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How to Build a Satisfying Act 3

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We started this conversation by talking about what makes a satisfying Act Three. Today, let’s talk about nuts and bolts of building it. Often when a writer says they have a great idea for a screenplay and they already know how it ends, it really means some combination of:

  • They have an idea for a cool set piece to put in Act 3,
  • They know what kind of event the “final battle” needs to be, where it takes place, etc. in order to make sense and feel organic for the story, or
  • They know the outcome of the main conflict – whether the protagonist succeeds or not – but not necessarily how it plays out on screen.

Any and all of these can be a great place to start. But how do you take one of these nuggets and turn it into a fully developed, satisfying ending?

We have to build it. Take the moments or scenes or ideas you already have in mind and turn them into a story of their own – the Act Three story.

The story of Act Three

If we break down any satisfying Act Three, we’ll see that it tells a story all its own, which means it has a beginning, middle, and end. Or, it might be useful to think of it as a setup, escalation, and climax.

Like any story, Act Three is constructed in a way that creates context and conflict, escalates that conflict to build tension and suspense, and then resolves the conflict in a satisfying way.

And since the climax of Act 3 is also the climax of the entire story, it’s all about showcasing the final battle. The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. This is the battle that determines the outcome of the war.

There are really three parts that make up the story of Act 3:

  1. The setup of the final battle
  2. The final battle
  3. The effect of the final battle

What happens in each of the three parts? Let’s look at each one a little more closely:

1. The setup of the final battle

In this part, we get the context we need to understand and appreciate the final battle itself. Don’t confuse setup with preparation, though. The protagonist can prepare for the final battle in this part by gathering allies or supplies, planning his moves, etc. but it doesn’t have to play out that way. The setup of the final battle isn’t always a preparing-for-battle sequence.

Think of this part instead as preparing the audience for the final battle. Akin to the setup that happens in Act 1 of the screenplay, think of this part of Act 3 in terms of what context we need in order to understand and appreciate the conflict that’s about to play out in the story’s climax.

2. The final battle

In your screenplay, a question was (hopefully) raised by the end of Act 1. Will the boy get the girl? Will the brothers save the family ranch? Will the girl catch the serial killer?

The final battle is where we finally get the answer to that question. No, the boy doesn’t get the girl. Yes, the brothers save the family ranch. Yes, the girl catches the serial killer.

The final battle is the climax of the entire story. It’s where we finally resolve the main conflict that this whole screenplay has been built on, and that’s why it’s almost always a direct confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. That’s why it’s the battle that determines the outcome of the war.

However, the final battle doesn’t have to be a physical fight or a big action set piece. Whatever happens in the final battle should feel appropriate for the genre, tone, and subject matter we’ve seen throughout the rest of the movie leading up to the climax.

But the final battle should be the biggest challenge the protagonist faces in the movie. If the protagonist faces their biggest challenge earlier, somewhere in Act 2, then everything after that will feel like a letdown – anticlimactic – to the audience.

The final battle might involve the protagonist’s worst fear or some representation of a past trauma. It might be something they’ve been dreading but can no longer be avoided. Or it might be the worst timing to have to confront the antagonist so the protagonist is unprepared and outmatched. Essentially, you’re looking for ways to make the final battle the biggest, worst, most excruciating challenge we’ll see the protagonist face in this story.

3. The effect of the final battle

Once the final battle has played out we want to see and fully understand the effect this climax has had on the lives of the characters and the world around them. This part of Act Three confirms and assures us of what we’ve just seen, helps us grasp what it all means, and gives us some feeling that the story has come to a close – even if not everything has been tied up in a neat bow.

This part will likely include some focus on the protagonist’s reaction to the final battle and how everything turned out. In this part you might also see wrapping up subplots, resolving other “wants and needs” questions that were raised earlier in the story, and indications of where life will take the characters next.

In this part of Act Three, you can also transition us out of the final battle or button a plotline in a way that sends us off feeling whatever emotion you want us to leave the story with.

The structure of Act 3

Now, just because we have three parts doesn’t mean they all get equal time. If you study a lot of movies, you’ll see that Act Three often plays out over what essentially works out to be two sequences.

The two most common patterns I’ve noticed for these two sequences are:

  1. Prep + Execution of the Final Battle, or
  2. False Execution + New Final Battle

In the first type, at the break into Act 3, the protagonist knows what the final battle is going to be. He or she spends the first sequence (roughly half) of Act 3 doing whatever he needs to do to get ready for that final battle. In the second sequence (or roughly half) of Act 3, he executes what he’s put into place and engages in that final battle.

We can see versions of this type of Act 3 and different ways it could play out in movies like Jaws, Hell or High Water, and The Full Monty.

In the second type, the protagonist thinks he or she knows what the final battle is going to be and at the break into Act 3 he’s already launching into what he thinks is the execution of it. But in the first sequence, some new information or circumstances are revealed, and the protagonist must change directions and execute a new plan or engage in a different final battle than he was expecting. (Or perhaps engage in a final battle she wasn’t expecting at all.)

We can see different versions of this type in Taken, The Ring, and even Bridesmaids.

Remember we talked earlier about the “setup of the final battle” part of Act 3? It’s worth noting again that doesn’t have to mean the protagonist goes through a typical training montage or other “prepping for battle” type of scenes.

The first pattern is more likely to have a preparing-for-battle feel to it, of course. But in both patterns, you still want to think about preparing the audience for the true final battle. That might involve misdirecting our attention in order to surprise us later, or allowing us to get ahead of the character so you can build tension, etc.

These, obviously, are very general patterns and shouldn’t be taken as rules that must be followed. But as you’re working out what needs to happen in the third act in your story, it may be helpful to look at these patterns and see if either applies.

In order to create a satisfying ending, Act 3 can be seen as a story unto itself. If we remember that Act 3 answers the question that was raised in Act 1, then it makes sense that Act 3 tells us the story of the protagonist’s final, climactic push to answer that question and achieve his story goal.

As you build your satisfying Act 3, consider the story you’re telling, and how you can use the three parts: set up the conflict, escalate that conflict to the protagonist’s biggest challenge, and then resolve it to the audience’s satisfaction.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe