The Third Act can make or break your screenplay. As films explore new territory in terms of plot and storytelling, the craft of writing them becomes more of a challenge.
Julius Neelley has been a documentary film editor, screenwriter, and playwright since 1976. This insightful article originally appeared in Script magazine's September 2002 issue.
It was usually a western or a whodunit that lured us down to the neighborhood movie theater on a Saturday afternoon to see the latest double bill. What kept us on the edge of our seats until “The End” appeared was that final chase or shootout when the bad man received his just deserts and the good guys saved the day. It was a predictable but crowd-pleasing moment. This basic dramatic premise of resolving all dilemmas may still be in place today; but as films explore new territory in terms of plot and storytelling, the craft of writing them becomes more of a challenge.
High Noon builds to an interesting surprise at the climax, but it was Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven that ended on more somber notes than the traditional western. While it’s true that every page of a great script must be original, insightful, and, to quote Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that dreams are made of,” the fact remains that the Third Act can make or break a screenplay. It should also be noted that endings are merely an element (albeit a very important one) of the Third Act.
With the traditional three-act structure, the Third Act represents the final quarter of the script. Triggered by a plot point approximately three fourths into a script, we expect the Third Act will keep the viewer hooked and resolve all the elements set in motion by the screenwriter.
First, let’s consider endings or the resolution we expect a film to deliver by the Third Act. Depending upon the genre, variations certainly exist for working out the plotline, the conflicts, and the relationships between characters. Examples abound. Hollywood’s B-movies are classic examples of utilizing a swift and certain climax followed by an appropriate denouement. In Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Miles Bennell escapes with his soul intact and is able to convince the authorities that an invasion of earth is underway.
In Double Indemnity the suspicions between the partners in crime have led to their downfall. Phyllis Dietrichson meets her just reward, and Walter Neff is about to pay the ultimate price for his dastardly deeds as he dictates his final words into the record. After the main character’s arrest for multiple murders in Psycho, the ending presents a tidy explanation of what went wrong in Norman Bates’ mind followed by the frightening realization that his persona has slipped into the nether regions of consciousness. The ending makes it clear that madness has claimed Norman (at least until a sequel comes along).
The action/adventure epic is another genre that by the third act usually has a hero facing the final threshold or darkest danger before achieving a rousing victory. No matter what their era or costume, in the Third Act virtually everyone from Rob Roy and Luke Skywalker to John McClane and Indiana Jones follows this route. A rousing fight or explosive exchange usually tops things off. But it’s the unexpected twist in plot or character arc that captures our attention. In Thelma and Louise, their journey of discovery turns darker and their options shrink; but when they end their lives rather than face the consequences of their actions, their perspective takes on new meaning. We now know that Louise and Thelma are playing for keeps and refuse to suffer the slings and arrows of misfortune that society throws their way.
It’s often said we can learn as much from bad movies as the great ones. If so, then it’s the predictable and formulaic film that simply tacks on a continuation of the chase or an escalation of the conflict as the Third Act. These endings simply send up a barrage of cinematic fireworks. Tepid movies such as Hollow Man pile on more of the same exaggerated danger and violence and/or special effects. What remains is a third act that underlines the weaknesses in a poor script or hackneyed concept. The engulfing flames or deafening explosions may dazzle the audience, but a narrative is little served by merely escalating what has gone before. Even a conventional drama must utilize more than a rise in the frequency and volume of dramatic outbursts. Potboiler is appropriately the term used to describe such works.
Surprise hits at the box office represent another category of film that finds an audience and keeps them coming back. Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire are examples, and one element that keeps the Third Act fresh is the subplot. In Home Alone the subplot is the elderly neighbor, Old Man Marley, who has been depicted as an ominous axe murderer. In the Third Act, Kevin discovers he is really a lonely man estranged from his family and encourages him to make amends. In Mrs. Doubtfire, it is Daniel Hillard’s attempt to apply his eccentric personality to a meaningful career. By turning his life around in this manner, he will also be judged more stable financially and emotionally in the eyes of the court and gain legitimate access to his children which is his goal. Subplots keep these films alive and add a dimension to the main character’s dilemma that gives the stories more meaning.
