Why are third acts so difficult?
November 16, 2012 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Why are third acts so difficult to execute well?

I want to know what makes third acts so difficult to pull off in any medium.

Warning: some *SPOILERS* below.

So for instance, Chris Nolan's The Prestige is ostensibly about the three act structure of a magic trick/illusion, but can also be interpreted as a metaphor for filmmaking. A character in the film states that the "prestige" of a trick, or third act, is the "hardest part" to pull off. This has always stood out to me because Nolan's films have often been criticized for having weak third acts. For example: The Dark Knight is overall a very well-received movie, but what criticism is levied against the film seems to be focused at the third act (i.e. the ferry scene, or the showdown with Dent/Two-Face seeming like a tacked-on climax). This is also true for The Dark Knight Rises: I know many people feel like Nolan fudged the "prestige" of revealing the child of Ra's Al Ghul and the overall climax of the story. I can think of other films that I really enjoy up until the third act when there seems to be a dramatic shift of tone, or just disappointing resolution of plot points. And then if you consider the third entry in a trilogy to be the third act of a story there are more examples: there is a prevailing sense of "third times the harm" regarding many film trilogies. Examples off the top of my head: the Godfather part III, Spider-man 3, X3, the Matrix trilogy, Alien 3, the aforementioned Dark Knight Rises, Back to the Future III, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (which I love, but it is often compared unfavorably to The Road Warrior), and I've never heard or seen anyone seriously proclaiming Return of the Jedi to be superior to either Star Wars or Empire.

I know long-form or episodic storytelling differs from the traditional three act structure, but there are also examples in TV storytelling where the writers set up situations beautifully, but then the resolution of the plot is unsatisfactory for many viewers. Recent notable examples include the finales of LOST and Battlestar Galactica, though I am sure there are many others. While this phenomenon may not be directly related to the difficulty of executing third acts of stories, I feel it might be a related phenomenon.

So my question is: from a narrative, dramatic, storytelling, or other perspective, what makes third acts so difficult to pull off satisfactorily?
posted by mediated self to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Third acts are hard because they prove the whole work. If you screwed the first two acts up, it'ls entirely possible it'll end up looking like a third-act failure.

You spend the first two acts setting expectations - you lay out the core assumptions, you build tension, and then in the third act you resolve it. So you have to define the terms of the piece well enough that people feel like the resolution fits within those terms. (I pretty much had this problem with The Dark Knight.) In the second act, you build tension based on those terms. The creator and the audience need to agree on the points of tension, or the resolution is going to fizzle. (My issue with TDKR is on those terms, although that's a whole essay really.) And then the third act needs to resolve the tension successfully, which isn't easy, sure, but if either of the first two acts failed in its goals the third act pretty much can't succeed.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:51 PM on November 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

If Act 1 is "set up your basic premise/problem" and Act 2 is "keep throwing rocks at the protagonist until they face an almost completely hopeless situation"... it's pretty easy to do both of those things. (Though as restless_nomad says, not necessarily easy to do them in a way that sets you up for a good ending!)

I think that (given a typical Hollywood movie) most people want an ending where

-You get a setup where it looks almost impossible for the good guys to win
-The hero gets some deep flash of moral insight or makes an extremely difficult moral decision...
-Thereby coming up with a surprising solution to the almost impossible setup, and winning, but with enough genuine difficulty that you don't feel like it was cheap.

I'm going to leave aside movies that have sad or nontraditional endings because I think they're another kettle of fish (though equally hard to pull off -- a lot of the same principles apply, but more subtly.)

-It is really hard to plot out a setup that looks almost completely hopeless, but leaves just a tiny sliver of hope for the protagonist... and doesn't rip off one of a million movies with third acts that looked almost completely hopeless, but left just a tiny sliver of hope for the protagonist.

-It is really hard to give the protagonist a complex moral situation such that people won't go, "Well, DUH, you doofus," and that also help to resolve the plot. It's much more common for the hero to just beat up the bad guy, which... is deeply unsatisfying, considering that it basically comes down to "might makes right." (I find that endings where the hero outsmarts the villain are generally not much better, since cleverness is really just another kind of might.)

-And it is really hard to come up with a surprising solution to whatever the basic problem is. How many variations have you seen on "hero sacrifices himself to save everybody else"? How about "Hero manages to get bad guy A and bad guy B to destroy each other"? A lot of times this kind of old stuff can work! But you have to work hard to set it up so that it's satisfying, so that it resonates thematically with the rest of the work.
posted by Jeanne at 5:05 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the problem stems from the way movies are made these days--or, at least--the way the majority of films are made these days.

