The Three Acts: Act 3

Hi again, gang. Craig with you once more to continue my series on Three Act Structure. If you’re coming in here, the previous posts were Act 1, Act 2 Part 1, and Act 2 Part 2.

By this point, we’ve come up with a plan and experienced absolute disaster. Our main character had to regroup, then work some things out on the fly. He or she wound up at the main antagonist’s door, which brings us to Act 3.

We roughed out a system for a hundred-thousand words by dedicating 25K to each section. Act 3 is usually the shortest one, and you have two things to accomplish. First is the final climax or battle, followed by the denouement. Whatever you do, don’t shoot for precisely 25K per section. You have the right to vary, but it makes for a nice general plan.

In the classic sense, Act 3 contains your big confrontation. The antagonist should have home-field advantage. Joe, owner of Joe’s Appliances, knows he’s right for the love interest, but he has to convince her of that in the antagonist’s mansion with the driveway full of luxury cars.

In some genres, you need to play with setting and mood. Paranormal, horror, and murder stories don’t normally throw down at high noon with butterflies flitting about. Think about Buffalo Bill’s basement as a setting… then he cut the lights.

If you use a ticking clock, this is where to make it intense. Someone has been buried alive and has about two minutes of oxygen left. The military decided to nuke New York City to get rid of the aliens, and Iron Man only has seconds to figure out what to do about it.

Everyone is different, but I usually have an idea of my third act before I ever start writing. Once I make it through the slog of Act 2 – Part 2, my word count usually soars. Your mileage may vary.

I’m not going to tell you how to tailor your climax, but consider it’s the part people will remember. (You hope.) You know your genre and likely what others have done before you. I suggest taking up an old-fashioned pen and jotting down some alternate situations. Here’s why: Iron Man flew that nuke right into space and saved the city. However… I’ve seen Superman do the exact same thing. Don’t automatically go for the low hanging fruit. Put some deeper thought into it.

Your climax needs to maintain a brisk pace and not drag. It also can’t be a simple paragraph in length. This is one section where your critique partners can really help. Your goal isn’t to have them feel like it was too short or too long. You want them holding their breath, then giving that sigh of relief. If you have the luxury of extra eyes use them.

Denouements are fussy, and I admit to being a little picky about them. Not everyone will agree with me, but you might want to consider some of this as you wrap up your story.

The part we waited for, and stuck with for 80K words just happened. We want to know everything will be alright, but don’t need to drag that part out. If you have a lot of characters, you’re going to have to tier them in level of importance to reveal their endings. Lesser characters might be in the crowd at the tavern, while second tier characters might get a line of dialog or two.

I think there are two ways to blow this part. We’ve all seen action movies with a bit of depth, but at the end the heroes pass out cigars and that’s it. All of the love interests and emotional baggage doesn’t even get a second thought. Don’t do this.

Alternatively, I’ve read stories where we get a generational happy ending. The hero/ine becomes a parent, nearly always naming the child after a dead mentor, then goes on to become a grandparent. Know when to drop the mic and walk away.

I’ll just put on my armor for this next comment. The ending of the Harry Potter films didn’t work for me. There was no reason to meet at the train station as adults, drop the name of Harry’s kid (Mentors), and detail who married who. There were other ways to handle some of this.

Everyone is different here, so feel free to disagree with me. I think a bit of hand holding or something at a wake could have accomplished what it needed in the Potterverse. I’d rather have known the characters cared about those who died. The way Potter ended, I felt like none of them had spoken for eleven years.

I like a “Happy for now,” or “Happy enough,” kind of denouement. The heroes have survived against incredible odds. Maybe they found love along the way, but forever and ever seems unrealistic to me. Think about ways to ride into the sunset that will leave readers knowing everyone will be alright.

There is one more thing that’s an option for horror stories. After wrapping it all up neatly, it’s not out of line to bring your monster back in a very quick scene. We’ve all seen that one where the ghoulish hand shoots out of the earth before the headstone. It restores a sense of unease, and makes a teaser for a sequel if you need one. Even if it ends here, it’s acceptable for horror tales.

There you have it. Three acts, what they’re supposed to accomplish, and what advantages they might offer to the author. You can plan your word count around them, plan your character arc, and much more based upon this structure. Many of you will already be familiar with this structure, but I hope you gleaned a nugget or two along the way. Others might see a whole new way of thinking about story structure.

Did you enjoy the series? (Tell your friends) Let me hear from you in the comments.

57 thoughts on “The Three Acts: Act 3

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  4. HI Craig, another useful post. Thank you. I agree with you about the ending of Harry Potter. It was unnecessary and a little disappointing. Actually, for me the entire last book was a let down with all that zapping around the countryside having emotional crisis’s. As for The Cursed Child, I shouldn’t have even brought it up [grin].

