Three weeks ago I started a series about the Three Act Structure, a writing structure, no THE writing structure, that is commonly used by writers everywhere. If you’re telling a story, reading a story, or even watching a story, in any media it’s likely that it’s there. Not everyone uses one, not intentionally, but it’s one of those key plotting tools that helps you plan your story and helps with revisions. And most of the time it sort of comes along through intuition. Sometimes you don’t even realise you’re using one.
As always what I write is not fact, it’s just how I see the Three Act Structure from what I’ve read. If you want to find out about the Three Act Structure just search it on Google and you’ll find plenty of results. My first post in the series was an introduction of sorts, my rambling view about what the Three Act Structure, as a whole, is in my mind. My second post was an in-depth look at the key plot points that I use in my First Act. And my third post, surprise surprise, was about the occasional swamp known as the Second Act. This week though I’m looking at what can be one of the hardest acts to write...Act Three!
Why Should I Care About The Third Act?
The Third Act is one of the most important parts of your story. Then again I’ve said that about all three Acts. But I’m super serious this time. The Third Act is where all your hard work, all of the hard work of the characters, comes together and creates a big explosion that leaves the audience gasping for breath (metaphorically speaking, not literally, that could lead to lawsuits and we can’t afford those). Everything that you’ve spent weeks, months, maybe even years, working towards has finally come together and born fruit. You wrap everything up, satisfy the audience’s questions and then, if you’re writing a series, smack them in the face with another question. Either way this is the end and whether or not you want to publish your book you should be proud that you’ve reached it.
What’s The Third Act All About Then?
The Third Act is that final milestone in writing a book, it’s where everything comes together and explodes (sometimes literally) and your characters (and readers) finally get some closure. But throughout the Third Act you need to keep amping up that pressure, raising the stakes higher and higher than they’ve been raised before, putting more on the line for the characters to lose. And then let it all go in a way that the reader finds enjoyable and plausible. Or you could be a really evil person and just not give them that and have everyone die at the end. (I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin.) Questions are finally answered, plot points are finally done and everyone gets their happy ending (most of the time). If this is a series of books than the seeds that you planted back in Acts One and Two begin to sprout and you leave some sort of a cliff hanger that gets people to keep reading.
What Goes In To The Third Act?
So know you know why the Third Act is there and why it’s so important, let’s have a look at what goes into Act Three (at least in my humble opinion). Some of these points have different names that they are known by but it’s clear what exactly goes into each at first glance. As usual I want to look at each one a little more closely. But first a quick list of what the plot points are;
- All Seems Lost
- Self-sacrifice/Symbolic Death
- Final Showdown aka Climax
At the end of Act Two you would have had a huge obstacle come up, just when your characters were starting to get along once more. This obstacle is defeated in the beginning of Act Three and to be honest it could just hang around for a while if you wanted it to. But whatever happens, Act Three starts with some...
After everything that’s happened in the second act, where it looked like your characters would never pull together to defeat the Big Bad of their story it finally looks like it might happen at last. You start to think that maybe things are going to work out for them and they’ll get their happy ending right? Right? WRONG! This plot point is where things start to go tits up (if you’ll excuse the expression). The revelations of big secrets, and I’m talking government crumbling secrets here, or the start of an attack threatens to once again drive our characters apart, even if it is because the good guys have just seen the size of the enemy’s army and wants to run away. It sounds similar to the Division plot point in the Second Act. It is really but on a much larger scale. These revelations threaten to pull everything apart and I mean everything, not just our merry band of adventurers. Comparing the arguements and division that spills from these secrets to the previous arguements is like comparing World War 2 to a toddler’s tantrum, ie. They may both come from a similar source but the results are a hell of a lot worse in the first one.
The key here is that you are building up the tension, getting ready for the big climax and putting the key players and problems in place. Things cannot look like they’ll go right for our heroes, the reader needs to seriously doubt that they’ll succeed or even start shouting at the page/screen for them to just turn around and run away as fast as their little legs can carry them. This doubt only makes the next plot point more powerful, when....
All Seems Lost
This is another high point of tension. There might be a few scenes before it for decompression, in fact there should be if you don’t want your readers to have a heart attack but once again the tension needs to go up ANOTHER level. Exactly as the name of the point says, everything needs to seem lost. The heroes are nowhere to be seen or they’re on the other side of the country, someone is seriously injured or they can’t find the key to the dungeon holding the alchemist that can save them all (you can tell I write fantasy can’t you). Whatever the problem is it’s got to be BAD! They have to risk losing everything. In fact, if you’re feeling particularly evil you could write two endings from this point on, making it very clear that everyone could end up in a dead gooey mess. Of course you scrap the bad ending once your done but having the idea of how things can go wrong can help you see how things need to go for the happy ending while keeping all of that juicy tension and doubt.
The reader should no longer doubt that the characters will fail, they need to know that the characters will fail. The ideal feeling here is that your reader wants to throw the book away and go do something else (possibly cuddle a bunch of puppies or bunnies) but they also want to know exactly how badly the characters screw everything up. They keep reading not because they think there’s still a chance that the heroes will win but because they want to know how the heroes fail and the consequences. Of course this is a very difficult thing to pull off and it’s not always necessary for it to be completely gut wrenchingly painful but it helps. And then things just keep getting worse as you go into the next plot point and it’s all about...
