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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.

 

Act One: Drumming Out Your Beat Sheet

Films are undoubtedly a visual medium, and a powerful one, but they aren’t born that way. Every film starts off as a script, and what lies within the pages of your screenplay determines or defies the quality of its visual twin.

You should sequence your story into manageable, bite-sized portions, which when transferred to screen, will look as seamless as they read. As readers, we don’t stop to question the nature of these steps, they usually do their job and do it well; they cajole us into turning the page.

In screenwriting, you’ve got about ten pages to capture an executive’s attention; seriously, no more and maybe less before they continue slogging through the slush pile.

The key to success? You’ve got to open with a bang. Ten pages isn’t much, so you really need to give us something to react to, something big. Remember Lost, by J.J Abrams and Damon Lindelof? The first scene opens to the protagonist coming to on a jungle floor. That’s enough to get us asking questions, but when he makes it out onto a beach, we’re slapped in the face with the answer: a crashed plane, an exploding engine, people screaming, getting blown up. All within three minutes of screen time. That’s all it takes for the audience to get hooked. In features, the first act comprises of about twenty or thirty minutes’ screen time, the written equivalent of which is thirty pages.

This is where a beat sheet comes in handy. Beats determine the mission and scope of each of your scenes, they’re like touchpoints to hit. Great if you do, but they’re not the end of you or your script if you don’t. Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is probably the most comprehensive, the ones you should tick off your Act I checklist:

Opening Image

This is perhaps one of the most important beats of your script. The first scene acts as a hook to catch the reader/viewer’s attention.
The opening image of Jurassic Park sets the premise immediately. Man versus Beast. In Gone Girl, a wife snuggles up to her husband whilst he tells us (via voiceover) how he pictures cracking his wife’s head open and pooling her brains for answers. This is genius in the way it points to the film’s major premise. Is he mad? What answers is she hiding?
The opening image should make us ask that question, what’s going to happen? And we don’t want to be spoon-fed the answer either, we want to be strung out, wherein lies the suffering, lies the pleasure.

Set-up

This is where you lay the foundation for your story. Where is the story set? What is the character missing from his/her life? What is the film going to be about? Essentially, you are presenting the protagonist’s world to the viewer as it is before the call to adventure.

Theme Stated

The theme usually appears in the set-up, and is the underlying message of a film, spoken aloud to the protagonist to challenge the way they think. It’s a message that usually falls flat on the main character in the beginning, because they don’t have enough context or personal experience with it to yet understand its value. In other words, the character is oblivious to it. In Jaws, Brody’s wife waves him off to work, telling him to be careful and he laughs it off. “In this town?” Right.

Gravity‘s theme is pretty straightforward: Ryan needs to let go. We see this figuratively and literally throughout the film. Ryan has to let go of her daughter’s death, just like she’s got to let go of Matt, in order to survive. In 500 Days of Summer, Tom is hopelessly optimistic about Summer, but it’s his sister who sets up the theme of the film by pointing out that just because Summer shares certain aspects in common with him, this doesn’t make her his soulmate, a truth Tom painfully comes to terms with.

Catalyst

Otherwise known as the Inciting Incident, or call to adventure, the catalyst is the first event or action that will show that change is coming for the character. That life as he or she (or it) knows it, will end. In Shawshank Redemption, Red puts his money on Andy to crack during his first night in his cell, but Andy stands his ground and doesn’t make a peep. Inglorious Basterds’ catalyst hits when Lander asks LaPadite if he’s harboring the Dreyfuses under his floorboards. His family won’t come to harm’s way if he collaborates, setting Shosanna’s fate into motion.

Debate

Usually there is some debate surrounding the character’s catalyst. Should I leave my nice comfy hobbit hole to go on what appears to be a suicide mission? Wouldn’t I be safer here, eating crumpets and sipping tea? But not all debates revolve around a character’s departure. In the Hunger Games, for example, the debate is not whether Katniss will participate in the games (she doesn’t have a choice) but if she’ll win. That’s why it’s important you have a general idea of these beats, but don’t use them to define your screenplay.

Break into Two

This is the end of act one. It’s the ultimate game-changer that will propel your character into act two, the cataclysmic decision, the point of no return. Usually there’s new surroundings to be explored and it’s the driving force that carries the protagonist into act two and dumps him in harm’s way. In Jaws, the hunt is on once a reward is put in place for catching the killer shark. In Django Unchained, Dr Schultz cuts Django a-I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine deal he can’t refuse. In Juno, the protagonist ponders over abortion, but then decides to give the baby up for adoption.

Remember this is just a formula, it’s not THE formula. A template designed to help, but never restrict you. Each writer finds their groove as they go along, so it’s absolutely fine to take all this on board with a pinch of salt. If you don’t put the catalyst on exactly page number twelve, the script police aren’t going to beat down your door and batter you senseless with a heavy duty script guide. Like I said in my previous article, your story is unique, and sometimes the rules are there to be broken.