Classic Third Act Blunders Newbie Writers Make... and Exactly How To Fix Them

Classic Third Act Blunders

Ensure that you are not falling prey to the traps so many writers make in writing their final act.

The third act of a script can be a challenge for any writer to tackle. No matter what genre you work in, the third act is the culmination of a script’s preceding pages: it’s the writer’s responsibility to bring the story home and leave their audience with a satisfying conclusion.

These final pages are an opportunity to leave your reader with a sense of finality and can often make or break a script. To stick the landing, a writer must have a keen sense of their work’s overarching character and story, while giving readers a clear resolution. That being said, there are three common, identifiable mistakes that readers often make in the third act that, if corrected, can easily make a script stronger and more dynamic.

1) Introducing New Problems

It can be tempting to use the final pages of your script to introduce a new character or plot point. Before you do this, however, take a moment to glance over your screenplay from an audience’s perspective. At this point in the story, they should be emotionally engaged and invested in seeing the story you’ve told them come to a thrilling conclusion. Do they really want to meet that new character this late in the game? Does a new, tangential subplot deepen or improve their understanding of the story?

Most likely, the answer is “no.” The third act of a script should be a clean, streamlined race to the finish. This race should also seek to resolve your character’s internal and external conflicts and tie-up any loose ends. By populating these final few pages with new subplots or characters, you take the risk of distracting your intended audience with information that has little emotional value to them.

Instead, use the third act as an opportunity to work with the tools you already have. The characters and storylines you implement in these final pages should have been introduced in Acts One and Two. By using pre-established elements rather than introducing new ones, you lower the risk of confusing your audience and putting them off your ending.

2) The Action Pile-Up

One of the most common issues present in many third acts is the “action pile-up” or “bottleneck.” Since the climax is the moment of greatest tension in a story, it’s tempting to heap loads of action onto the final pages of the script. These “bottlenecks” are often intended to be sequences of high drama and tension, but can often end up feeling over-plotted, cluttered or show-horned in. They can even dramatically stunt the pacing of your screenplay.

These “bottlenecks” come in all forms; but one of the most common and recognizable iterations of this problem come as extended, overwritten action sequences. Often, these sequences lean heavily on plot detail and machinations, while skimping on emotional engagement. It’s easy to lose track of our characters amid non-stop spectacle.

When you write your climax, it’s important that you take care to make sure your character’s motivations remain clear. That way, audiences can maintain a clear sense of who they are tracking throughout the action. The most thrilling climax sequences take care to involve us in the protagonist’s emotional stakes, without losing us in the minutia of the climax.

Whether your final pages revolve around an intergalactic space battle or an attempted gatecrash at a riverboat wedding, it is vital that your audience have a clear sense of the stakes at hand. Your audience wants to understand what your character’s goals are in these final pages, and why its important to accomplish them. These elements need to shine in your climax, and it’s important that big set pieces don’t overshadow them. 

3) Not Tying Character Arc to Resolution

Movies live and die by their characters. Characters are your audience’s entry point to the story; they’re what your readers emotionally engage with. When your reader turns to that final page of your script and reads “FADE OUT”, they hopefully come away with a connection to your character’s overall arc.

This however, can’t happen if you don’t tie your character’s arc to the resolution of the story. When your protagonist defeats the bad guy, or finds the hidden treasure, they need to do so by overcoming their central character flaw. This not only makes your characters more relatable, but also gives your ending emotional stakes.

Say, for example, that your protagonist is cripplingly shy; it’s the character flaw that prevents them from succeeding in life and getting what they want. It’s important that the climax of the story involves them overcoming their shyness and getting what they want: it could be a love interest, a debate team trophy or the recognition of their peers.

If you fail to tie your character’s arc to the story resolution, you run the risk of losing the emotional engagement of your audience. Readers might be drawn to your script by an intriguing logline or the promise of spectacle, but they stay for your characters. By making your character’s growth intrinsic to your story’s ending, you create a more dynamic, involving note to leave readers off on.

By taking care to identify and correct these common third act problems, you greatly improve your chances of creating an emotionally resonant and a more satisfying closure for your script, and ultimately for your audience too.

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