The Third Act: The Grand Finale
So, you’ve reached the end. It’s time for your protagonist to give us their last sweeping wave before the curtain falls and the lights come back on.
Hopefully you’re planning on going out with a bang, but before you dust off your hands completely, there are a few things you should know.
What goes inside the third act?
The Resolution Stage
Final Confrontation: Victory or Defeat
Based on the resolution section of the script, this act is usually the shortest (between 20 and 30 pages) it’s the final twist or metaphorical battle, and then the return to home or normality (though life for the main character will never be the same again–definition of a successful character arc).
This is what Snyder would call the Break Into Three. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Here your story will reach its final twist, the moment everyone’s been waiting for since you unleashed the inciting incident. It’s the climax of the story, the final battle. Your character has been pursuing a goal throughout the entire second act, and now they’ll either get it, or they’ll change the goal to coordinate better with the theme, i.e. the moral lesson they’ve learnt. If you ended the second act on a low point, now it’s time for your character to get back off the ground and re-group.
During the final confrontation, the main character is forced to reexamine their beliefs. They will put everything she or he has learnt over the course of the film to good use to defeat the antagonist, always incorporating and exposing the nugget of truth, the film’s overall theme. In the Hunger Games, Katniss stops obeying the game’s rules, and starts to fight back herself, using what politics she’s learnt during the first and second act. Instead of murdering Peeta, she tricks the capitol into thinking they’d rather kill themselves by eating poisonous berries, when in fact it’s a survival tactic.
Character Arc in the Third Act
Another determining factor of the third act is the character, unlike in the second act where they’re surrounded by other characters, will mostly work alone (in the absence of their mentor) against the antagonist. In the Silence of the Lambs, Clarice has to stop Buffalo Bill by herself, because the police have gone to the wrong place and Hannibal, her “mentor” didn’t hang about long to help her.
Basically, your audience has witnessed your character go through hell and back, and now they’re waiting for the reassurance that it wasn’t all for nothing, that your character has beaten the odds and grown because of it, developed in some positive way.
Normally, this character arc is represented through a mirror effect. For example, if the character’s flaw in the beginning was to lie or connive, in the third act the character will do exactly the opposite of his/her previous nature.
Denouement (the Afterward)
The resolution at the very end will give us a glimpse of the new status quo, or the state of your protagonist’s life after all has been said and done. In the Hunger Games, the ending isn’t Katniss and Peeta defying the capitol with the berries, it’s Katniss and Peeta back in District 12 as the crowning victors, hinting at the change in Katniss as she struggles to familiarize herself with her surroundings.
This–very short–section ties up any of the film’s loose ends and answers lingering questions about the plotline.
It’s Blake Snyder’s final image. It’s what he calls the opposite of the opening image, the final shot that demonstrates the absolute mirror change that has occurred. In Pride and Prejudice, the opening image has Lizzie walking through the grounds of her father’s cottage, alone with her head stuck in a book. One of the final images of this film sees her walking at dawn, still alone, but then Darcy comes striding out the mist towards her. She’s no longer alone, and more than that, she’s completely changed since the opening. She’s less proud and quick to judge.
Script to Screen
Scripts which transition into films will most certainly go through test screenings to gauge the audience reaction so that producers can decide whether or not they’ll be a box office hit. Third acts and character arcs are often changed as a result of a negative test screening.
In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott was pressured to change Ford’s Character into a more ironic, upbeat version than his original, darker self. This eventually affected the ending, in which the original dark ending was changed into a more upbeat one to reflect Ford’s character. Instead of dooming the entire human race, the ending scene touches on a hopeful ending in the sunshine.
In Pretty in Pink, according to the original script, Andie’s character arc saw her develop feelings for Duckie, whose own unrequited love for her form the emotional bulk of the film. But when tested on audiences, this romantic development wasn’t at all favoured, and so Blane and Andie end up together. Receiving mixed reviews, some thought this made Andie’s character slightly more realistic and less fickle, because she continues to like the same character she did in the beginning, and still appreciates Duckie’s relationship.
Hancock was originally a script entitled, Tonight, he comes, and Hancock’s character was much darker, dabbling between alcoholism and depression. The end result, produced nearly a decade after the script was written, became a much lighter, quirkier version than its predecessor, all for story purpose.
Elena Alston is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes about technology, screenwriting, culture and travel–and has a knack for bringing brands to life with words. There are two things she can’t live without: books and the sea. Not necessarily in that order.