Classic Three-Act Structure
Star Wars follows a classic three-act narrative structure… and that's a good thing because this film is weird. Good weird but weird all the same.
It's hard to grasp this today because the film's images have become ingrained in our culture, but can you imagine being a first-time viewer back in 1977? You'd be sitting there thinking, "What's a Wookiee and how is it different from a Jedi?" "How are the Empire and the Imperial Senate related?" "Who keeps a monster in a trash compactor? Did someone throw it away?"
Now imagine wrestling with all those questions while trying to follow a plot structure like Pulp Fiction's and you have a recipe for exploding head syndrome.
Wanting to keep its audience alive and able to purchase merchandise, Star Wars uses the three-act structure because it is simple to follow. This decision allows audiences to follow the plot almost subconsciously while putting all their brainpower into understanding the Force, the menagerie of odd characters, and the universe that encapsulates them.
The first act of a three-act structure provides the audience with exposition. Exposition is the information we need in order to understand the story. Who are these characters? What world do they inhabit? Are their special rules to this world or is it fundamentally different than our own? These are some of the questions Act I answers.
In Star Wars, Act I runs from the start until the point where the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star. During these scenes, we learn about Princess Leia's capture and the Rebel's struggle against the evil Empire. We meet Luke and see he is anxious to discover the universe beyond his childhood home. Obi-Wan Kenobi teaches about the Force and the Jedi knights of the past, and, of course, the film's famous text crawl provides whole heaps of exposition to ruin an audiences' eyesight.
Let's Do This!
By the time the heroes are captured, we have all the information necessary to enjoy the adventure, so the adventure can get underway.
Act II is called the "rising action," and the action does indeed rise as the protagonist tries to resolve the conflicts introduced in Act I. Obi-Wan tries to shut down the tractor beam's power so the Millennium Falcon can escape. Elsewhere, Luke mounts a rescue of Princess Leia with Han and Chewie's help. After some missteps, the group escapes, solving some of the problems while the major conflict—the threat of the Death Star—remains.
Luke's character arc also kicks into gear. He continues to grow into the warrior he wants to be while also suffering further loss when Obi-Wan is murdered. Ultimately, the lessons he learns during this act will help him bring resolution to the conflict and complete his transition from lost youth to warrior with a purpose.
That's a Wrap
Act III brings us the climax and a resolution to the conflicts that escalated in Act II. The film's climax—read: the most intense part of the story—sees the Death Star orbiting the planet of Yavin, waiting for an opportunity to destroy the rebel base. At the same time, Rebel starfighters mount an offensive against the battle station. Resolution comes when Luke manages to blow up the Death Star, defeat the Empire, and save his new friends, all with a well-placed torpedo shot.
Luke's character arc also sees a nice resolution. Sure, he's not a Jedi Knight yet, but he's also no longer the young moisture farmer he was at the film's outset. He's grown in to a warrior among the Rebel forces.
The film's final shot provides a happy ending with the heroes enjoying their triumph over the evil Empire. Roll them credits!