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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.

 

The Script Board: A Guide to Screenwriting

Developing your idea

Every creative journey starts with an idea. That little spark that strikes when you least expect it. A flash of the unknown. A scenario that makes you stop and think, did I really imagine that? Is it a leaking box in the boot of a car? Five beautiful virgins with suicidal tendencies?

Perhaps it’s a character who walked, fully-fledged and wonderfully flawed one day into the confines of your head. Whether he’s a whip-wielding archaeology lecturer with a flair for enraging Nazis, or she’s more of a wall-flower with a deep-rooted depression, you’ve got the start of something, and now you need to get it down on paper.

You’re probably raring to write, fingers quivering over the keyboard, ready to dive head-first into scene number one. It’s understandable. But before you start filling your head with plot points, conflicts and the real brain teasers–the aptly named: ‘Save-the-Cat’ moments, you’ll want to have at least a rough idea–the vaguest of notions– of what your script will be about, and how it will end.

If you start writing before you’ve figured at least this out, things will get messy. You’ll get frustrated. Writing without a plan is like an architect building without a blueprint, you can try to build on vision alone, but all those extra hours of planning you skipped in the beginning are guaranteed to come back and haunt you later.

To increase your chances of success, you’re going to need a step-by-step outline of your story. There’s no way round this, no shortcut, I’m afraid. Besides, this is the one process where you’re allowed to be as mad and as inventive as you like. If you want to add that roof sauna with the jet propulsion you’ve always wanted, go ahead. It can’t be budget-cut at this stage.

The Key Elements

The best way to know whether you’re on the right track, is to make sure that your story includes the three most important elements of storytelling. If you look at any film, Hollywood or otherwise, they all share these pivotal aspects in common:

  • Your protagonist (well, duh!). Every story needs a protagonist, someone the audience can root for, a central character your story revolves around.
  • Your protagonist’s objective. What does your character want? Frodo Baggins wants to destroy Sauron’s evil ring, Jerry Lundegaard (Fargo) wants quick cash in hand, and Clarice Starling, from Silence of the Lambs, wants to catch serial killer Buffalo Bill. Your protagonist’s objective is the driving force of the entire production. There is no story without it.
  • Conflict. Conflict includes all the obstacles your protagonist must overcome in order to reach their objective, usually put in place by your antagonist, whose own objectives will clash with your protagonist’s. Example: Sauron doesn’t want his ring liquefied in lava, so he’ll move hordes of orcs across Middle Earth to stop Frodo. Marge Gunderson, on the other hand, isn’t about to let Jerry get away with his crime scot-free, and Lecter sure as hell isn’t going to give up Bill’s identity without making Clarice fight for it. Conflict exists to threaten your character’s objective. It’s necessary to raise the stakes. Harry Potter wouldn’t be half so fun without Voldemort forever one-upping him, and Little Miss Sunshine would lack poignancy if Edwin hadn’t keeled over during the last leg of their journey.

The Roadmap

So where does structure come into the mix?

Simply put, structure dictates the order of events that guide the hero toward his or her objective. If you look at any storyline, you’ll see that the protagonist goes from A to B to C. In layman’s terms, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Most scripts nowadays follow the three-act structure, a formula which Syd Field, author of the Foundations of Screenwriting, claims is the glue that holds most screenplays together. This is the roadmap, and whether it’s a sketched diagram of plot points or a dozen index cards blu-tacked to your wall, it will save you a whole lot of re-writing (and tearing your hair out) later.

Although there is no formula which will magically turn your idea into an earth-shattering, Oscar-winning script (that comes from within, from the dusty cobwebby depths of your mind), having a solid structure in place can (and will) guide you in the right direction. If we break Field’s paradigm down, it looks something like this:

 

Act IAct IIAct III
Beginning pp. 1 – 30 Set UpMiddle pp. 30 – 90 ConfrontationEnd pp. 90 – 120 Resolution

 

The first act, as you can see, is the set up. You’ve got thirty pages to introduce your character, expose setting and lay the groundwork for the film’s plotline. In this act you’ll also include the inciting incident, the push to adventure, the point of no return.

The second act is the confrontation. This is where most of the action goes down, where your character will get a taste of the dangers to come, where everything will go wrong, and where your character loses all hope of achieving his/her objective.

The third act is the resolution. It’s the last leg of your character’s journey where the odds will turn and your protagonist will come out triumphant (or not, if you’re Scorsese). It’s where your plot reaches its maximum tension and there is an emotional or physical confrontation.

