Act three of your novel is your thrilling conclusion, the place where the action hits its peak and the final push toward the conclusion. In a lot of works, act three is where everything is at fever pitch, and you’re hitting the point of no return. So what do you need to include in order for this to have its punch?
Back to the Beat Sheet, the third act is three “beats” (unlike the last two acts which are five and seven, respectively), which should say something about its length. At the end of act two, your character should be at the lowest point of their journey. The beat just before act three is aptly titled “Dark Night of the Soul” and has the main character(s) facing off against the fact that everything they thought they knew, everything they thought they’d reached for, and the goal they had set their sights on at the midpoint has come apart. It’s all a mess, and they should be at the end of their fraying rope over a pit of metaphorical (or maybe even literal) tigers.
If act one is all about setting things up, and act two is about demolishing them, then act three is about picking up the pieces and setting them upright again. Or at least some of them. Some of the pieces might need to stay down for future books or they may be parts that don’t get rebuilt as the characters drive into the future. It’s also about the realization of your theme.
If act one is all about setting things up, and act two is about demolishing them, then act three is about picking up the pieces and setting them upright again.E. Prybylski
I know a lot of us don’t like literary theory much. I find a lot of it pretty pompous and self-important, but the theme of your work should be something you include. This theme doesn’t need to be something about humanity or something earthshattering. In fact, it might just be about your character’s development. If the theme of your book is your main character coming to grips with a certain thing in their world, that’s totally all right.
The reason I say this is because in the third act, we need that theme to be fully realized in order to contrast it to the beginning of the book. The world should look different to the main character now than it did at the outset. Or at least I should hope so. While cozy mystery series like Nancy Drew and Murder She Wrote have neither the main character nor the setting change much, they’re the exception rather than the rule. In terms of nonfiction, the conclusion of your story should reinforce the thesis, which is your theme. Fiction is the same in that way. Your conclusion should reinforce your theme.
Now, the job of act three is to give readers a satisfying climax to the questions you’ve been asking all through the book. It’s where the threads you’ve been picking at are put back together, and you solve whatever riddle the main character has been beating their head against for the rest of the story. In a murder mystery novel, it’s where the main character puts the pieces together and comes to understand the case in a new way.
According to the Beat Sheet, the break into act three is caused by some kind of revelation. Whether it’s a new (or lost) ally arriving, new information, a new idea, some fresh perspective on the problem, the main characters put their heads together and come up with something they missed during the collapse at the end of act two. Or perhaps they just decide to dust themselves off and get back up and try again. Either way, they pull themselves out of the dark space of the “Dark Night of the Soul” and come at the antagonist or problem with renewed vigor. This is the moment where hope comes back after having been strangled just following the midpoint.
With hope having returned and this fresh idea in their heads, the main characters charge into confronting whtatever the primary conflict is. In a romance, maybe they deal with the ex they’ve been being haunted by and fully decide to invest in their new relationship. In a fantasy novel, maybe they find a different way into the BBEG’s (Big Bad Evil Guy) castle with some unexpected allies. There are many ways to frame this, but you get the jist. Which leads us to the Finale. During this finale, the main characters will use all the things they’ve gained over the course of the story to fuel their success. I go into this assuming success because I, for one, prefer happy endings. They absolutely can fail during the finale, but their journey should still be about using the tools they’ve collected through the course of the rest of the story. Otherwise, why did they do it?
During this finale, the main characters will use all the things they’ve gained over the course of the story to fuel their success.E. Prybylski
Whether this end run succeeds or not, it should kind of give nods to the rest of the book. Think of it like in Avengers: Endgame when all their friends come back to defeat Thanos. You see all the characters and nods to various moments throughout the series all sort of channelled into that one moment. And viewers experience the feels of seeing all those moments come up into a single space. I’ll admit, I cried. That’s what your finale should do. Pull together all the pieces into a final push and let the reader see back through it.
To give you a great example of a finale moment that sticks out in my mind, in V for Vendetta when the dominos fall and Finch is talking about how he recognized the pattern and people start donning the Guy Fawkes masks. It’s a perfect example of pulling in all the threads that have been laid out through the rest of the movie. That scene still gives me chills when I watch it (I re-watched it in preparation for this blog). That’s the feel you want to go for.
Then, at the very end, the last moments, the final scene should stand in contrast to the opening image. Show how the world has changed. Show the difference in the characters and world. Now, in a book series, this change may not be as drastic as it might be in a stand alone. You might be changing things in the world a little slower than you might in a stand-alone novel, but there still should be differences in the world and the characters, even if they’re not as stark. Or, maybe you want your starting novel to take the world and turn it upside down and inside out. That’s all right, too. Series writing is a different blog, though.
And for the love of all that’s holy, unholy, and covered in dill pickle relish please do not use a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are wretched things unless you have a very specific date it’s going to be alleviated, and there’s a guarantee of the next book. (E.g. Changes by Jim Butcher). While we had to wait awhile for the next book, we knew there would be one because it was in the midst of a very well-established series.
And for the love of all that’s holy, unholy, and covered in dill pickle relish please do not use a cliffhanger.E. Prybylski
Cliffhangers are best reserved for television when you know the show will be on next week. But using them at the end of a season (when there may not be a next one) or early on in your book series is a bad idea. Ultimately, I strongly advise against their use at all, but that’s just me. That said, not every thread has to be tied up neat as a pin. In fact, you might not want to tie some of them up at all. But at least the story should be finished here. The part you’ve been writing should come to some sort of conclusion, even if that conclusion isn’t the end. If you offer no satisfaction whatsoever, your reader will have wasted their time. And they will be furious. (Game of Thrones fans, this is a nod to you.)
In the end, the function of the third act is just that: the end. Even if you are writing a series, you should be able to put the story down here and never have another book and leave the reader feeling as though they haven’t been shooed away from the table without dessert.