Looking for explosions, violence, and mayhem, look no further than act 3. You can think of act 3 of your story as its business end. Up to this point, your protagonist has slogged through a lot of “blood, guts, and beer”—as put by the late great Johnny Cash. But, much to your protagonist’s chagrin, her journey is not over. Although she has overcome many obstacles in the form of first and second act conflict sequences, the final rounds, the rounds found in act 3, will exact more of her than any conflict she has faced to this point in your story.
Take a look at your protagonist’s state at the end of act 2. He has faced a lot of trouble, and, in the end, been left suspended with the least amount of options he will ever have in your story. Your main character, at the end of act 2, should be destitute, hurt, emotionally spent, abandoned, bloody, and any other imposing adjective we can effectively add to the list. Act 3 is when your protagonist must get up and face his dire situation once and for all. Act 3 separates the heroes from the zeros.
Think of act 3 as the home stretch of your story. Opposing forces vie to win the race, to make a final play to thwart opposition and come home with the prize. The final stretch is where the game gets interesting. It is arguable that it is only necessary to watch a basketball from the mark of the fourth quarter on. The final 100 yards of the horse race tend to be the most brutal jockey to jockey fight. Act 3 is the endgame, the do-or-die conflict that will make or, sometimes literally break your protagonist.
In the final act of your story, you will use the same familiar conflict sequences we have covered in earlier chapters of this article series, including a clearly set goal and opposition for your main character and his nemesis. Only you should ratchet up the intensity of conflict in the third act. I like to refer to the third act conflict sequence(s) as endgame conflict(s). The endgame comprises the final stages of your story. Only a few pieces remain on the chessboard. Every move becomes critical. Even one false twitch can throw the game. Hence, the conflict in your final act should be a tightrope walk. Should your protagonist make even one small miscalculation, he loses.
The final act of your screenplay should be comprised of 1 to 3 end game styled action sequences. It is far from unusual to use only 1 sequence in the final act. The run-of-the-mill sports story comes to mind. In most sports based movies, Hoosiers, We Are Marshall, The Miracle, the final act consists of the big sporting event. In Return of the Jedi, the final act is comprised mostly of Luke’s battle with Vader.
The final act is a showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. To add more than one action sequence might mean diluting the conflict and tension. Hence, the action sequences of the final act must be tightly grouped and heavily related. Each sequence must present a specific problem that progresses the protagonist quickly to the next problem without losing intensity.
Remember, the final act is not meant to develop character or ramp up conflict; those tasks have been accomplished in the first two acts. It should be duty all the way, pure adrenaline, a beat by beat heavy metal bash and drag out from the moment the protagonist gets up from the thumping he took in act 2 to the final nail in the coffin lid at the end of the story. I can’t emphasize this enough; don’t let up on the conflict and intensity even for a moment. Turn the screw tighter. There is no better way to leave your reader craving more of your work.
Act III Plot Points and Critical Features
Throughout your story, you have used plot points and critical features to propel your story along. Plot points, like the dye cast, the pinch, and the disaster, act as plot game changers that throw your protagonist into new directions. Critical features such as the hook and opening sentence bring intrigue to your story; they are tools to help engage your readers.
Act 3 is the direct result of the most compelling critical feature in your story, the disaster—which takes place at the end of act II. Your main character’s efforts to dig herself out of the mess the disaster has gotten her into is the driving force of act 3.
As far as plot points and critical features, act 3 is surprisingly devoid of them. That’s because all the big decisions have been made. All the events that have driven your protagonist into his greatest predicament have already occurred. Act 3 is like the final, steep climb up to the summit. There are no more choices to be made. It’s time for him to put his head down and go for it, all or nothing.
There is, however, one essential plot point seated in act 3: the resolution. The resolution wraps your story into a neat package. It’s the final outcome for your protagonist. When it comes to resolutions, it doesn’t much matter whether your protagonist comes out on top or not. It only matters that your resolution is satisfying. Will your readers put your book down after the words “the end,” thinking, “wow, what an ending.” Or will they fling it across the room in anger, damaging the binding and making a vow to tell all of their friends to avoid your book at all costs. It all comes down to giving your readers a satisfying resolution.
There are two criteria that make up a satisfying resolution. Does your resolution follow the rules of your story? Is your resolution driven by the actions and choices of your protagonist?
Lets examine these criteria one at a time.
Criteria 1: Does your resolution follow the rules of your story?
Too often, authors who write stories by the seats of their pants with no outline or clear view of how to resolve them use fabricated tools that conveniently appear to help get their characters home. This approach often manifests itself in a horrible ending.
It’s all about setting rules for your story. The rules of your story need not comply with the rules of life. It is, rather, quite the opposite. Readers pick up your story to escape from life. It’s your responsibility to provide that escape. However, even the world you create in your story must comply with its own set of rules.
Many of these rules are driven by your protagonist’s capabilities and decisions. Lets say your protagonist, at the end of your story, must face a hoard of 20 ninjas. Your protagonist uses his compelling martial arts skills to beat them down one by one. This sounds like a great ending. But what if your protagonist has never shown a propensity for martial arts? You are breaking the rules of your story. The rules don’t state that your protagonist has the ability to face ninjas in hand-to-hand combat.