Even classic dramas utilize this technique. The subplot in Sunset Boulevard follows the main character’s development of a script with another writer who has also become a love interest. This subplot is designed to intersect with the main storyline— the trap Joe has fallen into with Norma Desmond. When these two storylines meet, his relationship with Norma reaches a climax and he takes steps to end it and return to his original ideals. But it’s too late; walking out on Norma proves to be a mistake, and with a bullet in his back, he gets only as far as the swimming pool. In To Kill A Mockingbird the subplot focuses on the fear and mystery generated by a reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. By Act Three, the final crisis is triggered by an act of revenge on the part of those who are angry at Atticus and his attempt to defend an innocent man. When his children are attacked, it is Boo who ironically comes to their rescue. This secondary character re-emerges, and the subplot is resolved. Despite the peculiar aspect of his character, we have now come to respect Boo because of his heroic act. The main theme of racial intolerance has been expanded by the awareness that’s shed on another form of prejudice.
Act Three has another basic tool available to the screenwriter. It is the reversal or in many cases the transformation. Sometimes as a form of irony, sometimes as an element of surprise, a reversal of expectations in the plot or main character makes us think twice about what has come before. The premise of The French Lieutenant’s Woman covers a variety of aspects of human nature including identity and perception. But it is truly a striking study of contrasts between 19th and 20th century morals and the people who must deal with them. A woman struggling to find herself and her talents must choose between the man she loves and the identity she seeks to find in Victorian England when a woman’s role was very restricted.
Playing the roles of these two characters in a movie are their 20th century counterparts. This contemporary man and woman have the more open society (and the legal option of divorce) to work within as they carry on an affair during the course of the film’s shooting. At the outcome, the 19th century characters have been reunited despite the emotional and societal obstacles in their way, and their modern day counterparts have ended their relationship. It is a reversal of expectations since the viewer makes the assumption that it’s the relationship facing the more difficult obstacles that is doomed. By the film’s end, the title character has found her calling, her “freedom” as she puts it. But she has also been reunited with the man who gave up his reputation to be with her. Their love endures while the modern couple’s intentions have been thwarted.
A completely different genre, the futuristic satire, offers another method for reversing our expectations. In 1985’s Brazil, the hunter becomes the hunted. The main character, Lowry, starts out as a Walter Mittylike figure with grandiose dreams of soaring on wings while being the sword of justice. Soon he’s pursuing the woman of his fantasies who has come to life and is simply trying to right a bureaucratic wrong. Through a series of blunders and misrepresentations, by the Third Act he is transformed from a lowly government paper-pusher to one who challenges authority. At the film’s end is when we realize his escape from the totalitarian state was pure imagination.
Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown’s ending had to be defended against the studio’s insistence that it be more upbeat. It proved to be a victory for the director’s vision. The reversals planted throughout the script further underline the importance of remaining consistent in tone. While his mother is transformed into a young woman after a succession of plastic surgeries, her best friend suffers a bout of complications that turn her into a pool of jellied sludge. Reversals need to follow logic inherent in the story or concept. Other examples of reversals that remain consistent in tone are the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink and Polanski’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
To examine a classic in more depth, let’s look at Chinatown. Not only is Robert Towne’s script a perfect melding of character and plot, but it also serves as a model of structure. Syd Field maps out the film’s plot points on a paradigm chart in The Screenwriter’s Workbook as an example of the three-act format. In order to set the stage, we should understand that the story centers on murder, incest, and greed. At plot point two, Jake Gittes discovers who, in fact, has been buying up San Fernando Valley land as water and land development scandal unfolds in the middle of a drought. He knows the water scandal is linked to the murder of Hollis Mulwray, who was director of Water and Power for the City of Los Angeles. But the police suspect Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn, whose father, Noah Cross, once owned the L.A. water supply along with Mulwray.
