The Resolution: Writing The Third Act Of Your Screenplay
What To Include In Act III
Writing the third act is easy, you simply need to resolve your story, tie up all the loose strings of your subplots, answer the dramatic question raised in Act I and complete the transformation of your main character – and there should be a killer climax in there! Sounds daunting? We’ll coach you through the elements of Act III:
- The Fix: After their epiphany at the end of Act II, your hero now realizes how they can fix everything, their problems, and their character.
- Finale: This is the big moment to which you’ve been building up all along – the final battle. In terms of The Hero’s Journey, this is the fight where the hero dies and is resurrected again transformed.
- Closing Image: A shot that mirrors the opening on your hero, only now you show them as a reborn person after their transformation.
In dialectic terms, the third act is the concluding synthesis of the thesis, the status quo in the first act, and the antithesis, the inversion in the second act. The finale or climax must bring all problems, both external and internal, to their most intense point. For your story’s ending to satisfy the audience, you must answer the dramatic questions raised in an engaging and resonating way.
Remember your hero’s epiphany at the end of Act II where they realized that it was their inner struggles holding them back? In a breakthrough moment, they realize how they can overcome that. The Fix represents the acceptance of the hero’s flawed self and a resulting decision towards a solution. You can do this in a single scene that sets up the longer finale.
If Act III is roughly 25 percent of your movie, the finale takes up most of that with nearly 20 percent screentime. It’s essential not to rush to the climax or deliver a simple, predictable win for your hero. The way to achieve this as is a screenwriter is through more ups and downs, or rather with another twist. After The Fix, the solution takes shape as a plan, which you can choose to show before the finale or not.
In short, you break the finale down into these steps: the hero gathers their strength or otherwise prepares; the plan is put in motion; a twist reveals the plan as is cannot work; the hero (figuratively) dies and is resurrected; after which they alter the plan to succeed at the end.
In the approach to the climax, your hero prepares by gathering the necessary tools, which depending on your genre can mean weapons, maps, supplies, or information. If they don’t face their last battle alone, they need a team. At this point, your main character makes amends with A Story characters they’ve alienated before. Once the plan is put in motion, the audience and characters hold their breath if they can achieve the impossible. Secondary characters begin to “take one for the team” and drop off, sacrificing either themselves or their chance towards the common goal – another raising of the stakes for the protagonist.
Enter the final surprise or twist: the hero has stepped into a trap or detects an oversight in the plan. This can be a big reveal (Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense was dead the whole time!), a dramatic plummet of the winning odds (Mark hears from NASA that the ascent vehicle is too heavy in The Martian), or any other Your Princess Is In Another Castle moment.
What follows must be a reaction by the main character. Once more they assess their situation, however briefly: defeat or giving up are real possibilities. The theme of your story comes into play. What is it that your hero needs to do or realize? They overcome their inner problems and demonstrate their inner change, completing their transformation. Screenwriters also refer to this moment as the touch of the divine. The hero’s realization of their own mortality is a common theme, but so are love, faith, or responsibility. In terms of The Hero’s Journey, death and resurrection occur. In the final test, the old hero dies, and the new one is born.
At the climax of the finale, the hero triumphs. They’ve altered the plan, put it to use and succeed. The ultimate reward awaits. It’s up to you as a screenwriter to make that reward metaphorical or literal, but let it represent three things: success, change, and proof. The hero has reached the goal (external resolution), become a transformed person (internal resolution), and completed the (only) path that could get them there (resolution of the journey). Tying up all loose ends is also called denouement.
In the first act, you’ve shown the hero in their status quo before the journey, their world before they changed. Now, all the tension from the climax has dissipated. Let the audience see the transformation. For the contrast between before and after, you can use the familiar surroundings of the first act. The classic ending to The Hero’s Journey is the return to home, where things will never be the same again before the hero has come back resurrected.
The Closing Image can be a single scene or a series of scenes, but the mirror effect between Act I and III works best if you dedicate an equal amount of screentime for opening and closing images. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted and his son Billy eat breakfast together, same as they did the first morning after Joanna left. The series of Closing Image scenes concludes in the elevator with the doors closing (literally and figuratively), mirroring the day when Joanna walked out on her husband and her old life.
Act III Checklist
Not sure if the conclusion of your screenplay is a complete resolution? Check your screenwriting:
- The Fix
Your hero learns the theme and makes a decision.
The Fix will change the hero the right way.
Your finale has ups and downs and isn’t a straightforward race to the finish line.
After the twist, your hero demonstrates how they’ve changed.
Your external and internal story cross during the finale.
You answer the dramatic question(s) posed in Act I.
- Closing Image
You show (don’t tell!) the completed transformation of your hero.
This final image is a mirror of the hero in Act I.
The closing image offers indeed closure (or leaves with a cliffhanger).
- 5 Elements Of A Great Screenplay – We’ll show you what all great stories have in common and how you can create interesting, well-rounded main characters.
- Save the Cat! – The sections for each act in this series are largely based on the three-act story beats developed by screenwriting lecturer Blake Snyder (as well as The Hero’s Journey).
- The Hero’s Journey – Mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about his life and work and his monomyth, the hero’s journey, with acclaimed artists such as filmmaker David Kennard.
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