by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
I’ve lost count of the number of writers I’ve consulted with who got stuck after the second act of their script and never finished it. At first glance, this may seem surprising to those who couldn’t imagine stopping after getting through the drudges of the lengthy second act. But most of us know that it’s the third act of the story that audiences remember.
You may love or hate M. Night Shyamalan, but as he evidences in his latest film, Split, he’s one writer who gets the power of a grand finale. Audiences care about how they feel when they walk out of the theater. They can love your opening scene, stay engaged through every beat of your character’s struggle, but if things don’t feel right in the last half hour of the film, even the most devoted cinema lover will be disappointed – and that pressure can be enough to keep a writer from committing to an ending. Here are three age-old remedies for the third act blues.
1. GO BACK TO THE FUTURE
Most writers get stuck on the third act because of a problem with their first act. They end up trying to answer a question that was never really asked at the beginning of the story. One way to avoid this issue is to outline the entire story you are telling before writing your first FADE IN.
However, even the most seasoned writers run into problems where the execution of the story led to a different place than what was originally planned. Sometimes, even with all the right intentions we end up at the end of the second act and are not sure exactly how things should go. Returning back to the first act almost invariably addresses the issue. You cannot pay off what you did not set up well.
If we pay close attention to the first act in La La Land, the third act is clear from the beginning, but it never keeps us from enjoying the journey along the way. Similarly, we know how things will turn out in the third act of Patriot’s Day, if we are familiar with the historical event. However, it’s the thematic questions asked about who the characters are in the first act that must be addressed to complete the story for the audience. In many ways, good stories are somewhat circular. We return to the gaps we begin with, fill them, and only then is our story complete.
2. DELIVER ON THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
Some stories make grand promises in their trailers, posters, and online ads. If we see Tom Cruise running in the trailer, we expect to see him jump out of or into something exploding when we go see the film. If we see Charlie Day on a poster, we expect he will get himself into and then promptly out of some serious trouble – we just want to know how. Most stories give us some indication of what we can expect to feel at the end of the story. Great dramas may promise challenge, heartache, or inspiration. Comedies always promise laughs. Horror films promise jumps and scares. Action films promise adrenaline. Knowing what the genre of your story is acts as the first step in getting some idea of what your film should promise.
However, this is only a place to start. Sleepless promises lots of car chases, shoot outs, and general bad assery from Jamie Foxx. But we also expect to see him overcome the villain and live to fight another day in the third act. Why Him? promises laughs by the load from its two incompatible main characters, but we also expect to see them find a way to get a long for the sake of the woman they both love in the third act. Jackie promises insight into the complexity of the woman’s life. Even with a story many viewers are familiar with, the writer manages to convey the promised insights. Whatever your story has promised in the first two acts, or should have promised, the third act must now deliver on.
3. PLAN(T) A SURPRISE
Suppose you don’t want to deliver what your audience expects in the third act. Suppose you want to hit them with something they don’t see coming. First, know that audiences are very picky about the surprises they like. They can often get upset when a writer gives them the unexpected in the third act. However, when executed well, a surprise in the third act can have more emotional impact than any other ending.
The key to a successful surprise in the third act is to plant evidence along the way. Audiences love to feel like they had clues all along, but never picked them up. This can be tough to deliver on, however, as audiences have also become so savvy that burying clues has become a real challenge. When looking at your own story, ask yourself what the audience would never expect in the third act? What would be the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist? Is there a character in your story who could turn out not to be who we believed he or she was all along?
Edward Norton’s third act reveal in Primal Fear launched his career, as did M. Night Shyamalan’s in The Sixth Sense. Audiences didn’t respond so kindly when Shyamalan used the same technique with The Village, however. The third act surprise can be a tightrope. Proceed with caution.
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.