The story and character relationships reach a climax in Act Three in the form of a revelation from Evelyn. In this scene, which has become both famous and notoriously satirized, Evelyn admits that the girl she has been hiding (who Jake assumed was her husband’s mistress) is really her sister... and her daughter. As a result, Jake can now link Noah Cross to the murder, the land and water development scheme, AND the mystery that Evelyn has been hiding from the world most of her life. But the character revelation that has made this scene memorable is only part of its importance. Just before it concludes, Evelyn corrects her assumption that the glasses Jake has shown her belonged to her husband by saying “Hollis didn’t wear bifocals.” This means the glasses lost during the struggle that led to Hollis’ death belonged to someone else. With the most crucial piece of the puzzle now in his hands, Jake knows that Noah Cross is the culprit.
But character revelation in Act Three of Chinatown is a tricky business. My favorite example appears earlier, just after Jake and Evelyn have become lovers. In contrast to the incidents of a very personal nature revealed later, it is what they are determined to hide from each other in this scene that gives the characters depth. They conceal their deep emotional wounds in order to protect themselves from the past. As a result, their fate is sealed. Jake will not talk about an incident that occurred on his watch in the Chinatown division. At first he dismisses the experience as bad luck and then admits more by saying “I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt.” This also serves as an ironic foreshadowing of what will take place the very next night. With Evelyn the secrets are much more deeply embedded in her psyche. Once she knows Jake has met her father Evelyn is compelled to reveal more about him. She admits that Cross is a threat by saying, “Now, my father is a very dangerous man. You don’t know how dangerous... you don’t know how crazy.” The conversation must end there because Evelyn has a crisis on her hands. Her daughter, Catherine, has just found out that the man who helped raise her, Hollis, has died. This was another secret that Evelyn has been keeping from her. By the next fateful night, as Evelyn prepares to return to Mexico in order that Catherine never knows the identity of her real father, tragedy strikes. The final curtain sees the villains in control and the truly innocent in their clutches, literally.
But let’s back up a minute and examine what else might be going on here. It is generally accepted that the true sign of great writing is the layers of meaning ascribed to the page whether it be novels, theater or film. Therefore, it is upon repeated viewing of these scenes that the nuances and inferences are detected. What has always concerned me about the outcome in Chinatown is the hubris or just plain stupidity on the part of Jake. After two murders, a knife wound to his face, and an attempt on his life, wouldn’t Jake have the sense to take all precautions when it came to dealing with the cause of it all, i.e. Noah Cross? When he asks to meet Cross in order to confront him with the evidence, it is at night at Evelyn’s empty house. Does he expect this dangerous and crazy man to turn himself him? Within a minute of questioning him, Jake has a gun pointed to his head and is forced to give up the location of Evelyn who is trying to escape. Jake’s assistants are told to meet him there, in Chinatown. Jake does not trust the police (Evelyn is convinced her father “owns” the police). If we are meant to psychoanalyze a fictional character, perhaps it is Jake’s manner of righting the past that leads to his mistake. If he can personally apprehend Cross, he will have the saved the day. But more importantly, he will have joined the forces of good in the world which could nullify the cynical and hack detective work that now defines his life. Despite uncovering the truth, Jake loses everything (his reputation, Evelyn, and her daughter). Evil triumphs, a reversal we hoped would never come.
It is the well-rounded character that makes the difference in any screenplay and ultimately determines its fate. The complexities of a character that are revealed when the plotline is running out prove to be essential in that Third Act. Jake’s failure to think things through may be his Achilles’ heel, but the result is an emotionally riveting ending made even more memorable by those final words that imply the power of corruption is inevitable. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” says Walsh. And life must somehow go on.