They are inconsequential.

By that I mean that, for the most part, the first two acts do not have consequences that resonate in the third. I've never come up with a good phrase for defining my issue with contemporary cinema, but, it seems to me, many modern storytellers think that a fast-moving story is more successful than a well-thought-out story. As a result, we get films like The Dark Knight or Inception or Skyfall or any number of other movies that only connect their endings to their beginnings through theme or character traits but hardly ever through plot or character.

In a well-thought out story, actions taken by the protagonist have consequences. In a fast-moving film the only thing that matters is the *current* moment happening. If you can "accept" it, goes the thinking, than that's enough--and often the max desired--for contemporary studio standards.

For instance, in Skyfall


at the end, the Bardem character has an opportunity to kill the Finney character. He does not. Why? The only logical reason is that the filmmakers don't want to (possibly because of a sequel, but who knows?).

Killing him would

a) be consistent with what we've seen of the villain so far (randomly killing people willy-nilly)
b) go some ways to satisfying the villain (because the Finney character is connected to Bond, or, possibly in the villain's mind, M, whose murder is his ultimate goal)
c) make the villain worse in the audience's mind
d) be the first "substantial" character--whom the audience connected with--to die so far, thereby heightening the drama and upping the stakes
e) make the villain's actions "real", or at least less comic-book-y

Not killing him...

a) does nothing but make us question what's happening on screen (reinforce our disbelief and remind us we're watching a movie)
b) water down everything that came before it


Skyfall's third act absolutely sucks because nothing we've seen in the first two acts has any resonance. Watching the third act without first viewing the first two leaves no one less moved than watching all the acts. This is a huge problem. If watching the first two hours doesn't heighten the drama of the last 30 minutes, why bother watching them?

In short, third acts aren't hard if the storyteller realizes the importance of everything that came before it. If the filmmaker does not, then the third act will leave no mark. Everything will be style; nothing will be substance because, truly, nothing matters.

So, if you want a strong third act, have consequences and resonance from your first two acts.

You can even look at this on a scene level, rather than on an arc/story level.

At the head of each scene your character should have a goal. At the end of the scene, they've either met the goal or not--either way, don't forget the goal. This is Nolan's problem, on the whole. He's more interested in making sure you're entertained in the moment than worrying about what you'll think about "now" in story later. If he'd do the latter instead of the former, you'd get both entertainment and a successful story.


In the Dark Knight, the Joker goes to a gala event "to get Dent". That is his goal. Knowing this, Wayne stows Dent away in a closet and then, as Batman, confronts the Joker. The Joker's goal then becomes "deal with Batman so that I can get Dent"--essentially, he's been given an obstacle. The Joker does deal with the obstacle--he throws the woman out the window and Batman goes after her... then what? Nolan cuts to another scene. Why? Because Nolan's characters' actions don't have consequences. He merely wantS you to marvel at Batman jumping out a window to save the woman. Once he's satisfied that urge, he feels he's done.


So... why should we give a shit? If we know that the filmmaker will just flit around here and there depending on.... I dunno, whim, then why bother watching?

Strong third acts require a solid foundation and a respect and appreciation for the audience's understanding of goal and motivation. Without understanding that, you can make an entertaining film, but you can't make a very good one.
posted by dobbs at 5:44 PM on November 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

It's easier to create problems than to solve them. Act 1 gives you a completely open universe in which to create a problem. Act 2 is detail and double down. Act 3 forces you to escape from the problems that you've created, and do so in a fashion that is unexpected and inevitable. It's hard. Even great third acts fall apart if you look at them too closely.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:23 PM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a screenwriter, I find (and others in my field tend to agree) that it's actually the second act that is the hardest. Act III practically writes itself -- it's short, and if you did any outlining at all you know what's supposed to happen. Act II is the big mushy middle full of subplots and character development and ???

I think the reason the third film in a trilogy often sucks is that the filmmakers have been to the well too many times. Most movies should not be franchises, and this thing where any movie that does well begets a sequel, and then hell, why not just make it a trilogy while we're at it, well, that's a horrible way to make movies.

Also, by the time the third film rolls around, you're losing cast and key crew members. People move on and want to do different things.

