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3 Things That Make a Satisfying Act Three

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Last weekend I went with a friend to see The Invisible Man. We’d both been hearing good things about it – what a surprising new take, the power of Elizabeth Moss’s performance, etc. – and for the most part it delivered. But what took it from a would-probably-recommend to a just-wait-for-it-to-stream-on-Hulu was… the ending.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to spoil it for you, in case you do want to see it. But the letdown got me thinking about endings, so today let’s talk about Act Three.

What does Act Three need to accomplish?

There are a few key things Act Three needs to accomplish in order to stick the landing, and identifying those targets is our first step toward making sure your screenplay is hitting them. What are they?

    1. Act Three answers the question posed in Act One.
    2. It satisfies the audience emotionally.
    3. It shows proof of the transformative experience.

Now, are there other things Act Three needs to accomplish? Yes – you have subplots to wrap up, you have a final battle to set up and execute, you have emotional arcs to play out, etc. Stay with me for a minute as we talk about the three key targets, and I think you’ll see that everything else falls into one of these areas.

Act Three answers the question posed in Act One

In Act One you set up a question – you might hear it called the Dramatic Question, or Central Dramatic Question, or even Main Tension. It’s a question about whether the protagonist will achieve his story goal – the main thing he’s trying to accomplish by the end of the movie.

Will the boy get the girl? Will the brothers save the family ranch? Will the girl catch the serial killer?

In Act Two you escalate that tension. You call into question whether the protagonist will succeed. We track the progress and invest emotionally. By Act Three, we want the answer!

So in Act Three, you’ll show us the main character’s final confrontation with the primary force of opposition. This is the battle that determines the outcome of the war, once and for all. It answers the question the audience has been tracking through the movie:

    • No, the boy doesn’t get the girl.
    • Yes, the brothers save the family ranch.
    • Yes, the girl catches the serial killer.

At the bare minimum, the audience wants you to close that open loop. But the best endings often throw in something we didn’t see coming.

As Goldman and McKee say, respectively, endings should be “satisfying and surprising” and “inevitable and unexpected.” So:

  • No, the boy doesn’t get the girl – but here comes another, and maybe she’s The One
  • Yes, the brothers save the family ranch – but one of them dies before the task is complete.
  • Yes, the girl catches the serial killer – but another serial killer goes free in the process.

This extra “but…” might say something about the theme, it might add a little irony for entertainment value, or it might be a way to deliver the desired emotional experience before the lights come up.

Which brings us to the second key thing Act Three needs to do…

Emotionally satisfy the audience

Act Three doesn’t climax and resolve just the external plot, it does the same for the audience’s emotional experience. A satisfying Act Three delivers on all the tension you’ve been creating throughout Act Two and pays off the audience’s emotional investment in the story.

The audience is waiting for you to make good on the emotional ride you’ve taken them on. And in order to satisfy, that emotional payoff needs to feel in line with and proportionate to what the character and the audience have experienced. In that sense, “inevitable” applies here too.

For example, if we’ve been put through a harrowing, life-or-death, physical struggle, all the while rooting for the protagonist to win… we’re hoping and expecting to feel triumphant or exhilarated when the protagonist finally bests the antagonist.

If instead you orchestrated an ending that left us feeling ambiguous about whether the protagonist should have won, or unsure who won at all, that probably wouldn’t emotionally satisfy the audience. It may surprise us, but in an unsatisfying way.

Proof of the transformative experience

We like our movies to be about transformative experiences, and Act Three is where you’ll ultimately show us proof of the change that’s occurred in your story. Most often that transformation will be in the protagonist (that’s what we’d call the character arc), but it could also be in other characters, in the world of the story, or it might even be a change the audience experiences.

Probably the most common version of this goes something like:

    • Toward the end of Act Two the protagonist realizes the lesson this experience needs to teach them.
    • In Act Three, the protagonist demonstrates he’s embracing the lesson by behaving in accordance with it (and this may still be a struggle).
    • In many stories this new insight will be instrumental in the character winning the final battle.
    • Or, if the character doesn’t learn the lesson, we’ll see evidence of that instead.

This final key thing goes hand-in-hand with both of the first two. Seeing the protagonist come to the smarter, wiser, healthier way of being can be a big part of an emotionally satisfying ending. And often the change the protagonist experiences will contribute in some way to how he resolves the plot.

Start with the end in mind

John August and Craig Mazin have said on their Scriptnotes podcast that when you’re trying to decide which screenplay idea to write, go with the one that you know how it ends. Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) has said something similar in interviews.

Their advice probably has more to do with having an easier path forward to completion if you can already see the ending, but I think it also speaks to the importance of a good, satisfying Act Three – the climax and resolution of the story.

The way a movie ends has the power to make or break our experience of the whole thing, and identifying what Act Three needs to accomplish is the first step toward being able to write a satisfying ending.

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.

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