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Structure Spotlight: 3 Things To Remember For Act 3


All About Act 3

So today we’re talking about Act 3, courtesy of  Bang2writer Craig Howells, who left this question in the B2W Facebook group:

I’m really interested in the anatomy of Act 3. What are the Dos & Don’ts? I know you need to pay off, and I’ve got my own ideas (which I’m still working on) but I’d love to know your take on it.

I’m not a structure purist. As far as I’m concerned, all stories *just* need a beginning, middle and end (and not necessarily in that order, either!).

On this basis then, The Three Acts makes most sense to me personally, but if writers want to go for other methods it’s no skin off my nose.

3 acts
As any Bang2writer knows, here’s how I see structure working in my head.

In addition, I would venture that three acts not only works for theatre and screenwriting generally (including short film), it works for novels too. I use The Three Acts in my own novels and I know plenty of other writers do, too. This is particularly advantageous when we consider how many novels are adapted for film, plus there’s a certain convergence between the mediums for readers as well.

So, as Craig requested, here’s my take on Act 3:

1) Set Up And Pay Off

So, first up: the obvious, which Craig has already mentioned … Everyone knows the pay off needs to happen in the resolution (aka end) – but that can only happen if you’ve set up BEFORE that, otherwise your “pay off” becomes the dreaded Deus Ex Machina.

Some writers go the opposite way and try to pay off EVERY SINGLE LITTLE THING, too. But audiences and readers are media literate, they don’t need spoon feeding. Trust them to be able to follow without you needing to lead them by the nose.

Try not to “backend” all the exposition to the end of the piece, too. Whilst big reveals and twists in the tale are always great, keeping everything mysterious and shoving ALL the explanation towards the end can be a real own goal. Why? Because the audience or reader probably won’t get that far, for starters! They’ll give up early, because they’ll be too confused, for too long.

Alternatively, it could end up being what I call a “Scooby Doo” script as another character does an (unlikely) rundown of what’s been happening throughout and why: “And I’d have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for you pesky kids!”

Rounding up:

DO – set up early and mete out necessary exposition THROUGHOUT the narrative, whether you’re writing a screenplay or novel.

DON’T – leave all the necessary backstory and info towards the end, or have something come out of the left field at the last minute.

2) Remember Dramatic Context

As I mention in my book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, Thrillers have a very specific dramatic context, which I call “flight to fight”. In other words, the protagonist will spend the first half (or even two thirds) trying NOT to engage with the problem and/or antagonist (FLIGHT); only to about-face in the second half or final third and ENGAGE with them (FIGHT).

flight to fight
“Flight to Fight” is the dramatic context of Thriller, Horror and many other stories generally

Dramatic context is vital to chart the progression of a story: whilst characters themselves DON’T always have to change in the course of the story, if dramatic context doesn’t, then the story may seem dull or pedestrian.

Put simply: by Act 3, the dramatic context MUST change (if it hasn’t already). 

Thrillers often share the flight/fight dramatic context with the Horror genre, hence scribes sometimes getting confused and/or even thinking there’s not much difference between the two (BUT THERE IS!!). However, it’s important to note writers could write this dramatic context into a drama screenplay, or a coming of age novel too.

By the same token, dramatic context in screenwriting and novel writing could be *anything* you like: characters move from “flight to fight” a lot (regardless of genre), but they may also move “wrongdoing to redemption”; “innocence to experience”; as well as “victim to victor”; “zero to hero” or anything else the writer chooses. In other words, all that matters is that SOMETHING changes at base level in the story, by that ending in Act 3.

Rounding up then:

DO: Think about dramatic context and how it changes by Act 3. Where did your story start, context-wise? Why has it changed? What is the audience or reader meant to take from this?

DON’T: Turn the story upside-down. Unexpected or twist endings do not come from parachuting in new stuff. You need for your audience or reader to be able to look back at the CLUES throughout the narrative and follow how that change in the dramatic context occurred.

3) End = The Highest Peak

If our stories are to have progression throughout and seem dramatically satisfying, then what happens LAST needs to be “bigger” than everything that proceeded it.

This may seem obvious, but many writers have “bigger” obstacles before the ending, which means the resolution then falls flat. This happens a lot with Act 1, when writers effectively “spunk their load” with the biggest set piece (or whatever) FIRST … So why bother reading all the way to the end?

Alternatively, if all the other obstacles before the end were of similar sizes, then shoving the (only) big happening at the end makes it feel as if the action goes from 0-60MPH. Again, it is not dramatically satisfying. (But remember point 1 in this list, we don’t want the ending to be SO big, everything’s “backended” either. Eeeesh!! This structure lark is hard work).

