This is an excellent question, and surprisingly important. Here’s how it was described recently by the writers of the classic comedy, AIRPLANE.
Jerry Zucker (director/co-writer): We’d never heard of Zero Hour! before then, and at first we were probably sort of just fast-forwarding to the commercials, or maybe looking at but mostly just waiting for the commercials—but then we started really watching it and getting into the movie. And, you know, Zero Hour! actually works. It was written by Arthur Hailey, who also wrote Airport. You could teach film structure using Zero Hour. It’s a perfectly classically structured film.
Abrahams: It’s like a classic three-act play: You meet a guy in the first act, you throw stones at him in the second act, and in the third act everything is resolved.
David Zucker (director/co-writer): Since we did Airplane! we’ve never had as good of a plot as that.
You can’t have a story without a beginning, middle, and end. This is three-act structure. Act 1 is the beginning, Act 2 is the middle, and Act 3 is the end. The beginning introduces all the characters and everything else the audience needs to know in order to understand what’s happening. The end wraps it all up—the main character succeeds or fails. And in the middle—as highlighted above, in the middle the antagonist “throws stones” at the protagonist.
Here’s a clip from AIRPLANE that perfectly illustrates the end of Act 1. All the main characters have been presented, and this scene introduces the obstacle that the main character will have to overcome—the lack of a pilot on the plane he and his loved one are flying in.
Notice how even though it is a comedy, the plot still has suspense. The audience is still in suspense to find out whether the plane will crash, and whether the main character, Ted, will be able to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Elaine.
The middle of a story is famously the most difficult part to write. In my online webinar I teach the key to making Act 2 easy to write and irresistible to the audience. The webinar covers everything about how to build a rock-solid story. I’m thinking of teaching a series of smaller webinars as well, each of which would only take an hour and would each teach something very important, like this key to Act 2. If this might be of interest, please let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
Update from Eric: