Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Act Three

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars, Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland)

We’ve now reached Act Three in my in-depth look at story structure.  Act Three is of course the ending of your movie.  You want to make sure you end with a bang.  There’s a saying: the first ten pages are the most important part of a screenplay and the last ten minutes are the most important part of a movie.  That’s because you need to grab the reader up front to sell a screenplay, but a movie audience will largely judge a film on how it ends.

Or so the theory goes.  To be safe, I’d make sure your screenplay has both a strong beginning and ending.  Grab ‘em early and leave ‘em with a “wow.”   This means, just like in the opening of your movie, you don’t want to bog down Act Three with a lot of exposition or subplot.  The whole movie has been building to this point – everything should already be set up.  Act Three is the time to pay it off.


The first thing that usually happens in Act Three is we get a sequence that shows the aftermath of the Act Two Break.  This is why I don’t like to call the Act Two Break the “lowest moment.”  More often things go downhill from the failure of Act Two for a while.  The actual lowest moment usually comes just before the Epiphany.

For example, in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) we see Joe packing up to go on the run with Jerry yet again.  Joe will have to discard his disguises and leave Sugar behind.  We see him mourn this lost love as they’re throwing clothes into their suitcases. 

In a movie where the Dramatic Question is going to be answered in the negative, this is reversed.  The character celebrates their victory from the end of Act Two.  So in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) after the family successfully gets Olive to the pageant, Olive gets to meet Miss California and learns Miss California eats ice cream, which makes Olive very happy.

The aftermath sequence gives the audience an emotional payoff to the failure or success of the Act Two Break and emphasizes the consequences.

The Epiphany

When the character has really hit rock bottom (or the height of their success), that’s when the Epiphany comes.  This is the twist that shows us how the character is going to succeed (or fail) after all.  For example, in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) the Epiphany is the briefing scene when the general explains the weakness in the Death Star.  Luke now knows how he can beat Darth Vader.  Most often the character themselves has the realization, but sometimes the character has already figured it out and it’s the audience who’s let in on the secret.

It’s important here that you avoid the Deus Ex Machina ending.  This is an ending where some outside force saves the day for the character.  The term comes from Aristotle and means literally “god in the machine” referring to those ancient plays where an actor playing Zeus would be lowered in a basket to sort everything out for the characters.  A more modern equivalent would be the cavalry to the rescue in a western.  Endings where the character succeeds by pure luck also fall into this category.

To avoid this, the Epiphany must be set up.  Whatever realization the character has must be planted, usually around the midpoint.  We know Princess Leia has put something into R2D2.  Luke has rescued Leia and brought her and the ‘droid back to the rebels.  When it is revealed that the robot contains the Death Star plans and that these reveal a weakness, it feels organic because the elements have been planted and Luke was critical to bringing them together.  But the audience was kept in the dark just enough so that they didn’t know how this twist would come about.

In Some Like It Hot, the epiphany is when Joe exposes himself to confess his love to Sugar and kiss her on stage.  He realizes he’s no longer the carefree playboy; that he’s actually fallen for her.  He can’t leave her behind.  In Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) Columbus decides to go after Wichita despite the fact that she’s rejected him.  

In Little Miss Sunshine the epiphany is when Richard realizes he loves Olive more than he cares about winning.  He wants to stop her from competing in the pageant for fear she’ll be humiliated.  He hasn’t quite figured out how he’s going to succeed (Olive does compete) but he’s had the key realization he needs for the Resolution.

The Resolution

The Resolution is the climax of the movie.  It should be big and exciting and emotional.  It is also the moment when the Dramatic Question is answered either positively or negatively.  Thus it is what we’ve been waiting for since the Catalyst.

In addition to making this a big moment, it is crucial that you make it a final moment.  The Dramatic Question must be answered definitively.  If our hero can just go out and try again, then we don’t feel like the question is resolved.  The Resolution must be the last chance for success or failure.  If Luke can’t destroy the Death Star then the rebellion will be crushed.  It’s not just another battle; it’s the climactic battle.

The resolution is usually pretty obvious.  Luke destroys the Death Star.  Joe, Jerry and Sugar escape the mob. Columbus rescues Wichita from the zombies.  In Little Miss Sunshine Richard gets up onstage with Olive and dances with her in support, and in defiance of the pageant people who want Olive off the stage.  Olive may lose the pageant, answering the Dramatic Question in the negative, but the family has come together.

The Resolution in the mythology structure spelled out by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey) is called the Final Conflict and operates the same way.  But this is also the point where the hero becomes Master of Both Worlds – the normal world and the special world.  Luke is a successful space adventurer and he’s found a new family among the rebels.


Once you’ve answered the Dramatic Question, your story is over.  However, you may want to wrap up a few loose ends or give the audience a little emotional closure with a final scene or two. This is the Denouement.  In Star Wars we see a medal ceremony where the heroes bask in their victory and smile lovingly at each other. 

This is fine as long as it doesn’t go on too long.  If your script continues more than a few pages after the Dramatic Question has been resolved, then your reader will start to wonder why they’re still reading.  They’ll feel the script is anti-climactic or has multiple endings.  Once you’re story is done, get to FADE OUT as soon as you can!

And with that, I’ll wrap up this post before you accuse me of going on too long.


Janet said...

Act Three is much more involved. Suggest Kal Bashir's 510+ stage hero's journey over at ; Act III has lots of twists, even in the movies you quote (Little Miss Sunshine, Some Like It Hot etc).

Unknown said...

Thanks for this series of posts, Doug. It's been very helpful!

Doug Eboch said...

I find the 510 stage thing to be okay for analyzing movies but not very useful for writing them.