Monday, July 16, 2018

Act Three: And It All Comes to This

Before we get into structure, let me say this: The most important part of act three should be the reader turning pages furiously, unwilling to put the book down even though it’s well past two in the morning on a work night. If the reader isn’t desperate to see where this goes, act two might need a little more tension and build-up.

Therefore, the first part of act three should be the final conflict stage, where our main character becomes the hero by facing up to that final challenge. If she is seeking the reason behind her husband’s death, the final clue clicks into place to set act three into motion. If he has been looking for his long-lost birth parents, this is where the opportunity comes to meet them – or turn away. This is where the intrepid heroes confront the guardian at the gate, overcome their fears, and resolve the greatest obstacle of the book. But that’s not everything.

Most authors have no problem writing that final conflict – sometimes that’s the first scene they put to paper. But the third act is more than just a big emotional crescendo or battle to the death. For a novel to become a great novel, this is also the part where subplots are resolved and loose ends are tied up – the dénouement for you literary fiends. 

Too often, attention goes to the big resolving moment but the supporting events are left to float. This leaves the reader screaming, “Did Jackie’s friend ever make up with them?” or “Aren’t they still suspects for that crime back on page 226?” This mistake can leave a reader very disappointed in the entire work simply because subplots were not resolved or addressed. As the saying goes, four-hundred brilliantly written pages can be ruined by twenty bad pages.

Lastly, a story will benefit by encapsulating how the character we know at the end has grown from the one we met in the first chapter. If their adventure took them on a different course than expected, does the character appreciate that new journey? What parts of their life are changed forever? Is this for better or worse? Action movies can get away with the good guy blowing up the bad guy and walking away from the fireball as the credits roll, but novels are far too in-depth and intimate to get away with that. After a few hundred pages, the reader will be parting ways with this character, and they will want to know how life will continue. At the very least, they want to know if the character is still conflicted.

In Jack Schaefer’s Western masterpiece, Shane, the story builds around the internal conflict of the title character, who is walking away from a life of violence. The tension builds externally as the characters around him fall prey to the notorious Luke Fletcher’s plans to grab all the land, which plays on Shane’s struggle to resist going back to the ways of his past. We learn about Shane in act one, and act two does an excellent job of bringing the situation to a boil. But act three isn't just about solving the external issue.

Act three brings us the final showdown between Shane against Fletcher and his men, but this is far from the concluding moment. This ends the source of external conflict in a pretty quick gunfight, but there's the internal battle. Shane loses his internal battle to put aside his violent ways. In his speech to the narrator, young Bob Starrett, he brings out the morality of the situation and explains how he must leave as a result of what happened. It’s far from a happy ending, but we feel satisfied that Shane has accepted what he did and could live with the consequences. (The movie version with Alan Ladd suggests a different ending, but that’s not for this blog.)

Probably the most difficult part of writing act three is making sure everything is tied up where it’s supposed to be, the plot lines are resolved, and the reader is satisfied (or intrigued if this is a series or a sequel is planned). Conclusions are difficult to write because the author already knows all the ins and outs of the story. In the author’s mind, everything is concluded, so why not on paper as well? That’s when the writing process becomes critical – the part where we take special care to note what we needed to say, where we remember all the things we wrote and rewrote, and take special care of our process.

Guess what the next post will be about…

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