It is essential that your protagonist has all the tools and abilities to face the end-game conflict sequences of your story. That means setting precedent. James Bond is an excellent example. He uses special devices, devised by Q, to get him out of jams on a regular basis. The Q scene in all James Bond movies is inevitable. During this scene, Q introduces Bond to a host of tools. Q explains the purpose of each device. So when James Bond ends up suspended over a pool of sharks on a slowly lowering rope, it’s okay that he uses his laser watch to cut through the rope and his suction cup cable gun to swing to safety because Q said so.
It is common to write yourself into a corner where your protagonist requires a special tool or skill to rescue himself. This, by the way, has happened to me while developing the story of Gus the Plumber. I’ll comment on what I did about it later. Revision resolves this problem. While writing out the 3rd act breakdown, should you encounter a difficult task for your protagonist, you can simply write in the tool he needs to mantle the task along with a note to go back into your copy and establish president–a rule, for that tool’s existence. You can throw anything at your audience, as long as it complies with the rules of your story.
Criteria 2: Is your resolution driven solely by the actions and choices of your protagonist?
Your readers commit a lot of time to your story. They have taken the journey with your protagonist through conflict sequence after conflict sequence. They expect for your protagonist to be resourceful enough to get himself out of his own disaster.
The hand of God ending is a term writers often use. It means that something extremely lucky comes along at the end of the story that lifts your hero out of danger. Usually this happens in the form of an unexplainable coincidence or a third party who happens along and takes away all of the protagonist’s pain, leaving him safely away from the story’s disaster. There is no bigger rip off to readers than the hand of God ending.
You’re protagonist has made a series of decisions that have gotten her into the deepest trouble of her life. It should be, by dang, her responsibility to bail her own butt out of trouble. You must make sure that, no matter what toll it exacts on you as a writer, or on your protagonist, that your protagonist does everything it takes to resolve the situation by herself.
Lets take a look at a few act III examples.
In Jack London’s, Call of the Wild, Act 2 closes when Buck’s master, Thornton, and his companions, the other dogs in his team, are killed by the Yeehats, a rival tribe. Buck goes after blood in act three. He kills many of the Yeehats. Eventually, he answers the call of the wild and joins a band of wolves. But he often returns to his master, Thornton’s, final resting place.
In William Shakespeare’s, Macbeth, Act 2 ends with Macbeth looking across a battlefield full of what looks like moving trees. On his second visit to the witches, they told him that he would be defeated by a moving forest. With a large army, made up of those who seek to usurp the throne from him, he is faced with certain doom. The act continues as the army comes upon his castle. The endgame conflict works its way to a one-on-one fight between Macbeth and his nemesis, Macduff. Macbeth is convinced that he can’t lose due to the witches second prediction, that he will be killed by a man not born of woman. During the final scene, Macduff discloses that he was torn from his mother’s womb prematurely and, hence, not born of woman. In the end, Macbeth is killed and Malcolm becomes the King of Scotland.
Enough already. Let’s put it to use by adding act III to the developing story of Gus the Plumber.
3-act Breakdown: Gus the Plumber: Act III
Before you read this act III breakdown, I must disclose a few problems I encountered in this story and how I solved them. If you have been following the 3-act structure to Gus the Plumber’s story, it is clear that I have drafted myself into a difficult spot. Gus and Dierdre’s wedding has been interrupted by Vorvadoss, who was summoned using a drip of Dierdre’s blood. This God, a seemingly all powerful character, has ravaged part of the city and now stands in front of Gus, ready to take over the prime plane.
Here are the problems. As I began drafting act III, I realized that Vorvadoss has no perceivable weakness. Hence, there is no way for Gus to defeat him without springing some unprecedented device on my readers. I can’t do this or it will cheapen the story. It became necessary to go back into the prior acts and insert the tools Gus needs to defeat Vorvadoss.
I did so as follows. In act I, when Gus visits Coen the cultist, he notices an intricate terracotta figurine in Coen’s shop. When Gus touches it, Coen berates him. Gus asks who the figurine depicts. Coen says it is the likeness of Corthra, another elder God, the sworn enemy of Vorvadoss.
Later, in act I when Gus visits the Man in Black’s basement. Gus notices a second figurine. The Man in Black explains that this figurine is in the likeness of Vorvadoss and if the Man in Black can get the likeness perfect, he can break the figurine and summon Vorvadoss.
Gus asks why the Man in Black would want to summon Vorvadoss. The Man in Black says he will summon the god when he figures out a way to trap him. But, unless in Vorvadoss’s plane, building a circle of confinement around the elder god takes time. It’s like building a cage around someone while he is standing there. Vorvadoss simply would move out of the area to evade the trap.
The Man in Black has given Gus a book with information to battle demons. The entrapment incantation is written in the book. The incantation must be read by a man of faith and it takes a full 20 minutes to read, plenty of time for Vorvadoss to escape.
Later in Act II, when Mark Atwood, Gus’s best friend disappears, Gus visits the Man in Black again for help in getting him back. The Man in Black uses magic to discover that Mark has been taken into Vorvadoss’s plane. Gus states his intension to go after Mark no matter what the cost.
