Monday, July 12, 2010

Elements of Act Three (Part 1)

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 Master 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, and a great book I just finished, Sarah Waters' THE LITTLE STRANGER.

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 Eee 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 second 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 the last few years, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - totally took me out of what had been up until that moment a perfect film. Luckily the filmmakers got back control, but we less brilliant can't afford to take that kind of risk. If you ask me.

Now, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY does that race to get to the final scene, but makes it meaningful. Harry is out wandering the streets of Manhattan by himself on New Year's Eve, after Sally has Made Her Stand and refused to be his "friend with benefits" date. Harry is talking to himself, trying to convince himself that alone on New Year's Eve is just fine with him, when he is suddenly hit by the revelation that he is utterly in love with Sally. And he starts to run through Manhattan to get to the party by the stroke of midnight - he has to run, you see, because there's not a cab to be had in Manhattan on New Year's Eve - so he can kiss Sally in the first moment of the New Year.

Now that's romantic, and we buy it. We know the relationship won't end if the doesn't get there, but it's symbolic, and we feel why it's important. New Year's Eve only comes once a year, it's a mythically powerful time, and - going out on a limb, here - even the most cynical of us would like to believe in the magic of that New Year's Eve kiss.

Plus the stroke of midnight kiss has been cleverly PLANTED in an earlier scene, at last year's New Year's Eve party, when Harry and Sally are dancing and have their first moment of overwhelming chemistry and are too freaked out by it to do anything more than peck each other on the cheek.

AND - the whole set up and race allows Harry to have that wonderful Declaration line: "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start right now."

(For future reference, guys, a line like that makes up for a LOT of bullshit. Just saying. Use your words.)

The whole sequence is a great example of how to elevate a cliche.

But since we're talking about cliches, when you think about it, the first two examples I gave:

Our hero/ine has to race to get someplace in time to –

1 - save the innocent victim from the killer
2 - save his or her kidnapped child from the kidnapper

- 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 not on vacation - what are some of your favorite third acts? What makes it real for you - the location, the thematic elements, the battle itself?

More throughout the week.

- Alex



Online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop:

I am teaching an online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop from July 15-30. These online workshops are a fantastic deal, just $20 for two weeks, and here's where you can get one-on-one feedback on these techniques as they apply to your own story. All genres welcome!

Register here.


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Gabriele said...

Hi, and thanks for posting this series about story structure. I've been reading all the other posts, taking notes of course. I've been looking for something like this for quite some time.

One of my favourite endings is from "Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na". What I enjoyed particularly was... you're calling it "plants and payoffs", right? The movie has several that are introduced earlier, and each of them has a good reason for being where it is. Most have to do with characterization, and several do double duty as a symbol for something deeper. In the last act they're all used again and given a new and unexpected meaning. It's like watching fireworks. It made the the last act thematically rich without slowing it down. The second act was rather sad and painful towards the end. The last act was fast and funny, all problems were solved, it was a joy to watch.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffe Kennedy said...

Speaking of cliche driving-to-get-there-in-time scenes, I confess to just loving the end of Notting Hill. You get the plant-payoff with the painting, and the reiteration of an initial question. Then the ensemble looking at the painting and agreeing the hero has made a terrible mistake. Then the team, all shining in their own way and taking their final bows, to get him there in time. And example of the heightening of the device that you mention.

I also love how the final press scene recalls all of their interactions together, sealing the initial jokes, then the movement to the montage of their life together after, that echoes the opening montage.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jeffe, I totally agree. I think the thing about Notting Hill is that writer Richard Curtis is so good about making you love every member of that ensemble of friends, and Curtis and director Roger Michell wryly acknowledge the cliche, as the husband says, "We're ALL going,"and it's totally what we want to see.

I think they pull off another cliche-elevating feat in the press conference - usually I can't STAND to see a "Hero has to declare his love in public" scene (see 27 Dresses for an egregious example...) but in this case, living their lives in front of the cameras is what these two people have to commit to for the rest of their lives. It's been the theme of the whole movie.

And Julia Roberts, finally, has to reverse herself and say, Yeah, we're together.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

Would it be correct to say that George's true antagonist is himself and his belief that he must go forth to become a great man?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, first I just wanted to say that I don't think there's ever any "correct" or "incorrect" in story analysis - there's only what's useful to you as a writer!

I see what you're saying - George is a character with tremendous inner conflict, that's what makes him great. And you're right, it's his false assumptions about himself nearly do him in.

In some ways I would say that the villain, Potter, is an extermal representation of what George could become if he doesn't understand his true heroism - "a warped, frustrated old man". Potter even says to him - "What are you but a warped, frustrated YOUNG man?"

Sarra Cannon said...

Some great examples here. I LOVE Philadelphia Story. Sigh.

My own Master List is more on the horror side, so right away, 28 Days Later came to mind. They take the whole "storming the castle" to a new level with Jim (who they think is dead) sneaking onto the property and freeing the zombie they have chained up in the back so that he can have his vengeance. Then, the other soldiers become infected and turn on each other. It's definitely a creepy third act with the storm going on in the back ground and the two girls all dressed up. I loved it.

Gayle Carline said...

For some reason, when I was reading this, I immediately thought of All About Eve, even tho Eve is actually the villain of the piece. I just REALLY enjoy the turning point scene, where George Sanders sets her straight and claims her as his prize. Bette Davis doesn't have any kind of showdown with her, if you don't count the very end where Bette tells her she can always store her award where her heart "ought to be." In a way, perhaps Bette's victory over Eve is in the way she relinquishes Youth for Maturity.

laughingwolf said...

more excellent advice, alex

one of my fave scenes is ripley and pal in the shuttlecraft, thinking the creature destroyed, in 'alien'

i met and chatted with margaret hamilton at the art gallery i co-owned, years back, what a sweet lady she was

Unknown said...

Thank you for this wonderful article. It was very helpful.

I'm lousy at third acts. My first acts are too short, but it is so easy to fix mostly - because I see what's missing soon enough - but my thirds, my oh my, aren't they difficult.

I never seem to get that impassable obstackle good enough. My mind simply want to keep it too much to reality. And I just hate stressful situations where people chase to get there in time. I want those third acts smart, my it feel like my limited brain does not keep up with this ambition.

Thank you once again for a very inspiering article.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sarra, you're right - 28 Days Later is a very literal example of a Storming The Castle sequence - with a completely bizarre twist.

Have to say I was not thrilled with the rape/sex slave surprise at the end there, even though it turned out to be only a threat. But it was such a bizarre departure from the rest of the film, and disturbing in a way I just don't need to go to the movies to be disturbed by.

First 2/3rds, classic, though.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, another really excellent example of a different kind of climax (and perfect illustration of why we all should be studying how the great storytellers solve particular dramatic problems.

That was a very thematic way of ending that movie - to grow gracefully into maturity - and committed love - Bette had to from a fight for the first time in her life, and we see that she doesn't need to be the one to take Eve down - the sharks live on, but constantly devouring themselves. It's clear who's going to have the happiest life.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Desiree, glad you're here!

Identifying your plot weaknesses is a huge step toward solving them. You would probably really benefit from making a list of your ten favorite endings of books and films and taking a close look at what it is that works for you about each one. Gayle's example of ALL ABOUT EVE, above, is a perfect illustration of how a non-traditional ending can be by far the most powerful.

When in doubt, make a list!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LW, totally agree - Alien is just one of those perfect movies, in every way.

Gosh, Margaret Hamilton. I think I would have been too star-struck to talk!

laughingwolf said...

not a mean bone or any kind of attitude in margaret, you would have loved her, as well... classy lady

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