The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 9: The Third Act
The third act is the moment we’ve all been waiting for—readers, writers, and characters alike. This final section of the story is the point. It’s what we’ve been building up to all this time. If the first and second acts were engaging and aesthetic labyrinths, the third act is where X marks the spot. We’ve found the treasure. Now it’s time to start digging.
Like all the other acts, the third act opens with a bang, but unlike the other acts, it never lets up. From the 75% mark on, the characters and the readers alike are in for a wild ride. All the threads we’ve been weaving up to this point must now be artfully tied together. The main character must finally face (and presumably overcome) the antagonistic force by way of first learning from and then overcoming his own internal conflict. By the time the third act is finished, all the salient questions must be answered, the conflict resolved one way or another, and the reader left with a feeling of satisfaction.
Because the third act is made up of several important and intricate parts, I’ll be splitting it into three sections, which we’ll discuss in three posts. Today, let’s look at the third act as a whole and, specifically, the plot point that marks its beginning.
What is the third act?
The third act is a place of no escape for the protagonist. He’s been backed up to a wall. He no longer has any options but to face the antagonistic force. All his reactions and actions in the previous acts have led him to a point from which he must face every last one of his weaknesses and mistakes. If he’s to triumph, he must allow himself to be broken by them—and then rise from his ashes with new wisdom and strength. This is do-or-die territory. When he makes his last bid to obtain his story-long goal and his deepest inner need (which may or may not be the same thing, and, indeed, may even be antithetical), he’s putting all his cards on the table. If he doesn’t win now, he never will. That, of course, means the stakes have to be ratcheted to the breaking point. The third act is all about raising those stakes.
The third act will begin with another life-changing plot point. This plot point, more than any of those that have preceded it, will set the protagonist’s feet on the path toward the final conflict in the climax. From here on in, your clattering dominoes form a straight line as your protagonist hurtles toward his inevitable clash with the antagonistic force. The third act, as a whole, is full of big and important scenes, so by comparison its opening plot point is often less defined than the plot points that marked the first and second acts. However, its thrust must be just adamant.
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the third act is launched when Ra’s Al Ghul announces his intentions to destroy Gotham, then burns Bruce Wayne’s mansion and leaves him for dead. In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the third act’s opening plot point is the announcement that, for the first time in history, two contestants can win if they’re both from the same district, which then prompts Katniss to find Peeta. In True Grit by Charles Portis, the third act revolves around Mattie’s discovery of the murderer Tom Chaney and her subsequent capture by Ned Pepper’s gang of outlaws.
Where does the third act belong?
The third act occupies the final third of the book, beginning around or slightly before the 75% mark and continuing until the end. This is a relatively small portion of the book, particularly when you think about all that must be accomplished within it. One of the reasons the third act picks up the pace compared to the previous acts is the simple necessity of cramming in everything that needs to be addressed before the book runs out of time and space.
All the characters (and other important playing pieces, à la the Maltese Falcon) must be assembled. Subplots must be satisfactorily tied off. Foreshadowing must be fulfilled. Both the hero and the antagonist (if there is one) must have time to put into play the final aspects of their plans. The hero must face his inner demons and complete his character arc, most likely in concert with the final deciding conflict between the hero and the antagonistic force. And then everything must be tied off in a satisfying denouement. That’s a lot to accomplish in a mere 25% of the book, so there’s no time to waste. In the third act, we can see one of the primary benefits of structure: for the story to work, all the pieces in the first and second acts must be properly in place to lay the necessary foundation for the finale.
Lessons from film and literature
The third act is where the masters rise above the mediocre, and we can see this nowhere more clearly than in the stories that have wowed us with their endings. Our four exemplary books and movies definitely qualify.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): The third act opens with the dramatic discovery of Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham. As with the previous major plot points at the 25% and 50% marks, this one is a game changer. The Bennets’ lives will never be the same, not only personally with their loss of and worry for their youngest member, but also publicly since
Lydia’s scandalous behavior will almost certainly ruin the other sisters’ ability to marry well. Even more importantly to Lizzy, she fears that Darcy’s abrupt behavior toward her after he hears the news is an indication she’s lost, once and for all, any chance she had of regaining his love. As a woman in early 19th century England, Lizzy isn’t capable of taking direct action to personally rectify the situation. But she does what she can by immediately leaving Lambton with her aunt and uncle and returning home to her stricken family.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): The second act ends with Uncle Billy’s losing the Building & Loan’s $8,000 and George’s frantic attempts to recover it. In most stories that plot point would be more than dramatic enough to open the third act. But in this classic film, the third act opens with an even stronger change of events: the appearance of the angel Clarence, who was foreshadowed in the opening, and his granting of George’s wish to “never be born.” The third act is made up almost entirely of Clarence’s action and George’s reactions. The antagonist isn’t even present in the unborn sequence that fills up most of the third act (although his presence looms large). The focus here is entirely on George’s inner journey and transformation.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): When Ender is forced into the lethal confrontation with Bonzo, he is also forced to the breaking point. The time has come for Ender to leave Battle School and step up to command Dragon Army in a larger arena. But after Bonzo’s death, the commanders realize they’re on the brink of losing the boy they’ve spent so much time and effort grooming to save the world from the Formic aliens. Ender is given permission to return to Earth to visit his beloved sister Valentine. While there, he must make the decision that will change not only the fate of the world, but also his own life. From the moment he decides to move forward, return to space, and take his promotion, events are sent into the irrevocable spiral that will lead up to the climax.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): When a convalescent Stephen, set loose upon his long-anticipated and long-delayed Galapagos expedition, accidentally discovers the Acheron at anchor on the far side of the island, the third act launches in a flurry of preparations. Jack formulates his plan to lure the enemy privateer in close enough for the kill, and his crew hurries to get everything ready for the battle we’ve all known was coming since the very first scene.
As always, our best lessons are those we learn from the execution of great stories. So what can we glean from our chosen stories? How do they go about setting up and implementing the lengthy to-do list of the third act?
1. The third act begins around the 75% mark, although this timing is more flexible than it was with the previous acts. Sometimes the third act can begin as early as the 70% mark, although it rarely begins later than the 75% mark.
2. A major plot point marks the end of the second act and the beginning of the third. This may be an utter upheaval of the gains the character thought he made in the second half of the second act (as in Pride & Prejudice), an unexpected event (as in It’s a Wonderful Life), a personal decision (as in Ender’s Game), or a direct meeting between protagonist and antagonist (as in Master and Commander).
3. From its opening plot point onward, the third act picks up speed and isn’t likely to slow down.
4. However, the third act must be thoughtful enough in its first moments to allow all the pieces to either be completely tied off and set out of the way (such as Ender’s relationship with his sister) or assembled for the showdown (as in Master and Commander).
The third act is where stories are made or ruined. Everything that’s come before is important, but this is where the author’s mettle is tested. If we can deliver a solid third act, we’ve accomplished what thousands of novelists before us (even published ones) have failed to do. This is where writers become authors!