Elements of Act Three

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Oh, all
right, I guess I can’t avoid this one any longer.
 

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 a SERIES of discussions on the third act.
   (There, I feel better already.)

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?). 

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.

(And 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. )

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…

NO.  DO NOT WRITE THAT LAST ONE. 

Most
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
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, the sewers in IT, Las Vegas in THE STAND…

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

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? 

More
next time – and here’s more about
 
What
Makes a Great Climax?

Previous articles on story
structure:

What's
Your Premise?

Story
Structure 101 – The Index Card Method
 

Screenwriting
– The Craft

Elements
of Act One

Elements
of Act Two

Elements
of Act Two, Part 2

Creating
Suspense

Visual
Storytelling Part 1

Visual
Storytelling Part 2

What
Makes a Great Climax?
 

Fairy
Tale Structure and the List


—————————————————————–

1198041
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.
Just GO.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Based on the novel
Q and A by Vikas Swarup
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle

26 thoughts on “Elements of Act Three

  1. JT ELLISON

    Sara, I know – Typepad upgraded and for the last two weeks I haven’t been able to get any control over the font. It’s not huge on my computer but it’s definitely not consistent with the rest of the site.

    I’m afraid to do anything else to it because of the trouble I’ve already had today.

    Reply
  2. Stacey Cochran

    I haven’t finished it yet, but I picked up THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy at the Baltimore Airport in route to RDU last night. I made it home around 11 PM, and I was still up at 4 AM this morning reading it…

    Not many books I can say that about.

    I’m off to NYC tomorrow for my first televised panel discussion in the big apple.

    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

    Reply
  3. R.J. Mangahas

    I was waiting for Act Three, Alex. Once again, great examples. Of course my list of movies is pretty similar to yours just because I think the ones you use over and over again are excellent to illustrate what you’ve been talking about.

    One third Act I like (and I know this was a cheesy 80’s movie) was in THE KARATE KID.

    Daniel goes from having that fronted confidence in the beginning to having the guts and determination to fight Johnny in the final match of the tournament, despite the fact that he had an injured leg. The way I see it, it wasn’t so much about winning the tournament so much as it was proving himself. That and who wouldn’t love to have a Mr. Miyagi in their life?

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, KARATE KID is one of those movies I have on my “must watch again for structure” list. Yes, it’s simply, but it is such a classic and well-told mentor story (and what a mentor!), and it has such great examples of so many storytelling elements.

    I really would like to do a comparison of that movie, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, DIRTY DANCING, and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, as different ways to tell what is essentially a mentor story.

    Reply
  5. billie

    Hey, how did you know I needed this installment TODAY? 🙂

    Thanks – and is that link to more on Climax stuff that hasn’t been here before? In any case, it’s not working for me, but I’ll check it again later.

    Such good stuff, Alex. I can’t wait to buy the book.

    Reply
  6. joylene

    Silence of the lambs is one of my favourites for all the reasons you mentioned, Alexandra. The film and the book succeed because Thomas made me believe. That’s what I strive to do in my own work.

    I’m currently working on ms #6, & I’m actually stuck at Act 2. But it’ll come together.

    Thanks for the comparison. I’ll be back for the rest of your articles. Meanwhile, I’m on the search for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, you and I are usually in sync, Billie. I’ll see what’s going on with the link. Typepad is making me crazy today.

    I think you’ve read the climax post already, but there’s some good examples in the comments that you wouldn’t have read yet.

    Reply
  8. louise ure

    Great post as usual, Alex. My favorite Act Three? The Great Escape, for the way they orchestrated the confrontation faced by each member of the cast leaving the POW camp, and kept each story separate with musical varations.

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, great, Louise! I’ve never seen that movie, believe it or not – did see the great documentary on those guys.

    Thanks for reminding me about it. I’ve heard that about the ending from other people.

    Reply
  10. pari

    Another superb post, Alex. Thank you.

    For some reason, I’m living in the world of children’s books and movies right now.

    One that comes to mind is HOLES and the full circle nature of its ending. You just can’t see how it’s going to resolve and then it does in the only way it possibly could.

    Both the book and the movie satisfy. As a matter of fact, we avoided seeing the movie for years because we were afraid it couldn’t live up to the book. Guess what? The book’s author wrote the screenplay; we didn’t realize it until we’d been blown away by the visual version.

