The third act. The end. The stroll off into the sunset or dramatic cliffhanger. Writing your third act is the finishing stretch and, therefore, vitally important in leaving the audience or screenplay reader with a great and lasting impression of your screenplay.
This is what you have been building to for the past one or two hours. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending or thrill ride. What it absolutely should do though is satisfy all those questions act two brings up and ultimately bring your main conflict to a close.
But how do you create a satisfying ending? How do you tie up your plot and character arcs and perhaps even leave room for a sequel? We take a look at the key, headline elements of writing act three of your screenplay…
Table of Contents
- Introduction To Act Three
- 1. Resolving Your Character Arcs
- 2. Breaking Up The Third Act
- 3. Obstacles And The Reversing Of Fortunes
- 4. A Complete Third Act
- In Conclusion: Tying Everything Up
Introduction To Act Three
Act three begins during the climax of your film. This is when the supervillain has got the launch codes or the lovebirds have split up at the end of the second act.
- Essentially it’s when the situation seems to be hopeless.
- The climax is the penultimate dramatic moment of your conflict and the rest of the third act is concerned with solving that conflict.
The third act answers the problems created by the previous acts and brings your story to a close. It’s also perhaps the hardest part of the script to get right. You may find yourself writing multiple endings, for example, in an attempt to finish the script with as much impact as possible.
So how do you avoid a boring or contrived ending? What is crucial to include in your third act? We look at the most important bases to cover.
1. Resolving Your Character Arcs
When writing the start of your third act your protagonist and supporting characters should be at their lowest.
- The climax should present the heroes as having lost or being extremely close to losing.
- Your characters’ flaws should be at their worst.
- They should be, for instance, insecure, fearful or otherwise defeated.
This means that as your third act moves on you can bring them back from this pit of despair. The characters can overcome their flaws to, in turn, overcome the antagonist force. This is the culmination of the many character arcs within your story. All that change your characters have gone through during the story culminates here as they pick themselves back up and push themselves on for the last stretch and challenge.
Characters overcoming their flaws is not something exclusive to the third act. But it is necessary for a character to overcome or work around a flaw in order to beat whatever antagonistic force they may be battling. This makes their triumph in the face of the rising stakes much more personal to both the character and the audience.
Essentially you can use the third act to demonstrate how far your character has come over the story’s course. What has been the fundamental growth at the heart of the story? Here is where we see the flowering of that growth.
- He joins the crew of the Sherman tank Fury during the last few weeks of the war in Europe.
- At the beginning of the film, Norman is a terrified desk clerk. He has never shot a man or been through training.
- The crew mess with him and when told to kill someone or die he chooses death. He’s not a killer.
He is joined by the PTSD-stricken crew of the Fury. The tank commander, Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), builds up or perhaps drags down Norman to the crew’s level. At the climax of the film, Norman is the only one besides Wardaddy to volunteer to defend the tank against the advancing SS, causing the rest of his comrades to follow suit.
The build-up to this battle sees the rest of the crew truly show Norman respect for the first time. They even bestow upon him the moniker “Machine.” A pitched battle ensues between the SS and the crew, resulting in each of their deaths.
Norman is right there with the others. He doesn’t hesitate to fire and even chooses to leave the tank to protect one of the crew. He doesn’t break down when faced with the death of his crewmates. Instead, he gets the job done and fights his way through the battle.
It is only when every other crewman has died apart from him and Wardaddy that the truth comes out. Norman, knowing he is about to die, admits he’s scared. A dying Wardaddy tells Norman he’s scared too. He points out the escape hatch on the floor, giving Norman a way out. Norman is left the sole survivor and called a hero by his fellow soldiers.
What Does This Mean For Your Script?
When writing your third act your characters should have gone through most of their character arc already. The third act itself is the place you can let the changes they’ve gone through flourish. While they begin the act downtrodden it is here that you can turn them around and give them back some fighting spirit.
This is extremely useful for the emotional impact on the audience. We have seen those characters change and watched them go through their lowest point. If you’ve done the requisite work in the first and second acts, we’re rooting for them to succeed.
So when they get up to fight the bad guy one last time or appear at the love interest’s door, the emotional stakes are high. In short, we know what this means and how far the protagonist has travelled to get here.
Raising these stakes can make the audience feel however you want them to, whether it be elated, shocked or sad. But you want to land an emotional punch with the final act and character conflict is the best way to achieve this. Demonstrate just how far the character has come from when we first met them by giving them an action that proves this journey.