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  5. This was a great series, Craig 🙂 My favorite part to write, but I have to be careful not to rush it or go into too much detail. I sometimes like that extra information if I’m really invested in a story, but not always.

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  6. Great series. Denouements are so satisfying to read so you really have to get them right. Thanks for your advice! What’s your opinion on the climax of books within a series? Is some closure good, or should it end right in the middle of things?

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  7. This has been such a useful series, Craig. You’ve distilled the qualities that make the books I love work so well and given me ammunition for my own writing. Thanks!

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  8. Fantastic post, Craig. Great information. Endings are so important. That’s the last taste readers will savor. Fill it with flavor and make it memorable. I’ve never read or seen any of the Harry Potter stuff, though I do intend to eventually.

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  9. Yes, I did enjoy this series, Craig. And I took away at least one tidbit from each one. I need a satisfying ending when I dedicate hours of my time reading a story. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but at least a decent wrap-up. I read one book this year that left me feeling a bit of anger toward the author because the ending of the book was a giant hold-your-breath cliffhanger. I understand she wanted me to pick up the next book, but I felt a letdown. So a satisfying ending is a must for me and it is what I strive for in my stories. Thank you for putting the details into this series. Examples always help make a point.

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  10. I’ve really enjoyed this series,Craig. I never know what my third act or ending will be when I start writing. I normally figure out both by the time I reach them,LOL.

    For the most part I do like everything wrapped up with a tidy bow. If Ive hung with the characters for a long time (like Harry Potter) I want to know they get their HEA. Sometimes endings work fine in print but not in film (like LOTR). Ive also found that I’m more inclined to looser ending in a psych thriller as opposed to romance (as an example). I rarely read romance these days, but if I do, I want a solid HEA.

    Although I’m a planster, this series has offered a lot that I can apply to my current WIP!

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  11. Pingback: The Three Acts: Act 2, Part 2 | Story Empire

  12. Another great post, Craig. You’ve helped me conceptualize the staging of a story through your examples. It seems each genre has its approach to telling a story, usually with a wrap-up, but sometimes with a suggested pathway, and then there are those that simply leave the reader with questions. I guess, for me, it’s the skill of the writer that draws me in, independent of how the author ends the story.🙂

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  13. I loved this series, Craig. I agree on those long drawn-out endings and much prefer them kept shorter and focussed. I hate cliffhangers, but at the same time, love a teaser slipped in right at the end, much like the hand thrusting through the soil, lols. Great examples and points. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  14. I think endings depend on the genre of the book. As a reader, I’ve always liked things wrapped up nice and neat (so to speak). But when I began reading more psychological fiction, endings often leave the reader room to speculate. As long as the writer doesn’t write the ending just for the sake of shocking the reader, I’m okay with that.

    And I’m sure you’ll disagree (and that’s okay), but there are instances in which an epilogue is needed, or at the least adds a nice touch.

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  15. Great series, Craig! Endings truly are powerful. Get it right, and the reader will daydream about it for a long time. Get it wrong, and the reader walks away feeling like the whole book was a waste of his/her time. I, too, felt that Harry Potter’s ending was lacking (and I LOVED the series!). I would have enjoyed some hint of adventure still to come. I’m not the biggest fan of happily-ever-after because it halts my ability to stay in that world. If a book wraps things up but still leaves a door ajar, I’m a happy camper. 🙂

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  16. I’ll admit, I would have liked a wake of some sort in HP to acknowledge the severe losses, but I understand why Rowling did what she did, and I didn’t mind. (Not like I minded in LOTR, anyway.) Readers spent so much time with these characters; many wanted to know how their lives turned out. I also think she had series fatigue and wanted to close the door on the saga so she couldn’t come back to it. (Didn’t work out that way, but I can see her wanting to say a definitive THE END to that world.)

    I’m reminded of Animal House, when the screen froze on each major character and we got a line or two about who they grew up to be. I enjoyed those blurbs every bit as much as the movie itself. (And now you all know my viewing tastes aren’t limited to literary masterpieces like Casablanca. I’m not embarrassed to own that.)

    Love this advice, Craig. Excellent post and series.

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  18. Well noted. Think it’s time to bring that resounding end to my stories instead of just a slip-through end. I’ve seen series with nasty endings that left the audience wondering why they wasted all the 5 to 15 or so years watching the show and I agree with you, when you succeed to trapping the reader’s interest, you should end your story in a more fulfilling way to them. Some writers just like killing characters headloosely, including the good one and it makes the reader feel crazily sad. Thanks for shading light on what a good ending would look like, from your viewpoint.

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