Welcome to Act Three, the Beginning of the End. Take a deep breath. You can do this.
By surrendering your hero’s previous relationship to her goal, she develops “wisdom.” She begins to accept the reality of her situation and is able to at last give herself what she needs. This week, your hero might still encounter conflicts with antagonists, but her approach to these conflicts is shifting. She has a new understanding of her goal and how to achieve it.
The End of Act Two
What an exhausting place to be, at the end of Act Two. But take heart! You’ve come a lot farther than most wanna-be-novelists.
As you come into the home-stretch, you are, in some way, very much like your hero. As she approaches that “dark night of the soul,” so will you.
But as the saying goes, “If you find yourself walking through Hell, just keep on walking.” It’s through your hero’s surrender that she finds the power to keep going. It reframes her relationship to her goal and exposes the reality of her situation. “Isn’t this impossible? Yes. Yes, it is.”
However, the beginning of Act Three also brings new hope. It’s not the hope of getting what she wants anymore, but it’s the hope of getting what she needs. It’s at the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three that your hero reframes that relationship to her old belief.
Will you nail this in the first draft? Probably not. That’s perfectly normal. The important thing is to be curious about this shift. Writing a novel is a war of attrition: the novel makes you pay for every inch, dearly, and in blood. But you struggle on toward your hero’s evolution nonetheless.
Act Three: Delivering on the Promise
You made a promise to your reader in the beginning. Now you’ve written the middle. You’ve deepened the reader’s understanding of your characters, their conflicts, and (maybe) your symbolism through dramatized incidents. You’ve shown through those incidents that your hero is capable of change, and made vivid the forces gathering to collide in your climax. People are on the verge of action, disasters are on the edge of occurring, secrets threaten to be disclosed, the clock is counting down, and the situation is so intolerable that it’s obvious someone is about to bring the whole game of Jenga tumbling down.
Then a peaceful compromise is struck at a meeting of world leaders in Dayton, Ohio, and the story comes to an end.
Exactly. While it’s certainly one real-world realistic way to end your story, the reader is going to throw your book at the wall and curse your name.
Why? Because your story showed us forces in opposition to each other, destined to collide in some way. They might collide quietly in a quiet story, or noisily in a more dramatic one, but a collision of some sort must surely happen. Why? Because you promised.
For the ending to satisfy, the same characters, conflicts, problems, and tensions must be shown to collide in some fashion. That’s why it’s called “the climax.”
- If the ending uses different characters (the cavalry charges in), the story will fail.
- If the ending tries to switch to some other new conflict (“damned squirrels!”), the story will fail.
- If the ending evades the promised collision (as in our peaceful compromise), the story will fail.
You can’t be promising apples and then deliver oranges. How you’ve developed the promise to your reader through the middle of your story will help determine your ending.
Which isn’t to say there is only one possible ending. There might be many. Your mission (and you’ve chosen to accept it if you’ve come this far) is to chose an ending that delivers on your promise to the reader, not one that violates it.
Keep in Mind
As I hinted at last week, Act Three (if you’re using the 3-Act Structure, as I am here) begins with a sort of gift. That gift might only be a new understanding of the situation, but it’s enough to get you and your hero through to the end.
The hero begins to understand the nature of her plight here at the beginning of Act Three. She begins to understand that what she wanted was always and already impossible, right from the beginning. At least, it was in your hero’s previous incarnation, in her prior understanding of the plight. Whereas before, she was focused on getting what she wants, she begins to understand what she needs, how she needs to transform and evolve herself in order to achieve the story goal.
Act Three involves the hero accepting the reality of her situation, taking action, and finally making a new choice.
When you’re struggling with your story (and yes, you will struggle with your story), it can be helpful to question the nature of your struggle. This is usually where your story problem is hiding. For example, when I can’t see how my hero will ever experience liberation from his problem, it’s often helpful for me to explore the expectations I have for my own completed novel. If I expect my writing will rescue me from a life of boredom or allow me to quit my day job, then maybe I need to recognize the parallel between myself and my hero. What does it look like if I accept the possibility that my day job, which I previously perceived as being unendurable, is really not so bad? What if my hero understands that acceptance doesn’t mean weak resignation, but a willingness to accept things as they are?
And the most important thing to keep in mind: The goal of the first draft is simply to get to the end of the first draft. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be done.
Write yourself a point-form outline of your third act, like so:
- The Fight Continues: What is the truth of your hero’s situation? What is it that your hero has been unwilling to accept since the beginning, and how does it feel for the hero to come to that realization?
- Pre-Climax: What does your hero do as a result of accepting the reality of the situation?
- Climax: What image or event do you imagine when you think of your hero’s want and need colliding and coming into conflict with each other?
- The End: What is the final image in your story?
Find a point midway between where you are and the end of Act Three. Write to that point.
Ready? Steady? Go!
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