2. Breaking Up The Third Act
When you start writing your third act the B story is often already wrapped up. This does however give your resolution a very singular focus. This can be hard to keep interesting, especially in an action-packed or dramatic ending.
So how do you add some variety to your third act? Subplots are a key way. Specifically, this means splitting the resolution up into several intertwining sequences. This can be anything from supporting characters trying to help the protagonist in their efforts to complete their goal to a team of protagonists trying to go it alone before realizing they need each other.
These subplots can also tie back into your character development. You can use them to finish up the stories of secondary protagonists and give supporting characters more depth. While this is going on you can also use these moments to break up the central plot of your third act into several sequences which keep the story moving apace.
Kingsman: The Secret Service Example
For example, in the third act of Kingsman: The Secret Service the protagonists must stop the billionaire Valentine from activating a signal that will send the world’s population into a murderous rage. Eggsy, Roxy and Merlin are the only ones capable of stopping his plot.
This could have been a simple sequence of Eggsy trying to reach Valentine and stop him.
- While that is the main plot of the third act we are also treated to two other subplots.
- The first features Eggsy’s family going insane and the second, Roxy trying to destroy valentine’s satellites.
These secondary subplots enhance the tension of the final act. The failure of Roxy’s attempt to destroy the satellite network forces us as the audience to put all our hopes on Eggsy and his attempt to assassinate Valentine.
This is only worsened by Eggsy’s mother, Michelle, being infected by the signal. Michelle tries desperately to bash down the door so she can attack her own daughter. This gives us personal stakes for Eggsy and emotional stakes for us as an audience, keeping our attention in a vice grip.
What Does This Mean For Your Script?
Breaking up your third act is a brilliant way to keep it from feeling anticlimactic. The drama doesn’t stop at the climax and the remainder of your film should try to keep that tension high at least until whatever antagonist force you have has been defeated.
When writing your third act remember to disperse the action. Keeping a singular focus can be gripping but even a momentary cutaway can be extremely effective at creating tension for your audience. It may even give them a breather from the action, preventing it from getting stale.
Diversifying the plot at this point is a way of ratcheting up the tension from all angles. All arcs coincide to create an overwhelming sense for the audience, truly allowing them to feel that this is where all elements of the story will be wrapped up.
3. Obstacles And The Reversing Of Fortunes
When writing the third act, much like the second act, your story benefits from increasing tension. While this shouldn’t eclipse the climax that kicked off the act, it keeps the conflict from petering out in your story.
There is subsequently a moment when your protagonist turns things around, bringing you to your ending. This parallel allows you to build a tense and absorbing ending while also allowing you to further demonstrate your character overcoming their previous flaws.
It should be noted that these obstacles shouldn’t escalate above the climax but they should have some significance to that moment.
- Say the climax sees a group of supporting characters in danger and the protagonist must then save them. The subsequent obstacles should focus around this.
- Say a character from the group dies. This gets across the stakes but doesn’t take away from the fact that the entire group is in danger.
In Zombieland, the third act revolves around the group trying to survive as a horde of zombies rips through the theme park they’re in. Hundreds if not thousands more are attracted by the flashing lights and loud music of the attractions. Meanwhile, zombies encircle the drop tower where Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) seek refuge.
The obstacles come in several forms throughout this third act.
- Firstly the drop tower lowers and raises as it normally would. Except every time it lowers it brings our heroines closer to the horde at the base of the tower. So they shoot the controls, missing several times before they manage to lock the ride in place. But then the zombies start climbing.
- When Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) arrive, they’re instantly set upon by the horde. Tallahassee intentionally leads most of them off, running around the park through several elaborate set pieces, creating carnage as he goes. Eventually, he ends up trapped in a game booth surrounded by undead.
- Several stragglers chase Columbus into a haunted house What follows is a semi-horror scene as he attempts to escape the infected and the house itself. Eventually, he escapes and goes to help the girls. The zombies have begun climbing up to them and aren’t far off.
- Columbus is stopped by his personal fear, a clown zombie. He decides to break one of the rules he has been following throughout the film, “don’t be a hero”, by killing the zombies and rescuing the girls. Meanwhile, Tallahassee manages to shoot his way out of his problem. The group drive off as a family; Columbus with a newfound appreciation.
What Does This Mean For Your Third Act?
