What’s an act? McKee, among others, defines it as a collection of scenes that end with a major change or reversal for the main character. Modern, popular stories – particularly movies – tend to have three acts. The first act is the set-up, the second the development, and the third the climax or resolution. At the end of an act, something very important happens to the protagonist. In a strong story, the act boundary tends to mark an undoable change. By the third undoable change (the one that occurs at the end of the story, after the third act), the protagonist will be quite different from the person he or she was at the beginning of the story. The story is, in effect, a record of these changes.
Not all stories have acts, of course. And some have more than three (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, has a bunch, each one marked by Indy’s life being put in danger). But the notion of an act remains a useful one, because the essential property of any story – the property that makes it narrative, where the meaning of a later scene is transformed by the context of the preceding scenes – is the journey, or change, of the main character(s). If the main character remains unchanged at the end of a story, the audience commonly cries ‘What was the point?’ or ‘Nothing seemed to happen’. For example: ‘Girl meets girl’ (one act, no change). Boring. ‘Girl meets girl, then loses girl’ (two acts, one change). Semi-boring. ‘Girl meets, loses girl, gets her back’ (three acts, two changes). Story.
I’m rambling on about acts in this post because, as you can see from the little ‘word fuel’ gauge at the base of this entry, I’m into the final third of my current novel. This novel is a technothriller: entertainment first, high-fallutin’ ideas second. That means I’m constantly on the look out for interesting things to happen to my characters, and I will not wander far from the three act structure, because I know it works in my previous novels.
In some ways, the third act is easier than the first because you have your reader firmly hooked. He or she has come with you thus far, and, as a writer, you are free to stretch your legs theme-wise. Your characters are likely to be in a great deal of peril (not necessarily physical peril) at this point (if you’ve been doing your job properly), and that peril will sustain the reader’s attention if you want to broaden, here, the thematic base of your novel.
In other ways, the third act is the most difficult. You now have to satisfy the reader. All the conflicts and obstacles you put in the path of your protagonist must be resolved and overcome. Not only that, but they must be resolved in a way that makes sense for the characters, their situation, and the themes that may or may not be hovering in the background. All the bluff and mirrors and smoke you infused into the opening and second acts must be employed in useful service to an ending that makes the reader go ‘Aha!’ rather than ‘Ugh!’. Read about Chekhov’s gun.
This is the challenge I face over the next two or three weeks. Right now, I just don’t know how the story is going to end. But I do have an advantage over a writer who works to a detailed plan: When I complete the third act, I will be close enough to the material for my response to be an honest, fresh one. If I disgust myself and throw my computer out of the window with a shout of ‘Ugh!’, I’ll know that the ending didn’t work. But if the ending suddenly clicks into place with an ‘Aha!’ – it’s happened before, with Déjà Vu and the unsold Proper Job – then I’ll know I have a draft that might, in a couple of years, shape up to be a novel.
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