Act Three in your screenplay — the final act — is the race to the finish line. It’s a fast-paced, high stakes push toward the climax, which ideally should be a direct confrontation between your Protagonist and your Antagonist.Here’s a few characteristics of a great Act Three:
- You should include at least one payoff from a setup in Act One. Remember how Billy Wilder said if there’s something wrong with your Act Three, it’s actually your Act One? The two are inextricably linked. That character who couldn’t stand on their own in Act One? Now they MUST stand totally alone in Act Three and fight for their life. And maybe (hint) they will meet up with some of the same characters and situations that defeated them earlier in the story, say, in Act One?
- Your Protagonist MUST drive Act Three with their actions/decisions. Even if they are the inactive, reactive wimp previous to now, now is the time for them to take action. A common beginner mistake I see is when a secondary character shows up in the climax and saves the day for the Protagonist, achieving their goal for them (basically, a Deus Ex Machina). Don’t do this.
- Act Three is the shortest act. It can be only 10-20 pages if you’d like; it doesn’t have to be a full 30 pages. It’s interesting to see how Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard from 1950 broke down perfectly into modern movie timing: 30-60-20. Slight variations on this are fine, but keep the pace moving and try to make your Act Three more complex than JUST the final battle scene between hero and villain.
- Consider the audience! Ask yourself what they will want to see? If this is a film about a narcissistic, germaphobic and homophobic man unable to love, then maybe he should risk everything, invite his gay neighbor to live with him and kiss the woman he loves? If this is a movie about a kid who gets beat up by bullies at school who know karate, maybe he should beat the big bad guy in a karate tournament? If this is the story of a guy who goes on a cattle run to be a “real” cowboy, then the big climax could be him roping a calf from a raging river! These are just ideas off the top of my head, of course. 🙂
There will be more analysis of Act Three in my book Story Maps: How to write a GREAT Screenplay.
Good Luck and Happy Third-Acting,