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Writing Act III: Essential Elements & Useful Tricks
This week’s post runs through the elements of Act III, with links to expanded breakdowns of those elements!
Act III is very often divided into two major sequences, and a third, shorter, but important sequence or scene:
1. Getting there (STORMING THE CASTLE)
2. The FINAL BATTLE itself
3. The RESOLUTION and NEW WAY OF LIFE
But you don’t want to drag it out! Keep in mind:
The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist.
And the act should move quickly to that Final Battle. 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 it’s revealed at the second act climax.
There is often a new, FINAL PLAN that the hero/ine makes that takes into account the new information and revelations. As always with a plan, it’s good to spell it out.
We very often have gotten a sobering or terrifying glimpse of the TRUE NATURE OF THE ANTAGONIST — a great example of that kind of “Nature of the Antagonist” scene is in **Chinatown, in that “My sister, my daughter” scene in which Jake is slapping Evelyn and he learns the truth about her abusive father. (Obviously, it says a lot about Jake, too.)
There’s a locational 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 archetypal 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 (an example of a PLAN BY ALLIES).
The Princess Bride also has a literal Storming the Castle scene, with the Billy Crystal and Carol Kane characters waving our team off shouting, “Have fun storming the castle!”
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 story: a PLAN, ASSEMBLING THE TEAM, ASSEMBLING TOOLS AND DISGUISES, TRAINING OR REHEARSAL - but this time in brief.
And of course speed is often a factor — there’s maybe a TICKING CLOCK, so our hero/ine has to race to get there in time to —save the innocent victim from the killer, save their 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 film ending ever. This is in fact the most despised romantic comedy cliché on just about every “Romantic Comedy Clichés” website out there.
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.
I think that understanding the concept of the antagonist’s CASTLE helps a lot.
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 in unfamiliar territory (mixing a metaphor to make it painfully clear).
In most stories, there is a Team Battle Setpiece before the Final Battle.
The allies get to shine in this one. Their strengths and weaknesses are tested, PLANTS are paid off, and allies who have been at each other’s throats for the whole story suddenly reconcile and work together. We also often get the DEFEAT OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS. If we’ve come to hate a secondary opponent, we need to see them get their comeuppance in a satisfying way — think of Fanny and Lucy Steele cat-fighting in Sense and Sensibility; and Belloq, General Strasser, and Major Toht’s faces melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
And then, almost always, the Hero/ine must go in to the FINAL BATTLE to face the antagonist alone, mano a mano.
So f this is the pattern we see over and over again: New Plan, Storming the Castle, Team Battle, Final Battle— how can we possibly make it fresh?
Well, of course — look at books and films to see how your favorite storytellers do it.
—Silence of the Lambs is a perfect example of elevating the cliché into archetype. The climax takes place in the basement, as it also does in Psycho and Nightmare on Elm Street. In horror movies the Castle is often a basement, and this basement setting is no accident: 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 Mr. Gumb (Buffalo Bill) having a wall of his own news clippings just exactly like the same clippings on the wall in Crawford’s office. That’s a technique that Harris uses that can elevate the clichéd to the archetypal: layering meaning.
But even more than that: Gumb’s basement is Clarice’s GREATEST NIGHTMARE come to life. Lecter has exposed her deepest trauma, losing the lamb she tried to save from spring slaughter—and now she’s back in that childhood crisis, trying to save Catherine’s life (if you’ll notice, even the visual of Catherine clinging to Mr. Gumb’s fluffy white dog looks very much like a little girl holding a lamb…).
— Nightmare on Elm Street takes the clichéd, spooky basement scene of a million other horror movies and gives it a whole new level, literally: the heroine is dreaming that she is following a suspicious 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?
— Comedy characters have a different kind of GREATEST NIGHTMARE. Suppose you’re writing a farce. I would never dare, myself, but if I did, I would go straight to Fawlty Towers to figure out how to do it (and if you haven’t seen this brilliant John Cleese TV series, I envy you the treat you’re in for). Every story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from rigid control to total breakdown of order in the side-splitting climax. It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of what his life should be and the chaotic reality that he creates for himself over and over again that will have you screaming with laughter.
Another very technical lesson to take from Fawlty Towers —and from any screwball comedy or farce — is how comedies use speed in climax. Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end to create that exhilaration of being out of control — which is the sensation I most love about a great comedy.
— In a romance, the Final Battle is often the Hero/ine finally overcoming their internal blocks and making a DECLARATION or PROPOSAL to the loved one.
And I’ve noticed that a lot of romances do the declaration in a one-two punch, two separate scenes: the recalcitrant lover makes their declaration, even does some groveling, apparently to no avail, and only in a later, final scene does the loved one show up with a declaration of their own.
An archetypal setting for the Final Battle in 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, if you’re writing this kind of story, 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 their own wickedly delightful resolution. Everyone has their moment to shine, and insanely precocious little sister Dinah pretty nearly steals the show (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 as 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” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? We do experience the Villain’s home turf— but there’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one.
Because 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— it’s all the little grueling day-to-day, crazy-making 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 emotionally wrenching detail what would have happened if George had not had that whole lifetime of battles against Potter and for the town. In the end, even faced with prison, 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 I want to say, for those of you who maybe aren’t writing an epic action-driven confrontation of rebel armies or rival forces of Marvel characters…
You don’t have to write big to write BIG.
