Three-Act Structure, Act I

Narrative Analysis: The Basics


The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past opens by establishing the central conflict.

All openings serve to answer a story’s most basic questions: the who, what, when, where, and why of the narrative. Of the five major questions, the first four have simple answers. The ‘who’ is most often the protagonist, although it can be other characters who feature prominently in the narrative. The ‘what’ is a source of conflict in the world. While the conflict in the opening isn’t always the conflict that makes up the center of the story, it usually has a connection to either the main conflict or the protagonist. The ‘when’ and ‘where’ are connected, as the combination of time and place gives the story as setting. The final question, the ‘why’, is tougher to establish, but no less essential. The ‘why’ tells the audience why they should care. It’s not enough to give audience characters and a conflict; they must also have a reason to care which character triumphs and which character fails. Labeling these characters as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is a start, but for a story to resonate, the audience needs more.

A Link to the Past opens with a text scroll set over a series of vignettes that illustrate the text. In this prologue, the player learns of the beautiful kingdom of Hyrule, where a golden power lies dormant in a hidden land. When an evil wizard named Ganon sought the power, a group of wise men gathered together to seal the power away. For a time, the seal held, but another evil wizard named Agahnim has come to tear it down for Ganon. To clear a path, Agahnim first killed Hyrule’s king and kidnapped its princess. Now, he’s hunting down the descendents of the wise men and ‘disappearing’ them one by one. If nothing is done, Princess Zelda will meet the same fate, and Agahnim will seize the golden power for himself, giving him control over Hyrule.

By using a text scroll, the opening of A Link to the Past is able to convey a large amount of information in a short amount of time.

Using nothing but a short text crawl, the opening to A Link to the Past answers all of an audience’s essential questions in a quick, efficient fashion. The ‘who’ is met twice-over, once by the endangered Zelda and next by the evil Agahnim; the ‘what’ is Agahnim’s quest to seize the golden power. ‘Where’ and ‘when’ are equally well-established: the ‘where’ is Kingdom of Hyrule, and the ‘when’ is long after the wise men first formed the seal on the power. Most importantly, the ‘why’ is established at the very end, when the text explains what will happen if Agahnim is allowed to proceed with his plans: Zelda will be ‘disappeared’, Agahnim will seize the ultimate power for Ganon, and Hyrule will have no one to protect it. While Ganon’s vision for Hyrule isn’t specifically stated, his henchman is a killer and kidnapper of young women, so his reign is unlikely to be a happy one. 

With these questions answered, the player has enough information to get invested in the story. What they need now is someone with both the motive and the skill to save Hyrule. In other words, they need a protagonist.

Inciting Incident

The Incident Incident is the kick in the pants that the protagonists needs to engage with the narrative’s central conflict. Until this point, the protagonist has been going through life with a tenuous sense of balance: wobbling from side to side, but still holding it together. According to Robert McKee, author of Story: “[The protagonist] has successes and failures, ups and downs. Who doesn’t? But life is in relative control.”¹  The inciting incident is moment when that control is lost, and the protagonist’s balance is permanently disrupted. To restore balance to their existence, they must engage with the problem at hand. If they don’t, they’ll be forever off-kilter, unable to return to the life they once knew.

In A Link to the Past, the Inciting Incident occurs when Princess Zelda reaches out to Link via telepathy.

In A Link to the Past, the Inciting Incident serves two purposes: introducing the protagonist and disrupting his world. In most stories, these two points are established separately, but A Link to the Past bucks the trend by introducing the protagonist and the Inciting Incident simultaneously. The reason this works is because the opening introduced the central problem: the threat to Hyrule and Zelda. Without being directly told anything about the protagonist, the player knows instinctively that said protagonist must be able to solve the problem. If A Link to the Past were a more complex narrative, this level of introduction might not suffice, but it serves the purposes of the story at hand.

The protagonist, Link, is first shown sleeping in the corner of a tiny room. Link’s mustachioed uncle sits at the table on the other side of the space. Those visual cues are all the information the player gets before another text scroll kicks in, this time with a message from Princess Zelda. She’s calling out to Link from the dungeon where she’s being held prisoner, and she needs Link to set her free. As her voice fades away, the lights turn on and Link jolts awake. Both his sleep and his life have been disrupted, and he won’t know why unless he goes out and finds Zelda himself.

Second Thoughts

The Second Thoughts plot point is the moment where the protagonist is given a chance to avoid confronting the story’s central problem. Unlike other plot points in the three-act structure, the Second Thoughts point can manifest in different ways. This ambiguity is one of the reasons this point boasts so many different names across structures, such as screenwriter Blake Snyder’s ‘Debate’⁠2 and author Joseph Campbell’s  ‘Refusal of the Call’.⁠3 Since story structure is an amorphous thing, constantly being expanded and refined, there is no one correct title for the point. Ultimately, they are all expressing the same idea: this point is the moment of doubt. 

Link’s uncle warns him not to leave the house, giving Link a chance to reject the call to adventure.

The most common expression of the Second Thoughts plot point is when the protagonist expresses their own doubts about forging ahead—hence the name ‘Second Thoughts’—but the doubt doesn’t always have to come from the protagonist themself. Sometimes, the opportunity to disengage will come from other characters offering the protagonist a reason to turn back. Other times, it might come from the environment itself. These differing manifestations are particularly important in video game narratives with silent protagonists, as heroes who can’t speak are limited in their ability to express doubt. To satisfy this plot point while limiting the input from the protagonist, video game narratives will often rely on other characters to air the protagonist’s unspoken concerns.

A Link to the Past gives Link two quick and effective reason to refuse the call to adventure. The first reason comes when he wakes up, as his uncle says he’s leaving until morning and Link shouldn’t leave the house. As Link is not quite yet an adult, the command from an authority figure should be all the reason he needs to ignore Zelda’s pleas and stay put. There wouldn’t be much of a story if he did, however, so he ignores his uncle’s command and leaves. The second reason to reject the call comes when Link reaches the castle’s dungeons and finds his uncle dying on the floor. Although Link’s uncle asks him to save the princess, the old man’s death proves that the adventure could cost Link his life, as well. With no one around to witness Link’s choice, refusal is still an option, but instead he accepts the risks and moves forward, bringing the story with him.

Turning Point One

By rescuing Princess Zelda, Link passes a point of no return.

In the three-act structure, each act ends with a turning point. According to Snyder, “…the act break is the moment where we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is the upside down version of that, its antithesis.”4 Author Christopher Volger refers to this moment as Crossing the First Threshold, as Joseph Campbell did before him5. Another way to refer to this moment is the Point of No Return. As with the Second Thoughts plot point, these differing names all speak to a single concept: the moment when the protagonist steps out of the old world and into the new. There can be no going back from this moment; everything has changed, for better or for worse.

In A Link to the Past, Turning Point One occurs when Link successfully rescues Princess Zelda from the dungeons beneath Hyrule Castle. With the help of a secret passage, they emerge in a church to the north of the palace, where the priest in charge begs Link to find the sacred Master Sword and rid Hyrule of the evil wizard that kidnapped the princess. Link accepts the quest, and in doing so, his life is irrevocably changed. If he turns back now, he’ll be letting down the priest who helped him, along with the princess who believes in him and the kingdom that needs him.


1 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 190). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

2 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 77). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.

3 Volger, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Third Edition. (p. 6) Michael Wiese Productions.

4 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 79). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.

5 Volger, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Third Edition. (p. 6) Michael Wiese Productions.

* Reference Run: Nintendo Complete. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) Playthrough – NintendoComplete. YouTube, 2018.

** Reference Script: Davogones. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Text Dump. GameFAQs, 2002.