Zombieland creates a chaotic and intense third act through the use of several obstacles crammed into a small amount of time. The constant obstacles for our heroes to overcome increases the tension and keeps us in the moment.
So when writing the third act don’t shy away from having lots of events happening at once. You want your final act to be intense and memorable, capitalizing on the previous two acts. The chaos of Zombieland is genre specific but even in a serious drama, you want everything to be compounding.
That’s when you bring in your protagonist‘s major final change. This change should allow them to overcome whatever has been preventing them from achieving their goal throughout the film.
Just when it seemed like everything was lost and the events have built up on top of each other to an overwhelming degree, the protagonist (and or key characters) reverse their fortunes through the smallest of margins. This will bring your story to the final resolution and lets your characters go off into the proverbial sunset.
4. A Complete Third Act
So what does all of this coming together look like? When you have the right obstacles, subplots and character arc resolutions everything comes together into a fully formed third act.
You need to weave all your loose threads back into a cohesive and fleshed-out ending. Leaving one or two things open can be useful (especially if you want to create room for a sequel!).
But you should be careful not to leave the story unresolved. Even if there are lingering questions which can be teased out into a sequel, you want this story to feel like a completed chapter, rounding off the particular character arcs explored in the film.
The Godfather Example
The Godfather provides a great example of a third-act wrap-up in that it completes one story, whilst leaving room open for another. It’s the first part of a chapter of potentially endless storylines around this family.
The third act largely deals with Michael tying up loose ends and truly establishing his power as the new “Godfather”.
- He orders hits on the heads of the five families, eliminating his rivals, establishing his complete power and enacting revenge. This stems from Michael realizing he and his family have been betrayed, just after his father’s death; his lowest point.
- At the baptism of his sister’s baby, we see these hits carried out at the same time. Michael’s steeliness demonstrates how far he has fallen from the war hero we met in the first act.
- He has come back from the brink of being subsumed by rivals and now stands on top of them all. He’s proven his worth and reversed his fortunes.
- Then Michael manages to get the truth out of his sister’s husband, Carlo, about his role in Sonny’s death. And he orders Carlo’s execution. This concludes a B story.
- And it then plays into the final devastating scene where Kay demands to know the truth about whether Michael ordered the hit on Carlo or not. Michael lies.
- This last scene and final image – of Kay distant from Michael, watching him be visited as “the Godfather” – directly contrasts how close they were when we first met them both as characters.
- The third act, therefore, wraps up all the plot arcs whilst then finally returning to the character arc at the heart of the story.
So What Does This Mean For Your Third Act?
By tying the ending scene intimately to Michael (and Michael and Kay’s joint character arc) the story feels complete. There’s a clear and distinct journey here. It doesn’t matter that we know the story will go on into a sequel because the film ends this part of the story with a clear sense of a chapter closing.
Michael has completed his journey from somewhat estranged family member to head of the family. And all elements of the third act speak to this, reaching to the various parts of the story that have been whirring on up until this point.
- Everything culminates all at once via a mix of different paces and forms; exciting montage, tense violent scene, tense dramatic scene.
- Lastly, the final image leaves us with a clear idea of the film’s journey coming to an end.
Ultimately, it’s an important lesson in how to resolutely complete a story arc whilst keeping the world ticking on in order to potentially return to it. By no means does it feel there isn’t more ground to cover. But in streamlining the story to a character arc, more than anything else, this part of the story certainly feels complete.
In Conclusion: Tying Everything Up
You can use these elements in any ending, across genres, in order to create an intense third act. Things might not be as intense in a drama as in an action film in terms of the events themselves but the same screenwriting tools still apply.
To summarize, the most important elements to establish when writing act three are:
- Resolve your character arcs.
- Demonstrate how far the characters have come.
- Create obstacles for your characters.
- End these with a reversal of fortunes.
- Break up your third act with differing perspectives.
The foundations for a persuasive and satisfying act three are in a successful first and second act. However, if these first two acts lay down the right foundations, the third act must join the dots with impact and not just for the sake of it.
You must complete your story. But completing your story isn’t just about getting it to the end. Instead, it’s about justifying all that has come before. The end is possibly what your audience will remember most about your story. With this in mind, it’s important to keep track of exactly how everything leads up to the end and whether or not it itself puts the appropriate full stop on everything you have written.
This article was written by Callum Scambler and edited by IS Staff.
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