The Man in Black, unable to change Gus’s mind, gives Gus a few tools to help fight against Vorvadoss. The Man in Black also shows Gus, in the book, how to make a cage to entrap a demon or even a god, but the cage only works inside that demon’s plane, or within a difficult to close circle of confinement, requiring recitation of the 20-minute incantation referred to earlier in the story. The Man in Black explains that a caged demon or god cannot be transported between planes. The cage can pass through intra-planer membrane, but the demon or god will walk free. The cage, at any rate, is only a temporary solution, especially for a god. The Man in Black gives Gus a pinch of powder from a locket he wears around his neck. The substance is used to entrap demons or gods, should such a being breath while standing in proximity with the cage.
There you have it, Gus now has all the tools he needs to fight against Vorvadoss in act III. I found this plot problem so severe that I had to take a detour from the Gus the Plumber story and come back to it later. I don’t believe in taking creative breaks; to stop creating atrophies the creative muscles. Instead, I wrote a few unrelated short stories and composed a few songs. After this creative detour, I found myself ready to approach this plot problem with a new perspective.
This is all part of the creative process. Solving plot problems simply becomes part of the drill and sometimes it can take time to work out the wrinkles. This plot problem reveals the value of putting down a 3-act breakdown before stepping out the story in detail or, even worse, writing the actual prose. If I had encountered this problem after writing 300 pages of copy, I might have thrown my hands in the air and given up, intimidated by the degree of back-structuring I would have to do in the prose to fix the problem. As it stands, I have fixed the problem in the 3-act breakdown before digging myself into a bigger hole.
Enough flapping, read on to find out how Gus the Plumber will save the day.
Vorvadoss lets out a huge charge that knocks out the power of the entire block and sets all the car alarms ringing. He raises his arms for the coup de grace to start his reign of terror. Just at that moment, the man in black, accompanied by about 20 other cultists walk down the wedding aisle, chanting. Vorvadoss is trapped by their spell, but it is clear that they won’t hold him for long.
Gus tells everyone to run. He tells a select croup of plumber wedding guests to keep their radios on. He takes Dierdre with him and they set off.
Act III – Conflict 1 – Stealing the Terracotta Figurine
Gus and Dierdre run to Coen the cultist’s shop. Gus breaks in and moves to where he saw the terracotta figurine of Corthra. Coen comes out of the back room. Garth threatens him with a piece of Galvanized pipe. Coen says Gus can’t do anything with unblessed steel. Gus disagrees and lays out Coen with a single blow.
Gus and Dierdre go to Gus’s van. Gus raises his plumber friends on the radio. He tells them to meet him at founder’s statue. He tells one of the men to contact a guy with the city and bring a map along.
Gus also wants the preacher there.
Act III – Endgame Conflict Sequence – Conflict 2 – Cothra vs. Vorvadoss
At Founder’s statue, Gus’s plumber friends show up to find Gus furiously sketching on pages of his receipt book. Gus gives them each a page from his book. Gus lays out the city map and assigns each plumber to a different area of town. On each page Gus has drawn a symbol and instructions. Gus gives them all 90-minutes to deploy their plans.
Gus, Dierdre, and the preacher head back to the wedding. When they arrive, he sees that the cultists have been beat to a pulp. He pulls the van up right in front of Vorvadoss and gets out. Vorvadoss, taken back at Gus’s boldness, stops his rampage and gives Gus a moment to explain himself before killing him.
Gus says he wants Vorvadoss to meet a little friend of his. He takes out the terracotta statue and breaks it on the sidewalk.
Corthra is summoned. Vorvadoss and Corthra fight, distracting them from killing the cultists. They break buildings and wreak destruction.
Gus finds the Man in Black. The Man in Black despairs, saying Gus has sold out the world for cheap by releasing Corthra. Gus disagrees. He hands a page from the Man in Black’s book to the preacher and tells him the words are printed out phonetically and that the preacher, as a man of faith, must read them.
The preacher says he doesn’t believe in the elder gods. Gus points at the fighting monsters and says, “That should be a pretty good indicator that they are real. Use your faith muscles and read the words on my cue.”
Gus radios his plumber friends to make sure they are finished with their tasks. They radio back and say that they are. He tells the preacher to hit it. The preacher reads the words.
Scorches appear in an ancient symbol across the city from building to building, entrapping both creatures, weakening them.
Gus gives the Man in Black his cage. The Man in Black, amazed at Gus’s resourcefulness, calls in the rest of his cultists. They close on the two Gods, chanting. The Gods huddle together. The Man in Black throws the amulet at their feet. Both Gods shrink and appear inside Gus’s cage.
Gus asks what will happen to the gods. The Man in Black says eventually, they will escape. The Cage isn’t going to hold them long, a year, two maybe. But the Cultists will do what they can to keep them from returning to the prime plane.
The Man in Black asks the three of them, Gus, Dierdre, and the preacher if they have some unfinished business. The preacher marries Gus and Dierdre right there in the middle of the destruction. Gus and Dierdre get into his van and head off on their honeymoon.
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