follows a pattern: the hero is called to adventure; she refuses the call to action but an inciting incident forces her to give in. Then she faces trials and tribulations, gets help from a sage or mentor, and finally emerges with a prize and returns to share the prize with the community. This is the pattern that the three-act structure also follows. It captures a hero’s transformation throughout the journey.
Now, let’s plot the three-act structure with the example of one of my favourite films, Spirited Away, an animated movie produced by Studio Ghibli and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It was released in 2001 and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003.
The story centres around two worlds; the human world and the supernatural world. Our protagonist is part of the human world and she is thrown into the supernatural. Her journey is about how she adapts to this new world and tries to escape it. The supernatural world is occupied by various spirits and ghosts. These supernatural entities roam within a bathhouse that is specifically built for spirits. Chihiro (protagonist and hero) is a human, unlike those around her. This supernatural world is filled with two-faced characters who can’t all be trusted. It is a very unpredictable and ruthless world that Chihiro has to adapt to and find a way to escape.
Act 1: Call to adventure
Ordinary World: Chihiro and her parents are moving into a new town. Chihiro constantly complains about being afraid to attend the new school.
She is depicted as someone who doesn’t have an eye for adventure. That is why she keeps urging her parents to stop exploring when they hit a dead end at a forest and wish to wander into a mysterious tunnel to see what is on the other side. Chihiro is evidently afraid and reluctant to venture in. Her complaints don’t seem to stop. Finally, through much persuasion, she complies and they all enter the tunnel. On the other end, they discover an abandoned theme park. Chihiro is too afraid to pay any heed to it. This scene leads to the call for adventure.
Her parents find a food stall and begin eating. Chihiro is repulsed and decides to go for a walk by herself, refusing to eat food with them. In the abandoned and lonely theme park, she meets a mysterious character who tells her to leave quickly, before the sun sets. She hurries to her parents just to see that they have turned to pigs. The little girl is frantic as night falls and various spirits and ghosts emerge around her.
Meeting with the mentor: The mysterious figure, Haku, emerges as her guide and tells her that she must get a job at the bathhouse if she wants to save her parents and return to the human world. The cowardly girl is expected to take on a quest to save her parents and ultimately herself. This is her call to adventure. It is a quest she needs to fulfil for the benefit of her family and their survival.
Crossing the first threshold: Haku tells her to follow some staircases down to the boiler room where she would have to talk to Kamaji, the boiler man and ask him for a job. This is her first task. There is a long and comic scene of Chihiro carefully walking down steps that are placed at a significant height. She climbs down with utmost caution but when one step unexpectedly breaks, she rushes down them in an erratic frenzy. She is petrified with fear but finally makes it to the boiler room.
Critical Plot Point 1: Kamaji asks her to meet Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse. Chihiro gets to Yubaba’s cabin to ask her for a job. Right away, she is extremely intimidated and afraid of Yubaba and her looks. But Chihiro displays some cleverness and persistence and secures a job. This is a critical plot point because the character makes a decision and commits to it; in this case, Chihiro makes a decision to get a job at the bath house, so she can save her parents.
There is quote in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This is true in life and in the way we write our characters. The most efficient way to display a character’s personality is to have them make a choice.
Act 2: Trials and tribulations
Enemies and Allies: Chihiro makes allies in Kamaji and Lin. Lin becomes Chihiro’s friend and mentor. She shows Chihiro how to do her job and sticks up for her when all the ghosts around her bully and tease her for being a human. She also makes enemies, Yubaba being one of them as well as all the other monsters who don’t like humans.
Tribulations: She is slow at doing chores in the bathhouse because she hasn’t worked ever in her life before. She is also extremely clumsy and tends to create more trouble.
Successes: She helps clean a river spirit (a very difficult task). The river spirit is very respectable and important so the fact that Chihiro helps rid him of the filth makes Yubaba very pleased with her. The river sprit thanks Chihiro for cleaning him and gifts her a fruit. Through this victory, she ends up making a place for herself in the bath house, even though she is very different from everybody around her.
Tribulations again: She figures that Haku is in some sort of danger and tries to save him. She chooses to overcome her previous fear of heights and the fear of Yubaba to go help a hurt Haku who is bleeding in Yubaba’s cabin. This shows how much Chihiro cares about her friends but also how she is slowly beginning to test her limits and face her fears.
Tribulation and Reward: She is faced with another obstacle where a specific spirit that she led into the bathhouse becomes rogue and begins eating other people. Chihiro uses her wit and saves the lives of those that were eaten and wins the hearts of all the ghosts in the bathhouse who previously hated her.
Act 3-: Resolution
Reward: Chihiro’s venture to save Haku and sort out his problems with his enemies brings the two of them closer to each other.
Critical Plot Point 2: It is minutes before the final test that Yubaba prepares for Chihiro to get back her parents. Haku and all her other friends stand up against Yubaba and tell her not to give Chihiro anymore tests and to let her parents go immediately. But instead of cowering behind her friends, Chihiro makes a moral choice to face her fears and go ahead with the challenge.
Climax: Chihiro wins Yubaba’s challenge and her parents are set free.
Resolution: Haku and Chihiro run to the tunnel that she had first crossed with her parents. Haku ensures her that they will meet again and with that, they part ways. Chihiro is happy to see her parents but they don’t seem to remember anything; it was as if time had stopped for them. They get into the car and they ask Chihiro if she is scared to begin school in the new city. But now Chihiro, who overcame so many challenges in the spirit world, replies confidently, “I am not scared.”
At the end of the three-act structure, we see a different Chihiro. The awkward and afraid little girl who first entered the tunnel emerges out of the tunnel, completely transformed. The journey of a hero is all about transformation and change.
If we consider ourselves to be the protagonists of our own lives, we can turn to fictional heroes for inspiration and chart our own journey towards being the best versions of ourselves. It gives me immense joy to know that my own life could follow the patterns of a fictional story.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.