    Reply
  11. Catherine

    Alex, I’ve just finished reading Tana French’s second book, ‘The Likeness’, which I highly recommend. After reading your post I’ve looked back at it and noticed Act 3 is very close to being the last third of the book. There is a point within the Act 3 where there is even an agreement of a pivotal event between key characters. The pivotal event I think is the beginning of Act 3. This a bit different from what I’ve been reading lately.

    I’m wondering if the author’s training as an actress, in stage, film and voiceover work may have contributed to the larger than usual Act 3. Considering your own background any thoughts?

    While out running about today I’ll check to see when there is going to be an Australian release for Slumdog Millionaire too. Thanks for the heads up.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, thanks for the HOLES recommendation – I think I’ll check that out!

    And Catherine, i’ve been meaning to get THE LIKENESS – I really liked IN THE WOODS. Just so much reading to do! Your intriguing structure note just nudged me.

    I think anyone who’s done a lot of theater has the three-act structure ingrained in them. In theater it’s even more blatant than movies because you have a literal curtain. And because no one wants anyone in the audience wandering out of the theater during intermission, playwrights developed cliffhangers for the act curtains (1 and 2) to make sure people came back in after that drink.

    Reading good plays is a great way to pick up on act structure, as well as being great for characterization and dialogue.

    Reply
  13. R.J. Mangahas

    Alex, you’re so right about the three act structure and plays. NOISES OFF and DEATHTRAP are two of my favorites. Hmm. I think it’s about time to audition for shows again (okay, AFTER I complete my first draft)

    Reply
  14. Jake Nantz

    Alex,Fantastic information as always. I’m so sorry I kidded you about not having written this when I met you at the library. Seeing it now AFTER you did the part about the climax, it makes so much more sense. It’s perfect.

    As far as my favorites for Act 3…TERMINATOR – Yeah they’re in the ‘present’, but it’s a machine factory, so it’s still the cyborg’s turf.DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY – Act3, pt1 is when Tom Anderson has to go to the headmaster’s office, only to find his folks there as additional pressure, and he caves. But then, when the ‘villain’ (headmaster) is teaching in the mentor’s classroom (Mr. Keating), Anderson and many of the other boys find the courage to defy the headmaster. Thought that was a neat reversal.ALIENS – Ripley has to get Newt out of the Monster’s maze, while chased by the queen. Then, she has to fight the queen on the Sulaco (Ripley’s Turf) and blast it into space for the second time.And of course, COLD MOON by Jeffery Deaver. They’re fighting to catch the Watchmaker and still foil his ultimate plan, and there are at least 3 different reveals to twist the reader around.

    Thanks again for doing this, Alex. We all learn so much from you.

    Reply
  15. Allison Brennan

    As always, brilliant and insightful and I learned a thing or ten.

    The climax is always the easiest part for me to write, but I tend to speed it along too quickly. I get so excited that I finally figured everything out, I pour it out really fast and never see the need to make it more meaty. My editor, however, always does, and she always knows exactly where in the story I get that head rush moment and kick it into triple time.

    I wrote my first real ensemble ending where all the major characters come together at the end to defeat the villain. It was hard for me because I usually like my hero, heroine, and villain to be in a show down. Sometimes it’s the heroine and the villain and we’re waiting for the hero; other times it’s both of them; other times it the hero in danger and the heroine has the key. But always, it’s both of them that are needed to solve the puzzle, dispatch the bad guy, and realize that they are better together than apart. So in SUDDEN DEATH when I wrote it that way . . . it didn’t work. Not until everyone who’d been part of the story ended up at the final showdown did it click into place. But damn, was it hard to write!

    I loved DPS, Jake. Great movie. If it was a book, I missed it.

    Identifying where the third act begins has always been hard for me, unlike the beginning of act two or the midpoint. Maybe I just haven’t thought about it much. I like the constantly increasing tension, the mountains and the small, getting smaller, valleys of release, the final confrontation.

    Reply
  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jake, actually the order was by accident, but I’m doing what I can!

    You are such a quick study! You are so right about this – wonderfully said:

    “TERMINATOR – Yeah they’re in the ‘present’, but it’s a machine factory, so it’s still the cyborg’s turf.”

    That’s exactly right.

    And all your comments on DPS has made me put it on my list of stories that I will break down for structure step by step.

    Reply
  17. Allison Brennan

    LOL Alex. Sort of like theme for me. I didn’t know I had one until someone told me. And now I wish I didn’t know, because I find myself stating it on the damn page. Grrr. (sorry for all the swearing, my heroine in my WIP tends to swear alot. I don’t know why. The hero doesn’t, which is a reverse from the last book.)

    Reply

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