Bold Moves, Peril Define Great Third Acts

Lisa Rosenberg May 10, 2011

Act III of your screenplay may seem almost like a throwaway act. By this point, you may be absolutely certain that your story is propelled by genuine conflict, you’ve steadily turned up the heat on your characters, and you have defined the big decision to be thrashed out at the climax. You may not feel that there is much to do beyond drumming up some great, memorable lines and airbrushing in those final, stirring images. But Act III should be anything but a straight shot.

Even though the big choices ahead may be clear, and you may have long since had the end in mind, the path for your characters should still be perilous. Act III tends to be fast-paced but not linear, filled with tentative and bold moves, fits and starts, self-doubt and, finally, resolve. It should also allow you, the writer, to continue to be surprised—to discover a twist in the action or a character shading you hadn’t planned on, but which your story leads you to.

After the tortuous journey of Act II, the audience needs to be reminded of what the story has been about—the big ideas that make us care about the events. They need to understand what matters most to the principal characters, even if those characters don’t know this yet. In this act, you will need to keep the principal characters inexorably moving forward, but you’ll earn dramatic wattage if you also continue to knock them off balance and let their passions exceed their common sense, right up to the finish.

But before Act III begins, your character will typically have reached a low point in the story—despairing as to which way to turn. For example, in the thriller, The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles, director, Jeffrey Caine, writer), Justin, an apolitical British diplomat who runs an HIV/AIDS prevention program in Kenya, has his placid life turned upside down, first by the passionate activist he marries, and then by her sudden death that he’s told resulted from her affair with a Kenyan doctor. But many clues soon link her work before her death to a threatened expose of the diplomatic mission’s complicity in faulty drug trials by a large pharmaceutical company.

By the end of Act II, Justin has essentially solved the mystery of who killed Tessa and why, and the parallel mystery of whether their marriage was real and whether the affair actually occurred. But he has also been told he is powerless to use what he knows; he’ll only wind up dead, and will never be able to expose the pervasive evil that resulted in Tessa’s death as well as the deaths of innocent Kenyans, and which his own career has tacitly supported.

Pieces of April (2003, Peter Hedges, writer/director), a comedy built on the oft-tread story of a family reunion over Thanksgiving dinner, is transformed into an unusually genuine look at the pain of estrangement, the fractured relationships among all family members when one is divorced from the group, and the universal longing to find a way back to one another through extending yet one more chance. April, a 20-something woman who has clearly been around the block, and is hacking out a life in a gritty New York neighborhood, has agreed to make Thanksgiving dinner for her family because this is likely to be the last one. Her mother is dying of cancer.

Act I delineates a simple plot. April’s family expects her to fail in every way, but April will do her dogged best to overcome her many shortcomings—she doesn’t know how to cook, the oven is dead, her gentle African American boyfriend, Bobby, is out on an errand he hasn’t spelled out and she and her mother never got along.

In Act II, April is forced to haul her raw turkey from apartment to apartment, testing the willingness of previously unknown neighbors to help her get it cooked. She is lucky and not, but by the end of the act, it looks possible that she’ll accomplish the dinner. What is much less clear is whether the big things she silently hopes for—acceptance, approval, even a hint of pride in her from her family, especially her mother, will come through.

For her family’s part, Act II has been a decidedly tortured journey: Mom throwing up in gas station bathrooms, snapping at April’s hovering, loudly suffering, good girl sister, Beth and snarling at the notion that this dinner is a good idea; Dad trying not to sob when he looks at his wife and desperate to believe that April can come through; brother siding with Mom and taking every opportunity to belittle Beth; and quietly demented Grandma offering occasional zingers from the back seat. This is the group that is soon to arrive on April’s doorstep.

In Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Craig Gillespie, director, Nancy Oliver, writer), Lars, a sweet but psychologically stunted young man, procures a life-sized doll, Bianca, to practice having an emotional relationship with a woman. Before Bianca, Lars is marginally able to work and function within a community, but he is terrified of close interactions with live people, and physical touch actually causes him pain.

