The third act


The third act. Finally, I am here. The second act–or the middle build–was, at times, a real slog. And no doubt I’ll be re-visiting that section in the weeks and months to come to add more depth and narrative, and to tie up loose ends. But for now I’m celebrating arriving at the final part of my novel. This is where it all comes together. It starts with an inciting incident (the third plot point) and doesn't let up until the climactic moment almost at the very end.

To start my third act journey, I’ve just run through my scene index cards again in Scrivener. It’s been mixed a day of excitedly adding more colour to scene and sequel descriptions combined with periods of staring out of the window looking for answers. There’s a lot to consider. As KM Weiland points out: “By the time the third act is finished, all the salient questions must be answered, the conflicts resolved one way or another, and the reader left with a feeling of satisfaction.”

There has to be both resolution and a cliff-hanger

As an added complication I need to think strategically how this novel finishes because it is the first in a trilogy. There has to be both resolution and a cliff-hanger. It has to be a standalone book in its own right, but also leave the reader with reasons to come back for more. Ellen Brock suggests “a cliff-hanger that occurs after the climax is totally fine. If the character has clearly succeeded or clearly failed at their goal, and then they discover a new obstacle or exciting bit of information in the denouement (the falling action) that is totally fine.”

I want my final act to be a firework display of action and emotion: the reader enjoying one explosive moment after another but still building to a crescendo. Brian Klems provides three guidelines for a compelling ending. First, the protagonist must step up and take the lead. It’s no longer about things happening to him (if it ever was), he must drive the plot forward. Second, the protagonist must grow internally and over come his inner demon. And third, the protagonist must demonstrate courage, creativity or even brilliance to achieve resolution. Brian adds “… make the reader cry, make her cheer and applaud, make her remember, make her feel…”

All the more reason to make sure my characters are whole and my plot watertight

Robert Wood stresses it is important not to linger after the climax. That “the best thing you can do is blow their minds then run away” and “the more post-climax events you can let go, the more amazing the climax becomes”. It will be interesting to see how I balance creating a cliff-hanger after the climax with learning to let go of the story. To a certain extent I need to trust that my readers will figure out what lies ahead, all the more reason to make sure my characters are whole and my plot watertight.

And finally I love this advice from A R Beckert “the climax is not about the plot […] it should always be the crux of the character’s arc of growth.” I’ll keep reminding myself to take a step back and think about my protagonist’s arc as the climax builds and resolves. This is good advice for the other main characters too although I’m thinking some of my character’s arcs can grow more in the next two books.

It will be an exciting journey–for my protagonist, for all characters and for me. Let the third act commence!

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