The Three Acts: Act Three
Follows: Act Two
This series of three essays will be detailing the basic plot points that make up the three act structure, and identifying the patterns that naturally occur throughout a story. This essay deals with Act Three.
The third act is the completion of the story; showing how the conflicts involving the characters are resolved. The overall situation, and elements thereof that make up the story, are concluded. Some strands of the narrative can be left open, either for sequels or just to demonstrate that life is not always neat and tidy, but the main story arc needs to end here.
Within Act Three there are four key elements, just as there were in the first act. These bring the story to an end, and if one element is missing the third act will feel lacklustre and unfinished. As with the first act, they do not need to be at the end of the story as you can move the narrative around, as Quentin Tarantino did in Reservoir Dogs (and pretty much every film he has made since).
At the end of Act Two the plot reached the main culmination, and the protagonist has effectively reached their destination, whether that was physically, emotionally or spiritually. At the beginning of the third act a new tension is introduced, as the subplot that was running throughout the second act collides with the main plot.
In Stephen King’s The Shining, the main plot has dealt with Jack’s descent into madness. The subplot has involved his son, Danny, who has psychic abilities. At the end of the second act Jack is locked in a pantry, but for the first time the hotel shows it can control matter by unlocking the door and letting Jack out in exchange for him agreeing to kill his wife and son. Danny is able to send Dick Hallorann a psychic message to come and save him from his father. The new tension is then introduced as Jack goes to murder his family, whilst Dick races to the hotel to try and save them.
As a result of the new tension, and the main and subplots coming together, the story takes a turn. The level of twist can be anything from a minor adjustment to a complete about change in everything that has happened before; it is entirely up to you as the writer.
In the Usual Suspects, Dave Kujan has been interrogating Verbal Kint. The subplot of Agent Jack Baer’s investigation into the aftermath of the boat massacre crashes into the main plot of the interrogation, including the flashbacks, as the only survivor is able to describe Keyser Söze to a sketch artist. That sketch comes through as Dave Kujan notices the information on his wall that Verbal has been staring at throughout the film. Spoiler alert! The twist, therefore, is that the entire main plot was a lie, and Verbal is actually Keyser Söze.
In True Grit by Charles Portis the twist comes as Mattie, the protagonist, fires a rifle and the recoil causes her to fall into a mineshaft, where she is bitten by a snake. Rooster Cogburn has to ride throughout the night to get to a doctor and save her life. This results in her losing an arm, although that final element was left out of the film adaptation starring John Wayne. The fact that Rooster saves her shows he cares more than just about money, demonstrating his change in character.
After the twist, the story all comes together. The final culmination is that big moment we have all been waiting for. In Star Wars, this is where they attack the Death Star, destroy it, and save the galaxy. We’ve known it was coming all along, we’ve waited for it, we need this scene. The hero and the villain face off for a final showdown which will end the story completely.
In the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, the story follows Ma and Jack, who live in and eventually escape from a room in the back garden of the man who has held Ma captive, Jack’s father. As Jack is young he is able to adapt to normal life, eventually, even though he has never been beyond that room, yet Ma struggles with the outside world. The Final Culmination comes as Jack asks to go back to the room, and Ma takes him to see it. Jack realises the room which had been his whole world is in fact incredibly small, and is surprised at how his horizons have expanded so much. He says goodbye to the room for the last time – as does Ma – and they can finally, together, leave it behind them.
This is where a new status quo is established, much like at the beginning of Act One. The story has finished. The characters may have changed, the world may have changed, but the story itself has now reached its conclusion and we are left with the new normal.
For Mattie in True Grit this is her, as an adult, alone, with one arm, discovering the man who saved her life, Rooster Cogburn, has died. In the Usual Suspects it is the final realisation that Keyser Söze got away with his crimes, as he always does, but now his face is known to the authorities.
You don’t need to resolve everything, as long as the particular story you are telling is completed. The Shining by Stephen King leaves some plot threads open, and the film by Stanley Kubrick even more so, but the main threat of the story, Jack Torrance, is dead. Whether what possessed him – be that the hotel, or something else – is still out there, is of no consequence. The boy and his mother are safe. That is the resolution.
These points need to occur within Act Three, as the others did in both Act One and Act Two. That will give your story a sense of completion, of being whole. If ever you find something is lacking, but you can’t put your finger on it, return to these key plot points and establish what you missed.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.