By the end of Act II, with the help of family, community members, and a wise doctor, Lars has managed to practice what a real relationship might be like, including sharing his inner thoughts and having bitter arguments with Bianca. Through the manipulations of others, who draw Bianca into the community, he has been drawn into a larger sphere as well. He has gone bowling with a potential love interest in the real world, Margo, and has gone to a party where he talked normally with others and even danced.

But as Act III begins, the nagging “illness” that Bianca has had all along, will turn critical. Bianca will be dying. What we, the audience, won’t know at this point, is whether her death will plunge Lars into irreversible psychosis, or whether it will release him to begin to build a normal life.

Following the low point at the end of Act II, Act III often begins with a period of reflection—a “dark night of the soul.” The main character feels battered and lost. That character also holds the knowledge that could empower him/her to move forward, if he/she can only seize upon it. But seizing on a new direction means acknowledging that the character’s old ways can no longer sustain him/her, no matter how much your character may long to return to the comfortable blindness of life before this awakening.

In The Constant Gardener, Justin launches Act III quite haphazardly, making a mad dash for a remote desert in a neighboring country, to try to pin down the doctor who tracked tuberculosis patients in the vaccine study. He finds the man, challenges him to help expose what has been going on, barely escapes death at the hands of raiders, and is pitifully unable to rescue so much as a single small child from chaos and murder. It’s important to note that these Act III scenes mirror what the story has been about: the ability of one person to stand up and do what’s right in a landscape of plunder and slaughter—if only that one person can summon the courage to do so. Justin emerges with the last piece of evidence he needs. He depends on the goodwill of a single, disinterested pilot to mail it to the only person who he knows will act upon it. In the end, Justin will give his all in pursuit of one honest act—one that will honor his wife and her work and expose the evil he has uncovered, but also cost him everything.

Act III in Pieces of April turns on what might almost seem to be chance cards: the kindness of strangers, a late revelation about the errand Bobby went to run, and April’s mother’s sudden opportunity to see herself —and in reflection, her relationship with April—in an altercation between a young girl and her irate mother in a restaurant bathroom. Warmed by the solicitous help of fellow apartment dwellers to get her turkey roasted to a golden turn, April finds herself telling the story of Thanksgiving to an Asian immigrant family—in three versions. The first two make clear that she isn’t just telling that story, but her story—of rage, devastation, fear, and hard-won experience. Finally, she tells a story—the story—that needs little translation: of her realization that people actually need one another.

As Pieces of April barrels toward the climax—the meeting between April and her mother—it veers appropriately off-track. Bobby returns from his long errand, disheveled from a beating at the hands of April’s former boyfriend, just in time to nearly collide with April’s family, who are horrified to finally arrive on the daunting street she lives on. They leave—and for long minutes of the film, it’s not clear they’ll return. April clatters downstairs to greet them, to be met with an empty street. But each on her own, in spite of everything, April and her mother have been slowly approaching each other throughout the movie. The conclusion, though perhaps too quick to create a dramatic bridge, accomplishes what both women have finally earned: a true reunion.

In Lars and the Real Girl, Act III will traverse Bianca’s catastrophic downturn. It will also lead him, through a perfect storm of fear, confusion, and pain, to practice further his entry into the community of adult relationships, as he goes through the genuine process of love, loss, and grief. Lars’ brother will be compelled to clear the air between them about the terrible losses in their shared past that likely led to Lars’ damaged capacity to form normal relationships. Finally, Lars will see his way clear to take his first tentative step toward the real girl who has been waiting for him all along.

In each of these films, Act III has been as rich, varied, surprising, and essential to the narrative as Acts I and II. It has wrapped up the story’s core, but also left some satisfying questions for the audience to complete, as well as some questions thankfully unanswered.