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So if you remember from last week, we left you at the beginning of the third act. Your hero was at his/her lowest point. They may have been fired from their job, lost the girl, been captured, or their best alien friend in the world who loves Reeses Pieces may have kicked the bucket. On top of that, they’ve destroyed all of their relationships, usually because of insecurities, stubbornness or focusing on their pursuit rather than those closest to them.
Where the hell do we go from here with our story?
It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? When you’re at the bottom, the only way to go is up.
But before we go up, it’s important to note that the third act is the shortest act of the three, and will land somewhere between 20-25 pages. You don’t want to linger forever in the third act. The audience isn’t interested in drawing anything out at this point. Once we get out of the low point, things have to move.
So assuming a 110 page screenplay. Your final act will look closest to this…
First sequence of Third Act: 85-98 (this week’s sequence)
Second sequence of Third Act: 99-110
Don’t freak out if it doesn’t fall perfectly within that range. The point is, you should err on the side of faster. And I personally think that the best breakdown is 12 pages for that first sequence and 10 for the final one. Why two extra pages for the first section?
Well what typically happens after the lowest point in the story is a couple of scenes of your character stewing around in their misery. I just watched the surprisingly awesome Zootopia. And the “lowest point” in that film is when Officer Hopps inadvertently divides the city, causing all of the “prey” species to discriminate against the “predator” species.
As a result, she realizes she’s done the exact opposite of the whole reason she became a cop in the first place (to help people/animals), and decides to go back home to her parents’ carrot farm and give up on her dreams.
As a side note, Disney and Pixar movies (most of them anyway) are AMAZING films to study for screenplay structure. Because they’re made for children, they hit the screenplay structural beats a little harder, so you can really see those beats in action. When watching a drama or a period film, those beats won’t be as apparent (nor should they be).
Anyway, after the two stewing scenes, your hero becomes motivated to give it one more shot. Usually what happens is they have a revelation. So in Zootopia, Officer Hopps realizes what’s causing all the predators to go “wild” and endanger the city and believes she can fix it. What’s great about using a revelation is that it propels your hero back into action, getting us from 0-60 very quickly.
Now if this doesn’t sound anything like your movie’s structure, that’s okay. Star Wars has a bit of a wonky “low point” of its own. It takes place when Luke, Han, and Leia attempt to escape the Death Star, and Obi-Wan is killed by Darth Vader. Does this really hamper their mission? Not particularly. It’s just a great big bummer. But using classic story beats, we do have the stewing scene (Luke being depressed) and then a jump right back into action (when Tie Fighters from the Death Star attack them).
The point here is to include a story beat where it looks like the gig is up for our heroes. And once that beat is over, have a moment or two to solidify that beat so we can really feel the effects of it. If it’s TOO short, it won’t register. However, after it’s over, it’s time to start moving again.
What tends to happen next is also dependent on the story your telling. But one of the most common situations will have your hero needing to repair a relationship before they can achieve their final objective. Because your hero will be at the lowest point IN EVERY ASPECT OF THEIR LIFE, that will mean at least one key relationship is broken.
So the next scene may have them going to repair that relationship so they can get the character on board. In Zootopia, we have Officer Hopps having to apologize to Nick Wilde, her fox partner, for ruining his and the rest of the predators’ lives in Zootopia.
Once you move past this moment, it’s time for your characters to form a plan that will set up the last sequence of the movie. In Star Wars, that’s the scene with all the fighter pilots sitting down and watching a demonstration on what they need to do to destroy the Death Star. Of course, if you’re writing a simpler story, it may just be two friends sharing a quick plan with one another.
One more thing before we go. This section needs to be the biggest challenge for your hero yet. For that reason, you want to strip them of as many resources as you can. This is why, in cop movies, the main character’s always been kicked off the force for the third act. That way they don’t have any help.
This is an often overlooked component of writing a good screenplay. Whereas the second act is mostly about conflict BETWEEN characters, the third act is about characters overcoming conflict within themselves. So whatever issue they’ve been ignoring their whole lives, they’re going to have to deal with it here.
So ask yourself, “What can I take away from my character?” For example, if they’re a cop, maybe take away their gun. That may be scary for you. Because then you’ll wonder, “Well then how will they kill the bad guy?” But guess what? That’s the EXACT same question the audience will be asking as well. Which is what you want. If the audience already knows and you already know how your hero is going to defeat the villain, you’ve failed as a storyteller. Because there’s no suspense.
Taking this approach will also force you to flex muscles you weren’t prepared to flex – figuring out how they win when the odds are so stacked against them. I’m telling you, it’ll suck balls trying to come up with those solutions. But when you finally do? There’s no better feeling as a screenwriter in the world. Because you know that you’re delivering to the audience as opposed to phoning it in.
Speaking of phoning, I’ll be calling you guys next week, where I’ll tell you how to complete the last section of your screenplay!!!
Pages to write this week: 10-15
Page number to hit on a 110 page screenplay: 96-100