Monday, October 26, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: Elements of Act Three

So why is this so hard?

The third act so often falls apart or disappoints, don’t you think? We all seem to be somewhat afraid of it – that is, unless it’s all there in our heads to begin with and we can just – “speed we to our climax”, as Shakespeare said.

But even then, a third act is a lot of pressure. So maybe I’ll just make it easier on myself and say that this is going to be just the start of a SERIES of discussions on the third act. (There, I feel better already.)

As a reminder – the third act is generally the final twenty to thirty minutes in a film, or the last seventy to 100 pages in a four-hundred page novel. The final quarter.

To study how to craft a great third act, you have to look specifically at the endings that work for YOU. (Back to “The List”. Have you made yours yet?).

But let me be entirely general for a second, and give you the bottom line:

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist.

Sometimes that’s all there is to it – one final battle between the protagonist and antagonist. In which case some good revelatory twists are probably required to break up all that fighting.

By the end of the second act, pretty much everything has been set up that we need to know – particularly WHO the antagonist is, which sometimes we haven’t known, or have been wrong about, until that is revealed at the second act climax. Of course, sometimes, or maybe often, there is one final reveal about the antagonist that is saved till the very end or nearly the end – as in THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and PSYCHO.

We also very often have gotten a sobering or terrifying glimpse of the ultimate nature of that antagonist – a great example of that kind of “nature of the opponent” scene is in CHINATOWN, in that scene in which Jake is slapping Evelyn around and he learns about her father.

There’s a location aspect to the third act – the final battle will often take place in a completely different setting than the rest of the film or novel. In fact half of the third act can be, and often is, just GETTING to the site of the final showdown. One of the most memorable examples of this in movie history is the “storming the castle” scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ, where, led by an escaped Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion scale the cliff, scope out the vast armies of the witch (“Yo Ee O”) and tussle with three stragglers to steal their uniforms and march in through the drawbridge of the castle with the rest of the army. A sequence like this, and the similar ones in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, can have a lot of the elements we discussed about the first half of the first act: a plan, assembling the team, assembling tools and disguises, training or rehearsal.

And of course speed is often a factor – there’s a ticking clock, so our hero/ine has to race to get there in time to – save the innocent victim from the killer, save his or her kidnapped child from the kidnapper, stop the loved one from getting on that plane to Bermuda…


Most clichéd story ending EVER. Throw in the hero/ine getting stuck in a cab in Manhattan rush hour traffic and you really are risking audiences vomiting in the aisles, or readers, beside their chairs. It almost destroyed my pleasure in one of the best movies of last year, well, THE best – totally took me out of what had been up until that moment a perfect film.

But when you think about it, the first two examples are equally clichéd. Sometimes there’s a fine line between clichéd and archetypal. You have to find how to elevate – or deepen – the clichéd to something archetypal.

For example, one of the most common third act structural patterns involves infiltrating the antagonist’s hideout, or castle, or lair, and confronting the antagonist on his or her own turf. Think of THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAR WARS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – the witch’s castle, the Imperial Starship, Buffalo Bill’s house.

Notice that this pattern naturally divides itself into two separate and self-contained sequences:

1. Getting in


2. The confrontation itself.

Also putting the final showdown on the villain’s turf means the villain has home-court advantage. The hero/ine has the extra burden of being a fish out of water on unfamiliar ground (mixing a metaphor to make it painfully clear).

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a perfect example of elevating the cliché into archetype. It takes place in the basement, as in PSYCHO, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Therapists talk about “basement issues” – which are your worst fears and traumas from childhood – the stuff no one wants to look at, but which we have to look at, and clean out, to be whole.

But Thomas Harris, in the book, and the filmmakers, bringing it to life in the movie, create a basement that is so rich in horrific and revelatory and mythic (really fairy tale) imagery that we never feel that we’ve seen that scene before. In fact I see new resonances in the set design every time I watch that film… like Gumb having a wall of news clippings just exactly like the one in Crawford’s office. That’s a technique that Harris uses that can elevate the clichéd to the archetypal: LAYERING meaning.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET takes that clichéd spooky basement scene and gives it a whole new level, literally: the heroine is dreaming that she is following a sound down into the basement and then there’s a door that leads to ANOTHER basement under the basement. And if you think bad things happen in the basement, what’s going to happen in a sub-basement?

To switch genres completely for a moment, an archetypal final setting for a romantic comedy is an actual wedding. We’ve seen this scene so often you’d think there’s nothing new you can do with it. But of course a story about love and relationships is likely to end at a wedding.

So again, make your list and look at what great romantic comedies have done to elevate the cliché.

One of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, uses a classic technique to keep that wedding sequence sparkling: every single one of that large ensemble of characters has her or his own wickedly delightful resolution. Everyone has their moment to shine, and insanely precocious little sister Dinah pretty nearly steals the show (even from Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant!!) with her last line: “I did it. I did it ALL.”

(This is a good lesson for any ensemble story, no matter what genre – all the characters should constantly be competing for the spotlight, just in any good theater troupe. Make your characters divas and scene stealers and let them top each other.)