In terms of TV, endings to series are hard because, until the past 5 years or so, TV shows did not get endings. You told a variation of the same story every week for years, until nobody wanted to watch it anymore, and then you got canceled. A huge winding story with lots of questions to answer was not really a viable format for TV until Lost and BSG. Which is why those were handled so badly -- they didn't know if they were going to get to end the story, or not, or what was going to happen, so they had to just do whatever made sense in the moment. As all TV shows did before.

Also, sometimes movies and TV shows just suck, and a bad resolution is only one of the many, many ways that can shake out. There are far more things with awful first and second acts. I turn off more movies after nothing much happens in the first 20 minutes than I watch and think, "great movie, too bad the ending sucked."
posted by Sara C. at 6:36 PM on November 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Everything you mentioned are big blockbuster type films, which are commercial by nature. The goal is create a film that leaves a general audience satisfied, so that word of mouth is good and people tell their friends to go see it.

The goal isn't to tell a good story, just to get enough asses in the seats. General audiences like their stories simple and neatly resolved.

Nolan's Batman flicks are in satisfying because the adult themes are rarely allowed to transcend the childish elements.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:47 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Endings aren't hard. Endings are easy. The murderer confesses, good guy shoot bad guy, the climber gets to the top of the mountain. Or, if nothing else will work, everyone dies.

But this leaves out how emotionally satisfying that ending is and whether it's the destination that the audience has been lead in. Creating an ending that is emotionally satisfying, meets the needs of the plot and falls within the expectations set up in acts I and II, is tricky. The first couple acts are simply juggling three balls at a time. That's not too hard because you only have to handle one ball at a time, the rest of the time they're flying through the air on their own. Act three you have to handle all three balls at the same time all the time, without dropping one. Even if the ending makes sense and is within the rules set up earlier, if it doesn't follow the emotional arc, you're screwed.

This is exacerbated in the three film or five season TV show because that whole final film/season you have to maintain all of these things constantly in every scene/episode. And not every scene/episode can handle that kind of weight, so sometimes one thing gets in the way of the other. We have to get the humans and cylons to Earth, there's no way around it. If we can't hang everything else we want on that premise then, well, tough. Oh yeah, and we have a huge ensemble cast, each with their own stories that need to be resolved logically and emotionally satisfactorily.

Also in the 3 film/5 seasons context you're stuck with what you did before. As far as I know, none of the movies and shows you mention were fully written before filming began. Maybe they had the ending in mind, perhaps even a detailed story outline, but not all the specifics. This is different from writing a novel, when you need to sell a particular point at the end you can go back and foreshadow it in chapter two. When you've already broadcast chapter two, and then your primary actor leaves, you have to deal with what you have, no revisions. (See: Babylon 5)

As for Nolan's movies:
The Prestige has a vastly better ending than its source material. I still can't believe how much worse the book is than the movie. As for the Dark Knight stuff, I think it's mostly that he likes to explore more complex, semi-realistic relationships than can be wrapped up neatly. But being a comercial film, it needs to end one way or another around the 2:00:00 point.
posted by Ookseer at 8:29 PM on November 16, 2012


dobbs: "at the end, the Bardem character has an opportunity to kill the Finney character. He does not. Why? The only logical reason is that the filmmakers don't want to (possibly because of a sequel, but who knows?).

Killing him would


d) be the first "substantial" character--whom the audience connected with--to die so far, thereby heightening the drama and upping the stakes

Potentially distracting from the death of M, a much more "substantial" character, immediately afterwards. Which doesn't excuse the way it was handled. I think Skyfall's 3rd act works better than you do, but I agree that that's a false note. Bardem could have, you know, missed Finney, and we wouldn't be talking about it.

posted by brundlefly at 10:23 PM on November 16, 2012

Everything you mentioned are big blockbuster type films, which are commercial by nature. The goal is create a film that leaves a general audience satisfied, so that word of mouth is good and people tell their friends to go see it.

Even more specifically I think big blockbusters are primarily about visual spectacle and otherwise impressive scenes rather than satisfying storytelling. Often plot seems to only be a way to link together a set of big setpieces that will look good as clips in the trailer. If you set out to tell a good story, you tailor all of the parts of your narrative around telling that story, but if instead you focus on a few impressive scenes and shoehorn everything else to make it happen, then your story is going to suffer.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:16 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You spend the first two acts setting expectations

That pretty much sums it up right there.