Self Sacrifice/Symbolic Death
That’s right. Someone dies. Well ok, not necessarily although it can be really really fun to kill of your characters in horrible unspeakable ways (trust me I’ve done it and it was actually a wonderful source of stress relief). But in all seriousness, this is yet another high tension moment, preferably sprinkled with a little bit of relief to take the edge off. Your characters have to sacrifice something, whether it’s their morals, their favourite sword, their innocence or yes, even their life. Something has to change, a death of sorts, before they can go any further.
This means that as your characters get closer and closer to the big battle scene, that final climax, they’re going in weaker than they were before (even if they didn’t think that was possible). They’re bruised, they’re battered, they’re scarred emotionally physically and mentally, they’re going to need therapy for decades if you’ve been an evil author (again looking at you Martin!). And they’ve done it all by choice this time.
But what this sacrifice or death has to do is seal their determination. It gives them that little extra push to beat the bad guy, flips that switch inside them from ‘for the greater good’ to ‘now it’s personal’. They have something to prove and they don’t want the sacrifice to be in vain. So all fired up they head off to the...
The Final Showdown
Did you read that in the action film voiceover guy’s voice because I did. The final showdown is exactly how it sounds. It’s the big climax, that big fight which sends the Big Bad running off into the night for good. Things have fallen into place, the tension is soaring and stuff’s going down. You can be a cruel person and have it all over quickly and simply but most of the time that’s considered an anti-climax and it will show in the reviews. In a comedy that would work but for most other genres it doesn’t really pull its weight and again readers will want to beat you with a big stick. There needs to be a struggle, the reader needs to think, even for a split second, that things aren’t going to work. You can have everything fall apart and all your characters end up dead but you need to remember that there’s a special place in Hell (or whichever realm of punishment and torment you believe in) for people who do that. It’s not nice, I hear they make you listen to Justin Beiber over and over.
You need to remember that not all your characters have to make it. In fact it’s better if they don’t sometimes and your readers are left crying in a heap on the floor or go fetal in a corner. Some of your characters, including main characters, should survive, most of them really if you can, and the characters that do die are usually side characters that people get unusually attached to or one of the main characters (again R.R. Martin seems to ignore this rule and does what he wants). This is the big wrap up point, where all the plot lines begin coming to a close and that tension is released as the Big Bad is vanquished. The characters might not come out completely unscathed but that’s all sorted out in one way or another in...
This is the epilogue. It can be as long or as short as you want it to be. This is the chance for you and your readers to wind down after the big battle scene. It’s the point where the characters clean up the wreckage of the last battle and start pulling themselves together again. They’re changed and the reader is changed but usually there’s some hope that things go back to normal. The characters celebrate and grab normal life once more. They get drunk, they get married, they party like they’ve survived the end of the world (which let’s face it, they sort of have). However they choose to let go of all that tension, it’s a chance for the reader to do so too before they put the book aside forever or until they want to read it again (either works).
This is also the final point where you wrap up all those little sub-plots that were left dangling. The hero gets the girl, the heroine gets the guy, the hero gets the guy, they have a big orgy, whatever! The characters find happiness and get ready for their ride into the sunset and their happy ever after. It’s also sometimes the place where writers like to stick in a few seeds for sequels, leaving one or two sub-plots unresolved or the seeds that were planted earlier begin to bloom. However you wrap things up is good and it’s all up to you. Just don’t leave the promise of a next book if you don’t plan on writing it any time soon. There’s nothing more evil than that (except maybe Hitler... maybe). If you’re only vaguely considering the idea of the sequel then don’t leave too many open points, just one or two things that weren’t wrapped up quite too well, for the reader to grab on to in the next (potential) book.
So there we have it. Act Three in a... fairly large nutshell. With the tension going all haywire at every point in the third act you can see why writing the Third Act can be done so quickly, the action and tension drives the writer on, makes their fingers fly over the keyboard as thought after thought flows from their minds to the page.
So If It’s So Easy To Write Why Do So Many Writers Struggle With It?
Look at all those spikes of tension, the ups and downs and downright torture that writers put their characters through in those last chapters! No human being can write so much tension for too long. It can become emotionally exhausting, mentally exhausting, hell, physically exhausting as your fingers try to keep up with your brain. I’ve written incredibly tense scenes for the climaxes before and when they’ve been done, even though the book isn’t quite finished I’ve had to ignore it for a few days, writing took that much away from it. Knowing how draining writing can be, understanding that writers draw the emotions and feelings of the book from themselves you can begin to see why writers often have to take a break from writing, why it can take so long for them to return to editing or start planning the next book. Just as a reader is exhausted reading it and needs a nice lie down, the writer becomes emotionally wiped and literally cannot spare any unnecessary emotion. They can’t wring out anything else, not even for their families and friends in real life, they are drained! They have to take the time to refill themselves.
And that’s it for this series. It’s taken a while, an entire month in fact but I’ve proven to myself that I can finish a series of blog posts with the right amount of planning and outlining, just like with writing a novel. I hope that you’ve learned something, enjoyed reading or simply wondered why I’ve not been committed yet. Whatever you take away from this I hope it’s something positive and that you can put what you may have learned into practice. And who knows, maybe I’ll have another series up soon.
But what do you think? In your opinion have I summed up the key points of the Third Act well enough for you? Are there any bits and pieces that I’ve left out? Have I gone into too much detail? Which points do you follow when you’re writing? Which leave you the most exhausted? The most energised? What do you want me to write about next? What part of the weird and wacky world of writing do you want my deranged perspective on next time? Let me know in the comments down below.