Be warned!

Many writers just starting out confuse story with structure. We’ve all done it. We’ve all changed our protagonist’s ultimate choice, because it didn’t fit in with the structure. Beware.

Plot and structure are not the same thing. Structure is applied to your story later on, once you’ve figured out the basics. What you need to know right now is your premise, your pitch. Before Harry ever got his Hogwarts letter (the inciting incident, otherwise known as the ‘Call to Adventure’), J. K. Rowling knew Harry was a wizard, and that he’d attend a wizarding school and defeat the dark lord who killed his parents. That was her story. All those red herrings dotted around Snape and Quirrell came later, structural additions which added layers of complexity to the story.

This is the layout every script should have. You probably know most of this intuitively, but now go over your story and double-check. Do you know your character’s main objective? What about the obstacles? Are they clear in your mind’s eye?

Story is the backbone of every successful script. Once you’ve got your premise sorted, you’re free to move onto the technical side, formatting.

Events

Out Loud – The IMIS Screenplay Table Read

Come join us at our exciting new event which features a table read of short screenplays and extracts from our second table read contest!

Selected for Table Read:

Misapprehended – Dorcas Agbogun

2 Shrugs and a Hug – Rasheka Christie

The Sun Will Set – Kevin McCarthy

Flesh and Blood – James Murphy

Reflection – Nick Padmore

Sweet Spot – Yoav Rosenberg

Spatium – Devin Tupper

 

Why Should You Come?

  • Identify flaws in your own work in the read-through
  • Get and give valuable constructive feedback
  • Sharpen your screencraft skills
  • Support your colleague’s work
  • Be inspired by storytelling
  • Network and meet other screenwriters, producers, directors and filmmakers!

Tickets Available:

  1. This is a FREE event to anyone who would like to attend so please invite your friends!

Out Loud – The IMIS Screenplay Table Read

We are presenting a great opportunity in which your written material can come to life for the first time! Come join us at our exciting new event which features a table read of short screenplays and extracts, and give a voice to your characters. Submit your work on our website and take a shot at being picked for reading or simply join us on the evening and support your colleagues. Submissions and attendance to this event are free!

Submissions Are Now Closed!

Selected works will:
  • be read out loud to an audience by a professional cast or readers
  • receive constructive feedback on the night
  • come to life in a supportive environment

Why do a Table Read?

  • Identify flaws for yourself in the read-through
  • Get and give valuable constructive feedback
  • Sharpen your screencraft skills
  • Network

And most important of all: The joy of hearing your words come to life!

Tickets Available:

  1. This is a FREE event to anyone who would like to attend.

Finding a Theme: A Workshop on Bringing Your Narrative Together

Join us as screenwriter and story design consultant, Rick Harvey walks you through the steps of writing a theme whilst exploring its importance and often-overlooked powers in this interactive workshop.

He will address the ins and outs of what themes are about and where they belong in the writing process. In particular, he will look at:

  • Theme as a unifying element of a narrative
  • Theme as a means of establishing an emotional engagement with a reader /
    audience
  • Theme as a means of establishing/connecting to a writer’s voice

Since this is a workshop, we advise you to bring along your own project to get the most out of this session.

Come along to this gem of an event, meet new people and get some insight into the ins and outs of successful theme writing.

About Rick Harvey:

Rick is a Cambridge-based screenwriter, story design consultant, lecturer and mentor.

Since attaining an MA Screenwriting & Research qualification from the London College of Communication in 2001, he has storylined for ‘Family Affairs’ (Talkback Thames/Channel 5), developed projects for Hewland International and Frenzy Films, written a slate of short films and spec features, mentored on First Light, Media Box and BFI projects and written and developed feature screenplays for EON Productions.

He was trained by the UK Film Council to devise, develop and deliver industry-standard courses on screenwriting and cross-platform story design, and he lectures regularly on various aspects of the writing process.

Rick is currently developing, ‘Beautiful Bodies’, an eight-part serial for TV, writing a Folk Horror feature narrative, Inheritance, and overseeing the MA in Filmmaking at Raindance.

Tickets Available:

  1. General Admission: This ticket is open to any non-member of IMIS.
  2. IMIS Member Ticket: Once logged in to the website, this allows the user the ability to attend the event for free. Limit one per person. No need to register for livestream.
  3. Livestream Ticket: This ticket allows you to watch the recording live and indefinitely afterwards. A link will be sent to you before the event.