Higher expectations equal a greater opportunity for either success or failure, depending on execution. But also, since the expectations are focused there, it also means the criticism will be focused there, when (as pointed out above) the root of the problem may be in the setup of the expectations rather than in their resolution.
posted by flug at 7:49 AM on November 17, 2012


Potentially distracting from the death of M, a much more "substantial" character, immediately afterwards. Which doesn't excuse the way it was handled. I think Skyfall's 3rd act works better than you do, but I agree that that's a false note. Bardem could have, you know, missed Finney, and we wouldn't be talking about it.

Except that the baddie doesn't kill M, she dies due to injuries sustained earlier. This is another problem with the ending--not only does the villain not succeed, but the hero doesn't either--in the sense that he does not prevent her death. Either one would have better paid off the things setup eariler--to me, the preference would be on the baddie killing M absolutely and then Bond killing the baddie.

But yes, the baddie could have shot and missed Finney. Or Finney could have entered the room post-baddie-death, which would have been smarter writing.


Either way, the point is that, to me, the third act of Skyfall fails miserably because it nothing established earlier is paid off. Essentially, it's just spectacle.
posted by dobbs at 10:29 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

In some cases they come up with a third act under duress at the last minute, and fail spectacularly. See also: Mass Effect 3 (the Starchild/Crucible is utter bullshit), Battlestar Galactica (we were told the Cylons had a plan but this was a lie, the silliness that is the Final Five).

When the day-to-day struggle of bringing a massive media project takes over, I'm sure it's hard to think about the end. Particularly given the nature of episodic television in the case of BSG. The only show that really did it right was Babylon 5, and that was marred a bit when they screwed around whether or not the show would get a fifth season.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:36 PM on November 17, 2012

Writing dramatically is an almost instinctually easy thing to do okay and a very hard thing to do well. We have all seen thousands of hours of dramatic writing and so know how stories work. The moment you start writing a story, if it isn't completely unusual, it creates expectations for where the story is to go and how it is to end. And, the truth is, most of the time people want a story to end how they expect it to. We usually want a narrative to tease our expectations, but not too much, and then fulfill them. We genuinely take pleasure in correctly predicting the twists and turns of a story, although we wish there to be some question for a while about if we have gotten things right, so that when the story bends back to expectations, we can feel the story has completed itself as it must. This can be an exceptionally satisfying experience. Any sort of popular arts is a push and pull between fulfilling expectations and challenging them.

The trouble is that we writers also know the conventions, and we try to write stories that follow them, and stories just so often refuse to behave. The characters start insisting on making decisions that they must make, based on what has been established about their character, and it pulls away from where we think the story should go. Events start occurring that we did not predict when we outlined. Suddenly it will seem somebody will absolutely need to do something utterly unexpected. The story starts dictating itself. And all of a sudden, as a writer, we're off into a place we had not planned to go, and came unprepared to explore. And we can force the characters back on the path we laid out for them, but, at that moment, it will start feeling authorial and artificial. And it starts getting frustrating, because, like the audience, we know where the story really should end up, and it's so far away from that that we can no longer make any assumptions. Characters die who should live to the end. Streets end that should continue.

This is where the so-so writer becomes dictatorial, and creates an artificial narrative to follow his or her outline, because that's where everybody wants it to go. And this ends up feeling false. It feels inserted. If it's a happy ending, it feels like an act of authorial charity. I see this especially in romantic comedies. The author has done a spectacularly good job of demonstrating that the two lead characters should not be together, but the expectations of the audience are that they do wind up together. And it's just not satisfying. Expectations are met, but not earned.

The skill required is that of learning to listen to your story and your characters once they have started to assert themselves. And to learn to trust these things. And you follow them where they are going, and suddenly you reach a moment, and you know it's the ending. And it surprises you, and it's not what you expected, and it's not what you planned, but it feels right and necessary.

Some won't like this ending, because they thought they knew where the story was going and it didn't go there. And if you make the artificial ending, those people might like it anyway, because at least the trip went where it was supposed to. But we're pretty sophisticated consumers of media. Most audience members can reevaluate a story on the fly and make new predictions about where it is headed. And if you are listening to the story and the characters and going where they dictate, that audience will also start sussing out where the story is going. And, when it gets there, it will feel right to them too. But this is not a taught skill -- I don't know that it can be taught. A lot of writing is paint-by-the-numbers. Plug character a and character l into storyline 120 and it will always end the way it always has, and, if you have even a hint of creativity, it will do what it needs to.

But once you learn how to write actual characters, you start being at their service, and the service of the story they need to experience. And that third act is out of your control.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:32 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers and the really great insights!
posted by mediated self at 3:11 PM on November 20, 2012

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