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Writing Your Act III: THE CASTLE
We’ve been working our way through the story structure of a book or script and heading for the home stretch: breaking down the components of an Act III, the last quarter of your story.
But even if you’re nowhere near Act III, today’s post is a concept that will help you get there!
(And if you’re stuck in Act II, this video is for you.)
One of the keys to a satisfying Act III is that there are a whole lot of elements you SET UP in Act I that PAY OFF in Act III, which gives the action of your story the shape of an epic journey—even if your character never physically travelled “beyond their own back yard” —as the line goes.
It's very useful to look at your Act I and Act III (and the Act I and Act III of any movie you watch or book that you read) together.
And one of those elements that you should be thinking of from the start is this idea of your Antagonist’s CASTLE.
You could call all of Act III: STORMING THE CASTLE.
This very Hollywood phrase comes from the movie which in some ways is the Ur movie of American cinema, the ultimate textbook film, referred to visually and structurally in hundreds (thousands) of movies and TV shows since its release in 1939.
We’re talking about that deceptively simple classic, The Wizard of Oz.
In The Wizard of Oz, of course, Dorothy’s Team, led by Toto, confronts a literal castle— the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West—and develops a desperate PLAN to rescue Dorothy from the witch’s clutches. They fight some guards, don their uniforms, and march over the drawbridge.
But The Wizard of Oz is also a profoundly metaphorical film, and the Castle is a deeply useful metaphor for the Final Battle of any story.
Full breakdown of the The Wizard of Oz in Stealing Hollywood .
In Act I, your protagonist’s ORDINARY WORLD reflects a lot of their character. In the same way:
The Castle is a reflection of the Villain or Antagonist’s character.
The hero/ine usually must infiltrate the antagonist’s hideout, or castle, or lair, and confront the antagonist on their own turf, a terrifying and foreign place. Think of Buffalo Bill’s basement in The Silence of the Lambs, and the cellar in Psycho, and the cave under the school in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, that is lot of basements!—but it makes sense that it’s so often a final location, given that the basement is a universal symbol for the unconscious, the depository of all our deepest fears.
Full breakdown of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Stealing Hollywood
The castle can be a dragon’s cave (How to Train Your Dragon), or a dream fortress (Inception), or a real fortress (Romancing the Stone) or a church or other wedding venue (ten million romantic comedies). It can be a hospital, your character’s in-laws’ house, their psychologically haunted childhood home, a forest clearing.
But I’m not just talking about action and fantasy movies, here. You see a truncated version of this Team Battle Plan and Storming the Castle scene in Notting Hill, when all of Will’s friends pile into the car to help him catch Anna at another dreaded press conference, symbol of Anna’s FAME (the non-human antagonist of the movie) before she goes home to Los Angeles forever.
Full breakdown of Notting Hill in Writing Love.
In Selma, the Castle is the Alabama State Capitol building, where in the beginning of the movie, white supremacist Governor Wallace delivers a chilling anti-voting rights speech. In the end, Martin Luther King takes the stage outside the Castle/Capitol and delivers his victory speech to thousands, after President Johnson has been convinced to sign the Voting Rights Act. This act of King symbolically displacing the villain, Wallace, delivers a profound emotional and cultural impact.
Retuning to a location that has been SET UP earlier in the book or film is a common and very effective technique.
The reader or audience has a real need to know that the end is near, and making the Castle some place we’ve seen or heard of before will do that for them.
You also see this technique of returning to a familiar location in Romancing the Stone: We see the iconic Cartagena fortress early in the second act, then we return to it for the Team Battle and Final Battle.
Returning to a known place gives a satisfying sense of the story coming FULL CIRCLE.
Full breakdown of Romancing the Stone in Stealing Hollywood & Writing Love.
In a variation of this, in Act III of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta return to fight the TEAM BATTLE on the first playing field of the Arena, in front of the Cornucopia, which gives us that recognition of a return to a familiar location. But—in Katniss’s FINAL BATTLE she uses the cameras and her awareness that the eyes of the country are on her to bring the FINAL BATTLE to the real Castle: the Capital of Panem.
If you start looking for this return to a familiar location, you can see it at play in hundreds of books and films!
It really helps to start thinking of your Final Battle location as a castle, or a fortress, or a lair.
There’s usually an element of having to get there, another mini-journey. It takes some effort to get there and/or get in, which provides the tension of suspense, and conflict. There might be another GUARDIAN AT THE GATE that has to be overcome.
The protagonist and the team are instantly at a disadvantage, because this is the Villain or Antagonist’s turf, which also creates SUSPENSE.
It gives the scene or sequence visual SPECTACLE, which you definitely want in your thrilling last Act!
And it helps to further think of it as somehow reflecting your protagonist’s GREATEST NIGHTMARE.
Now, does every book and film end with a Final Battle in a Castle?
NO. It’s not a rule, it’s a tendency.
Do you have to use it? NO.
But I’m giving it to you to consider because —
I’ve seen over and over in my workshops how getting a writer to think of their Final Battle as taking place in a metaphorical castle has helped pull the end of their story together and finish it off in a satisfying, thematic way.
It will instantly give you ideas to make your Final Battle scene into a SETPIECE. Getting specific about that place will also give you ideas for meaningful and suspenseful action.
Here are some questions/prompts to help:
The first thing to do is identify your own CASTLE. It may be obvious—but maybe not!
Take your MASTER LIST of best movie and book endings (or make one, if you haven’t already done it!) and identify the “Castles” of each one. Which are the most relevant to your book or script?
To develop your Castle into a worthy setting for the SETPIECE of the Final Battle, trying doing a THEMATIC WORD LIST. Let yourself brainstorm the physical look and visceral feel of this place by generating descriptive words.
This is also a good scene/sequence to COLLAGE— or at least flip through magazines or Pinterest to find images that inspire you.
More on the COLLAGE BOOK.
Ask yourself: What is your Protagonist’s GREATEST NIGHTMARE? How could that come to life in the “Castle”?
How might the “Castle” be a reflection of the true nature of the Villain and their power?
How can the Castle be SET UP, or referred to, earlier in the story, so there’s an element of RECOGNITION when we finally see it?
As always, I’d love to hear what you come up with as examples of great Castles!
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All material ©Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, by Alexandra Sokoloff