Now, you see a completely different kind of final battle in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. This is not the classic, “hero confronts villain on villain’s home turf” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? There’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one.

But the point of that story is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all along. There is no big glorious heroic showdown to be had, here – because it’s all the little grueling day to day, crazymaking battles that George has had with Potter all his life that have made the difference. And the genius of that film is that it shows in vivid and disturbing detail what would have happened if George had NOT had that whole lifetime of battles, against Potter and for the town. So in the end George makes the choice to live to fight another day, and is rewarded with the joy of seeing his town restored.

This is the best example I know of, ever, of a final battle that is thematic – and yet the impact is emotional and visceral – it’s not an intellectual treatise – you LIVE that ending along with George, but also come away with the sense of what true heroism is.

And so again – in case you haven’t gotten the message yet! – when you sit down to craft your own third act, try looking at the great third acts of movies and books that are similar to your own story, and see what those authors and filmmakers did to bring out the thematic depth AND emotional impact of their stories.

If there's anyone out there who's actually recovered from the holiday weekend - what are some of your favorite third acts? What makes it real for you - the location, the thematic elements, the battle itself?

More tomorrow.


The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

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- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)



More articles on story structure

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List


Unknown said...

OK, I've got my logline or elevator pitch or whatever you want to call it and I'm ready to post it in the comme...huh?

You're on Act III already? Where did the time go? Less than a week to the start of nanowrimo and all I've got is two sentences? What do I do now? Panic?

Anyway, here's the pitch:

The newest member of the Paranormal Studies faculty at a conservative religious college in the Midwest must choose between potentially unlocking the secret of what separates life from death and saving her childhood boyfriend who has begged her to "help me become a ghost."

Vowing to keep her friend's obsession with becoming a ghost from dragging him over the edge of reality, she joins his quest into the paranormal. But after her best friend's shocking death during their investigation, she must discover whether her re-kindled love for a man she knows little about, her desire to believe in something more than just this life, and her need to always be right caused her friend's death or was it something more sinister?

Greg James said...

My choice would be the third act of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness where Professor Dyer and Danforth enter the subterranean levels of the city and come face to face with a Shoggoth.

I think it's quite a good literary example of the basement analogy as they descend deeper in, passing the suggestive calling cards of the creature they're about to confront.
Also, this is a new level of an alien city so the reader, already off-balance, is taken into an even more threatening environment.

The appearance of the Shoggoth and Lovecraft's detailed description of both it and its nature would be the big reveal moment you mentioned as the antagonist has spent most of the story in the background.

Their subsequent frantic ascent could suggest flight from a truth too horrible to cope with thematically. This could then be extrapolated further to suggest that the world they return to and have always inhabited is the illusion because it is more comforting than the 'reality' down in the basement. This could be seen as a possible inversion of the usual outcome of a third act, maybe. I'm just going off on a tangent here though.

I've also chosen it because, to me, it's a satisfying example of uncliched pyrrhic victory rather than cliched heroic triumph in horror fiction. As the two heroes are forced to flee, one of them into insanity, in order to survive their overwhelming, unstoppable foe. After which, it is also revealed that the antagonist could then be unleashed on the world at large, despite their own best efforts to prevent others following in their expedition's footsteps.

Stephen D. Rogers said...


Talking about the 3rd act reminds me of how you *tried* to convince me that Dreyfus earned his survival in JAWS. :) Which brings to mind a question I've long entertained: why did the Sicilian have to die in PRINCESS BRIDE?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I know, it the END OF THE MONTH. Talk about scary!

That's an intriguing story, David - obviously pushes some of MY buttons. If you could possibly be more specific and concrete about what "unlocking the secret of what separates life from death" and also what it means to "help me become a ghost" - I think that will help you.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, that's a terrific analysis - definitely makes me want to reread MoM.

The flight back to the real world is a step Campbell and Vogler detail of the Hero's Journey, but you are very right that it's an inverted version.

I love this kind of ending!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, why do YOU think he had to die?

Stephen D. Rogers said...


From a structural standpoint, killing the Sicilian (one of three bad guys) makes room for the new threesome that includes the hero guy.

Personally, I'd kill off the hero guy....


Unknown said...


Thanks for your guidance. I knew the "potentially unlocking" section was not well enough defined but I just couldn't seem to wrestle it into shape. After reading your comments today, though, I dove back in for another try. And that showed me that I had strayed too far from my original impulse. I went back to the beginning, and guess what? The story just opened up for me. Now, instead of being kind of flabby, the plot seems to balanced and have a much better shape. I have my midpoint 'all is lost' moment. I have scenes leading up to the second act climax that mirror and deepen scenes from the first act. I know where we're going when we're 'storming the castle' and who's going to be along for the ride.

(See, I'm even referring to 'we' like it's me and my characters taking this journey together.)



Unknown said...

Oh, and as far as what 'help me become a ghost' means, that's what I'm writing the damn thing to find out. :)