DO: Think of your characters having to “climb walls, each bigger than the last”, taking them towards that “mountain peak” of story at the very top, in Act 3.

DON’T: Keep everything on an even keel throughout, or make your structure “top heavy”. Save the best for last – that’s what Act 3 is for!

Got a question for the blog?

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Tweet me with it as @Bang2write

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7 thoughts on “Structure Spotlight: 3 Things To Remember For Act 3”

  1. Lol – Lucy said, ”spunk their load”…Only joking, great article as always and a timely one. It is amazing how you can easily get to the point where you think, nah – I’ve got this – and then something like this article comes along and you read it and go – ah, shit…forgot about that. I have your thriller book as well, so I really have no excuse (it’s great by the way…perfect Christmas present, folks ;P). Cheers, Lucy.

  2. I think new writers tend to think Main Plot all the time, and that’s where these things are engineered. However, it’s also worth remembering that a story of any sophistication has a Sub Plot, which is usually established somewhere between a third of the way into the running time (or page count), to just before the mid-point of the film. If the Main Plot is the journey our Main Character takes to reach their goal (or WANT), then the Sub Plot (usually the emotional element of the story, sometimes, but not always romantic) represents the Character’s emotional NEED; something that they are probably unaware of. In the third act the NEED and the WANT collide – and your Character grows as a result. This is often the twist in the story and the thing that makes it work as a story rather than just being a series of events. So – what does Steve Jobs want? He wants to make Apple the computer to revolutionise the world – but what does he need? He needs to acknowledge his paternity in relation to his spurned daughter. Sorkin does this all the time, along with countless others. Check The Social Network. What does Zuckerberg want? But What does he need? etc etc. The third act twist – subplot collides with main plot. WANTS vs NEEDS. Hope this helps. Forgive the caps…

  3. Re. Want V Need Chris Soth puts it simply: only when a character realizes her need can she achieve her goal (or realize her goal wasn’t important after all). John Truby takes ‘need’ even further and splits it into two: psychological and moral. Although not an advocate of 3 act structure John’s book ANATOMY OF STORY is a must read regarding moral and psychological need.

  4. Although Truby has his 22 steps, they’re still workable within the superstructure of the 3 act screenplay regardless of what the ‘…forget 3 Acts – here’s JT’s 22steps’ brigade say. They’re mini episodes within a greater whole and compliment the bigger picture. I think when he and others dis the three act stuff it’s usually to get new writers away from the misunderstanding that there are just three turning points in a story: beginning, middle, end. The easiest structural film writing ideas I’ve found come from Frank Daniel (thanks here to Simon van der Borgh for the introduction). Eight sequences over three acts. Joseph Paul Gulino’s book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach can be had for a few quid online if you can’t get to one of Simon’s talks. Gulino breaks down several movies into acts and sequences using Daniel’s simple, forensic process. Super stuff.

  5. I like to think about this in another way (and, of course, there are a bazillion other ways). When we get to the end of each act, the movie is about something new. First it’s about Indiana getting the job to go after the arc (after clearly demonstrating his skills), then it’s about Marion, then it’s about saving them both. We didn’t know about either when we started. Allow your movie to “end” at the end of each Act, and now write about a “new” character, armed with what was just experienced, to face an even bigger challenge. When you get to Act 3, you bring all these conflicts together, and you can surprise us by bringing in something else that’s new that clearly comes from something learned from the first two acts; new but not totally unexpected. When you put this in the context of characters trying to get what they want– what did the hero, her buddies and their adversaries LEARN up to now, and how can they use this information as a strategy to get what they want? Remembering to add in some “gone forever” element that increases the urgency, that should be based on the thing that is wanted or it IS the thing that is wanted, that is also learning or changing along the way in a completely plausible way… I think that makes for a really good story structure.

    For me, this kind of description of structure works much better than arrows and exclamation points, because at the end of the day, stories are about emotion, not arrows, although arrows are so much easier to draw. But, for someone else, this may make perfect sense. I know that I have studied structure for a LONG TIME before I finally stumbled on the language that made it clear. Even now, here I am reading a post about structure because I don’t have 100% confidence yet.

    bang on!

    1. Oh, and one more thing… keep the thing the movie is about simple and let the story grow around what the hero and adversaries are willing to do to get it. I want to get the thing, save my friend, find a way home, find something lost, whatever is a simple, simple thing. Make that thing plausible in the world you’re describing, and choose a point in your story, as soon as you can, to present what that thing is and then show us you have thought about what that thing is and why those characters want it, or don’t want it, or can’t live without it, etc., and think about all these things with your own emotions on full display. Because this will make us laugh, or cry, or remember that damned thing for the rest of our lives because it hit us so god damned hard.

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