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The third act

How the third act of a feature film screenplay is constructed. What happens at the end of the movie.

The set up

Now we have finished telling the basic narrative part of the story. We have a moment to take a breath, we might recap some of the second act or we might add in a little extra motivation. Act three is all action.

What happens in act three?

  • The final plot element is executed.
  • The story reaches its conclusion
  • We reveal the future of the characters

Act three is all about peril. The final part of the story is the most dangerous moment with the most to lose. It's also the moment where victory can be grasped. It is absolutely the climactic element of the film and in order to work as a climax there are a few things that must be incorporated:

  • The protagonist is active
  • The antagonist is vulnerable
  • The protagonist uses the new talents gained in act two
  • The final conflict is resolved
  • The victor reaps the rewards
  • Finally, we learn the future direction of the tale.

The first part of act three where the complexities of act two are simplified by being brought to a head in a single event is sometimes called the 'denouement'.

Remember the critical thing that happens in the denouement is that the changed protagonist actively resolves the complexities. In act three the protagonist isn't passive, is much less acted upon than acting.

The last page

Right at the end of the screenplay we can leave the audience with a final moment that reveals the future of our characters. It should show their current position, the changes they've gone through. It shouldn't be long, just a page or two, but it should be a tone setter just like the first page of act one.

"The worst thing one can say to a child when aiming a camera at him is, "Act naturally". That will shrivel him on the spot. Children are natural actors but you must give them something to act. However many children you are going to film, give each one a separate identity. Tell the little boy to pretend the bicycle is one he has just won in a competition. Tell the little girl she is a princess in disguise. Give them something to work with and think about before the filming begins. Watch how one boy flicks his hair or rubs his nose, how a girl twists her braids and rubs one foot behind her leg. How they eat, how they smile, how they show shyness or jealousy by jumping up and down or pouting in a certain way. Then, when you are ready to film, re-enact their own mannerisms to them and ask them to imitate you. In fact, they will be doing what comes naturally to them."

Carol Reed