Act one, the beginning of your story, is one of the two most important parts of a script. Now that we’ve taken a small step toward plotting our scripts it’s time to take a giant leap over act two and round out the story with some resolution. The two things you absolutely must know and be able to quickly state is how your story begins and ends. The third act may well be the absolute most important part of a movie, because it gives the final impressions of the piece and retroactively serves as a measure for condemning or praising the work as a whole. How many good movies are spoiled by shoddy endings? How many difficult films are redeemed by an amazing third act reveal that makes it all worthwhile?
It isn’t popular to say, because writers like to believe that they are original, artistic and above structure. They shun words like craft and formula, reserving them as descriptors for loathsome films that are too predictable and derivative of other, better films. To this I would like to say two things. The first is that formula does not equate predictability. Only writers that abuse formula with hack-work and call it craft wind up with this dilemma. The second is that unpredictability is no better on its own than predictability. The story must be unpredictable, but it must end in a satisfying way. Aristotle called it “surprising yet inevitable.” For that you need craft, and yes, formula.
Nothing bothers me more than movies with alternate endings. To me a story can only end one way. If there are alternatives, something is out of whack earlier in the story, leading to the climax. There is a loss of vision, or perspective, that probably resulted from abandoning formula and attempting originality. Originality is achieved only by honesty, not by defying structure. Write what’s inside you and you will have something original, but to have a good script you must work on craft.
I felt I had to get that out-of-the-way before continuing with the third act, because I think this is probably the most important part of story structure and it is the part where most writers go wrong, or fall short. When you know where you are going to end up you can plot your script accordingly adding set-ups and misdirection without gaping plot holes or open-ended storylines. It also helps to center your story when you know exactly what the final battle or confrontation is going to look like. The third act is deceptively difficult, because it has such a simple layout: Preparation for battle, Battle, Resolution.
If you are following the hero’s journey there are more points to address. There is the moment where the hero seizes the sword, which could happen during the second or third act. There is the elixir, that the hero must bring back home. There is the journey home and the resurrection of the conflict. This happens in most horror films, too when the killer comes back one last time. But whatever story you’re cooking up you’ve got to figure this:
1. Your protagonist has had it. he’s done, wiped out, the lowest of the low. You’ve put him through the wringer and he still has to face his toughest challenge yet. That’s not quick or simple, so come up with a game plan. Give this guy seven to ten pages of preparation to pull it together while you set the stage for the final battle.
2. This battle is what everything has been building towards and it will decide the fate of your characters and the outcome of the movie. If your guy is going to lose, we need to be prepared for that somehow (Rocky telling Adrian he just wants to go the distance with Creed)and that loss needs to be justified. If he wins, it can’t be just handed to him it has to be exciting and still have a couple of surprises so the audience doesn’t get bored. It’s a good idea to have two or three roadblocks at this stage. Think of this battle almost like a mini movie, with acts and a plot of its own. The higher you make the stakes and the deeper you drag your character down, the more he has to fight for and that will give you ample material to work with for this climactic sequence.
3. Whether it’s a journey back home with the magical elixir or tying up loose ends, this is the cool down after the high tension. Things are restored, anything the audience might need closure on is handled here. This should be the shortest sequence, because the story is essentially over after the battle. Be careful not to have too many “endings” this is when you think a movie is over and yet it’s followed by more scenes, each one seems as though it should be the last. It’s common for the resolution to take place years later with a scene that demonstrates some key change in the character’s life. Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” hardly has a resolution at all, but it leaves us at the most appropriate time. Likewise, Jaws (thankfully) has no scenes back on Amity Island after the shark is killed, instead it ends with a slow paddle back to shore as the sun sets. Some of the best resolutions are silent and even overlap with the end credits.
A great book that I highly recommend is The 3rd Act: Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay
, by Drew Yanno. It illustrates great endings by breaking down examples of third acts from well crafted, classic films. If you are still in the dark on how to write an amazing ending in your screenplay, this book is very illuminating. and while I’m recommending things and we are on the topic of endings, you have got to check out and follow www.howitshouldhaveended.com.