Three Act Structure: Act III

The reader takes an additional interest in act three from plot point three, which shifts the plotline of act two. Where will this shift lead, the reader asks. Does the protagonist have a chance of reaching her story goal after all? Act three is primarily composed of the climactic sequence and, afterwards, fairly brief resolutions of the subplots. Great stories offer a lengthy climactic sequence, otherwise readers feel cheated: you mean I waited all this time for the battle between the hero and villain and it was no more than a brief skirmish! This story is lame, the reader concludes. Thus, act three is the beginning of the end, and might be regarded as one long sequence leading up to that battle in such stories. Bilbo Baggins has reached the Lonely Mountain, the dwelling of Smaug. Isn’t this the beginning of the end, the long sequence of confronting Smaug and slaying the evil monster? Batman finds the Joker, but is caught. He must first escape his bindings before a blade slices him in half. Then he must thwart Joker’s plan finally. Then he must beat Joker in a physical confrontation. Or the story consists of an inmate wrongly imprisoned and suffering various abuses within the jail. His goal is to escape. Act three begins with the long sequence of the night of his escape. Plot point two half-way through act two was his decision to escape, and the second half of act two was his planning for it. Plot point three was his decision to escape tonight.

What really helps any action sequence, including this one, are reversals. These are changes of the protagonist’s fate, flipping the direction between whether the protagonist will and will not achieve his story goal. In the grand hall where Smaug sleeps, Bilbo’s goal is to steal the Arkenstone. He can walk very quietly, as he’s a hobbit. Good, he’ll achieve his goal. But the treasure he walks on is loose; items tumble, making a noise; Smaug awakes—a reversal of Bilbo’s fate. He will not successfully steal the stone. Yet, the dragon does not kill Bilbo immediately, but engages him in dialogue. Bilbo spots the stone, and while Smaug looks away, the hobbit snatches it. Another reversal: Bilbo will succeed in the theft. But wait, the angered dragon vomits fire, which will fry the smuggler. Reversal. But, Bilbo uses the ring and becomes invisible. The dragon cannot see him. Reversal. But, Smaug has astute hearing, so the hobbit cannot simply walk out. Reversal. This volleyball effect creates a great deal of suspense. Many stories have been told with action sequences using reversals. Imagine a car chase, and you can easily enumerate the standard reversals. Action sequences become dull with cliché reversals. An author should make the extra effort to create unique ones, which will make act three far more engaging and memorable.

Once the protagonist achieves her story goal, what’s left? Shouldn’t the story end there? There are two problems with that approach. First, the reader just experienced an intense sequence, and needs time to calm down, at least a little. Second, what about resolution in the other stories (B,C, and D), the subplots? Beating the villain may have paved the way for resolution in the subplots, but more likely isn’t the resolution. A father rescues his daughter from a kidnapping, where the climactic sequence is storming the kidnapper’s hideout and shooting the villain through the skull. But a subplot was the father’s strained relationship with his daughter. If he would have spent less time at work, she would not have wandered off with a dubious friend, leading to her kidnapping. On their way home, the father now apologizes to his daughter, vowing to work less. Killing the villain paved the way to this resolution, as the father now has the opportunity to make the apology. But the apology is a distinct action from killing the villain. During this apology scene, the final scene in the story, the reader not only gets resolution of the subplot, but can also calm down—a much better ending point.