The protagonist’s character arc must be intertwined with the story. They have no reason to exist in the same space if they are separate. Examining the structure of the narrative is part of ensuring both aspects work in tandem. 

Today, we’re exploring the traditional three-act structure, a storytelling technique staple in commercial Hollywood movies and most commercial fiction. While many writing books dissect this structure into its many parts, this post will provide a general overview.

I’ll use the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin to illustrate each major story point.  Let’s begin.

ACT ONE

We don’t meet our protagonist in the movie for about ten minutes. We’re given a few story breadcrumbs and foreshadowing with the merchant and Jafar scenes. The latter learns from the Cave of Wonders that he needs to seek out a “diamond in the rough” to enter the cave and retrieve the lamp.

Once we meet Aladdin, we discover he’s young, charismatic, clever, and has to steal to get the things he needs.  Our perspective on him is altered when he gives the loaf of bread he stole earlier to two children digging through the trash.  After an altercation with an arrogant prince who has come to meet the princess, we look into Aladdin’s true feelings that people only see what’s on the outside, not what’s inside (this is a major theme in this movie, repeated often).

As Princess Jasmine rejects another suitor and yearns for freedom, she scales the palace wall and heads out into the city of Agrabah, where…

Inciting Incident:  Aladdin meets and saves Princess Jasmine in the marketplace and discovers she’s the princess.

The whole story hinges on this moment. The story has no direction or stakes if Aladdin doesn’t meet Jasmine, even with the magic lamp.  This event “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life” and gives him a new active goal to work toward (McKee 189).  It’s clear even before he knows who she really is that he’s smitten, and once her true status is revealed, it doesn’t discourage him in the least; he’s now determined to see her again.  But how?

After Jafar discovers that Aladdin is the “diamond in the rough” he’s been looking for, Aladdin is arrested and imprisoned. While there, Jafar disguises himself as an old man and entices Aladdin to come with him to the Cave of Wonders to help him retrieve the lamp.

Jafar almost gets the lamp, but when it’s clear he intends to double-cross and kill Aladdin, a brief fight ensues, and as the Cave of Wonders closes with Aladdin inside, Jafar is left without his prized magic lamp.

Trapped inside the Cave of Wonders, Aladdin discovers the lamp is still in his possession.  It’s at that moment that…

Plot Point/Turning Point #1 – Aladdin rubs the lamp and unleashes Genie.

Suddenly, Aladdin has a lot of power and control over his fate in the form of this amazingly energetic wish-granting being.

This is the end of Act One, where a big event happens to the protagonist, sending them in a new direction, but one that will eventually help them achieve their goal.  Aladdin meeting Genie “is a scene that causes a major reversal – change with greater impact” than anything that’s happened to him in the story so far (McKee 234).

ACT TWO

After they escape from the Cave of Wonders, Aladdin tells Genie about Jasmine. He has a wish picked out: He wants Genie to make him a Prince. So, Genie transforms Aladdin into Prince Ali so that he can woo Princess Jasmine.

Aladdin’s transformation into Prince Ali assists in his goal, but it isn’t a major moment for his character.  Things start to change for Aladdin during the:

Midpoint Sequence –

As he and his companions are down in the courtyard, Genie attempts to get Aladdin to be honest with Princess Jasmine about who he really is, but he refuses.  Aladdin has several decisions to make as the story heads toward its Midpoint.

Aladdin’s goal is within reach, but “there’s a sense that if the Hero suddenly decided to dump the whole thing and go home, [they] still could.  Then something happens at the Midpoint that eliminates all possibility of turning back” (Edson 123).  And that something is…

After Jafar attempts to kill him and Genie saves his life, Aladdin returns to Jasmine, whose father has been hypnotized by Jafar to tell her to marry the antagonist.  Aladdin breaks Jafar’s spell on the Sultan and reveals Jafar’s mind-control trick, and Jafar escapes before he can be imprisoned.

During this sequence, Jafar realizes that Aladdin has the magic lamp and decides it’s time to get it for himself.  

Aladdin succeeds in wooing Princess Jasmine, who chooses him as her husband-to-be. This is the point of no return for Aladdin. It looks like he’s getting what he wants. 

Aladdin is going through many emotions, including guilt, at this point in the story.  He’s not being honest with Princess Jasmine about who he is, and now he’s taken back his promise to Genie that he’ll use his final wish to set him free.  With his allies walking away, Aladdin is truly alone despite getting what he wants: Princess Jasmine.

This is a low point for Aladdin emotionally, but things are about to worsen as…

Plot Point/Turning Point #2 – Jafar gets the lamp, exposes Aladdin, and banishes him for Agrabah.

The antagonist has the upper hand in the story for the first time.  With the power of a genie, Jafar wreaks havoc and terror on everyone as his true evil self is revealed.  As stated before, this moment “is a scene that causes a major reversal – change with greater impact” for the hero (McKee 234).  At this moment, Aladdin has lost everything he’s gained from the story’s start. 

This is the low point for the hero.  It appears all is lost, and their goal is further out of reach than ever before.    

ACT THREE

Realizing how badly he’s screwed up, Aladdin decides to make things right.  He returns to Agrabah from exile to fix things.

This is where things heat up, and we launch into the big showdown between good and evil.  In Aladdin, as in most stories, this is “an explosive moment, the highest peak in energy, or the last big event” (Vogler 208).  And Aladdin’s climax definitely has all of these!

Climax – Aladdin returns, confronts Jafar, and outwits him by making Jafar wish to be a genie.  Jafar is sucked into his own lamp.

Agrabah is restored to its former self.

Aladdin has quite the journey.  He decides to be true to himself and his word, which results in…

Resolution –Aladdin frees Genie and ends up with Princess Jasmine.

THE END

While there are many smaller moments where Aladdin has to make active choices that move him in one direction or the other, these major turning points move him in entirely new directions as he pursues his ultimate goal (which he does achieve).

I encourage everyone to pick a move and see if you can identify the inciting incident, major turning points, climax, and resolution. Most commercial films maintain this structure, and the protagonist’s fate and actions are linked directly to these moments.

Happy viewing, and I’ll see you next time!

Sources:

Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

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