right, I guess I can’t avoid this one any longer.
is this so hard?
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.
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 a SERIES of discussions on the third act. (There, I feel better already.)
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?).
essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and
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.
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. )
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.
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.
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
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…
NO. DO NOT WRITE THAT LAST ONE.
clichéd 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 I’ve seen this
year – totally took me out of what had been up until that moment a perfect
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
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, the sewers in IT, Las Vegas in THE STAND…
that this pattern naturally divides itself into two separate and self-contained
sequences: getting in, and the
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
again, make your list and look at what great romantic comedies have done to elevate
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
I'm going to stop now, because there's something else I want to post about today.
So – if there's anyone out there who isn't shopping, today – what are some of your favorite third acts? What makes it real for you – the location, the thematic elements, the battle itself?
next time – and here’s more about What
Makes a Great Climax?
Previous articles on story
Forget shopping. Do something purely great for yourself and anyone you love, instead – go see this film.
You'll be knocked over – repeatedly – and then lifted to undreamed of heights – by the story, the filmmaking, the sheer magic of it.
But more than that, this is the most perfect example of perfect structure I've seen in a long, long time. The structure of this story is THE way to tell this story.
It's based on the novel Q and A, by Indian diplomat and novelist Vikas Swarup, which I'll be reading immediately, and I want to talk about both the novel and the film as part of this structure series, but I don't want to spoil one moment of the experience of watching and reading by telling you anything more.
I will warn that the first 20 minutes or so are so harsh I wasn't sure I was going to be able to take it, but once you grasp where it's going, you completely commit to the ride.
Based on the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle