4 Ways to Tackle the Third Act of Your Screenplay

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

A great deal of ink has been spilled about endings – in life, in all things we begin, and certainly in writing. Most of us are interested in finishing well. But how does one accomplish such a thing in storytelling? An entire volume could be written about the connection between a good ending and a good beginning, but that’s for another time. For now, here are four approaches for tackling the final act in your story with grace and finesse. Keep in mind, each approach will depend on the particulars of your script and the genre you are working in.

1. THE DIRECT APPROACH

Sometimes, there’s no better way to end things than to give the audience exactly what they’ve been waiting for. Direct combat between the protagonist and antagonistic forces is a must when working in the genres of horror, sports stories, adventure, or war epics. In the final act of Sully, we see our hero pilot go head to head with forces hell-bent on questioning his judgement and ruining his reputation. The James Bond franchise ends nearly every one of their stories with this approach. Friday Night Lights and Rocky have memorable conclusions as a result of using the same tactic. Hell or High Water, The Silence of the Lambs, and Alien all put their protagonists in a mortal battle with their enemies in the third act.

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2. THE REVELATION APPROACH

The great reveal can be one of the most satisfying yet tricky endings to pull off in all of storytelling. It’s only successful when the audience is given enough information that they should have seen the revelation coming, yet not so much that they’ve already guessed what the revelation is. The genres of mystery, thriller, and suspense all usually supply plenty of revelatory third acts. M. Night Shyamalan is perhaps the most beloved and hated of the third act revelators. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village shocked, enchanted, and disappointed different fans with their third act reveals. Edward Norton’s revelation at the end of Primal Fear boosted his career to new levels. The reveals in the final moments of Chinatown, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects have become iconic moments in our culture. The Truman Show and Spotlight both contain third act reveals that were subtler but still greatly effective.

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3. THE APPLICATION APPROACH

A character’s arc is often verbalized in a story by talking about what they’ve learned over the course of the tale. Most films don’t do this as directly as Dorothy’s monologue does in the third act of The Wizard of Oz. However, the approach is still often used and highly effective. Seeing a character apply what they’ve learned (which is usually the theme of the story) can warm an audience’s heart and even bring them to tears. This third act approach is consistently found in the comedy genre. Shallow Hal, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty are all examples. However, dramas also use this approach to great effect. 8 Mile, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stand By Me all feature final acts where characters apply what they have learned over the course of the narrative. Perhaps the reason this approach works so well is its wide range of applications. Groundhog Day uses it. Catch Me If You Can does as well. And The King’s Speech won Oscar gold with this approach.

4. THE AFTERMATH APPROACH

This is a more advanced technique where the audience is given a dénouement at the end of the third act. Stories exploring the aftermath of a given climax, must first have a climax worth exploring. The aftermath is often the cherry on top of the sundae. For example, after the dramatic climax in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we still have a scene where we see Indiana Jones frustrated with the results of the story and even a final moment where we are privy to the fate of the ark. In the The Shawshank Redemption, we see the reuniting of the two main characters after Andy’s climactic escape. The Green Mile, Schindler’s List, Back to the Future, and Good Will Hunting all contain powerful scenes at the end of their third acts that have stuck in the memory of their audiences for years after the credits rolled.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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