- One of the very finest FINAL BATTLE scenes I have ever seen is in the movie THE COURIER. (Mild SPOILER…) It’s just two characters in a room. But I cried and I was uplifted and it paid off a very good movie in an unforgettable way. I really recommend that anyone who’s interested in any kind of storytelling go check it out, unspoiled. Plus, you know, Benedict Cumberbatch.
- And the wonderful Final Battle in The King’s Speech is just Colin Firth facing a microphone and delivering a nine-minute radio broadcast. But we’ve seen him fail this moment because of his speech impediment time and time again in SET UPS; and this time the STAKES couldn’t be higher: it’s his first radio broadcast as King, and he has to convince his already war-weary country to support a war against Hitler.
Sometimes, or maybe often, there is one final reveal, about the antagonist or maybe the protagonist, that is saved till the very end or nearly the end, as in The Usual Suspects and The Empire Strikes Back and Psycho. Or that beautiful twist in It’s a Wonderful Life, where all the characters of the town come together to chip in the money that Potter has taken from Uncle Billy and save George from prison. Or to get really dark, look at the devastating twists in Chinatown — Evelyn is killed, her father takes her daughter away to abuse her in the same way he abused Evelyn, and Jake loses in every possible way.
RESOLUTION and NEW WAY OF LIFE
After the Final Battle is fought and won, we want to get a sense of the NEW LIFE the Hero/ine is going to lead now that they’ve been through this incredible journey.
One of the greatest images of a NEW WAY OF LIFE ever put on film is from Romancing the Stone: the yacht parked in the Manhattan street outside Joan Wilder’s building, and Jack standing on deck waiting for her, with those alligator boots on. It’s a complete PAYOFF of his and her DESIRE lines (and the alligator boots are a great sly touch that keeps it all from being too sugary), and a clear indication of what their life is going to be like from now on. Would this have worked as well if that yacht were in a harbor? No way! It’s the extravagance and quirkiness of the gesture that makes it so grandly romantic. It never fails to spike my endorphins, and that’s what these endings are all about.
Not all stories use this technique, but very, very often:
At the end of the story, the Hero/ine returns to the setting of the beginning.
And often, storytellers use a visual contrast in how that setting appears in the beginning and the end to show the protagonist’s change in character or attitude.
- In the beginning of The Godfather, Don Corleone is in his study, sitting behind his desk in a chair that looks like a throne, holding court and deciding the fates of his supplicants. In the final moments of the story, Don Michael Corleone stands at that same desk with his subordinates kissing his ring. He has, tragically, become the Godfather.
- Early on in Act I of *Romancing the Stone, pathologically shy Joan Wilder attempts to leave her apartment and is immediately set upon by street vendors, and we see how incapable she is of handling people and life in general. In Act III, she has returned from her adventure a changed woman, and we see her walking down that same street in her full Kathleen Turner goddesslike radiance, waving off those same street vendors both regally and casually.
You don’t have to use this Full Circle technique—but it can work well to bookend a story and depict CHARACTER ARC. Start to look for it in movies and books, and see how often it’s used! And be aware that these mirroring scenes don’t have to be the very first and very last scenes of the story— often the Full Circle moment comes at the beginning of Act III, or at the start of the Final Battle sequence. This method also works to let an audience or reader know we’re heading into the final stretch, which is always both an exciting and comforting thing for an audience or reader.
Not all stories have a ceremony in the epilogue; most movies and books wrap up very quickly after the final battle. But a story with mythic structure often has a longer resolution in which the CEREMONY is an important final step: the returning hero/ines are ceremoniously honored by the community that they have saved, often with AWARDS. You can see it in the first *Harry Potter (the awarding of points and the announcement of the winner of the House Cup) and in *The Wizard of Oz (the presentation of symbols of brains, heart, and courage to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion). This element is often present in war stories or stories about the military (An Officer and a Gentleman), and in fantasies and science fiction (such as Spirited Away and the original Star Wars).
Of course, in a romance, the ceremony may be a marriage ceremony. Even when a romantic comedy doesn’t end in an actual wedding, there’s often a symbolic marriage, as at the end of *Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray lifts Andie MacDowell over the gate under an arch in the snow.
But remember, even with a slightly longer epilogue, keep the resolution brief! Short and powerful is what you’re aiming for, and pay particular attention to what you want the reader or audience to FEEL at the end.
For inspiration, when you sit down to craft your own powerful third act, try looking at the great third acts of movies and books that are similar to your own story, and pay particular what those authors and filmmakers did to bring out the thematic depth and emotional impact of their stories.
Here are some assignments and questions to help you elevate your own ending.
Take your Master List of Ten Best Endings of movies and books, and write down specifically, in detail, what it is about those endings that really works for you. If you haven’t made a Master List of Ten Best Endings - make one!
What is your Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare? How can you bring that to life in your Final Battle scene?
What is the Castle that your hero/ine must storm in the Final Battle? What is a symbolic location that is the villain’s home turf, and/or a literal depiction of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare or challenge, that you can use as the basis for a unique climactic Setpiece?
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All material is from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff
You can find Act by Act, Sequence by Sequence, scene by scene story breakdowns of Chinatown, Romancing the Stone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Wizard of Oz and more in Stealing Hollywood -
And full breakdowns of Romancing the Stone, Notting Hill, Groundhog Day and more in Writing Love.
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