Hurray for you! You’re planning, or actually writing, Act Three. That’s the good news.
The challenging news: Act Three is make or break. Not only for this book, but for your next book. When readers finish your book and say: “Wow, that was terrific!” that means they’ll be looking for your next one, right?
And it’s been said that a wonderful Act Three can make readers forget some of the problems in your Act Two.
So give Act Three all you’ve got.
Ready? There are some critical necessities, no matter what your genre, of Act Three. You’ve got to be careful and organized and thoughtful.
Act Three begins about five-sixths of the way through, or about page 290 of a 350 page novel. This can vary! But it’s fewer pages than a third. If you are on the right track, you’ll feel, as a writer, that now’s the time to start wrapping up.
And there are secrets to successfully wrapping up.
Here’s what to remember.
The big climactic event
Act three will contain a big conflict, the biggest of the book, with a captivating clash of hero and villain, mano a mano. Two people enter, one person leaves. The pivotal central conflict of your book is solved, ended, and (usually), forever. This will not happen on the last page of the book! But will begin to happen, if you need to envision the structure, on about page 290.
Here’s where you feel the plot-engine gathering steam for the big final ascent up the mountain. Here’s where the excitement should come to a fever pitch, hit the explosion, and then the smoke will clear. Not every question will be answered yet, but the victor will be clear. Or, in a thriller, at least seem to be clear.
You can leave room for a twist. Or two. More to come on that.
In Act Three, the good guys and bad guys will eventually be revealed. All of them. Which side each person is on will be stated, and evident, and logical.
The loose ends
Repeat after me: thou shalt have no loose ends. Everything, seriously, everything, should be acknowledged and explained. Most often, quickly. Terrible but clarifying examples: “But who was that guy I saw in the alley?” Susie wondered. “The mailman,” Jim said. “Can you believe it? He was late that day.”
Or: So she didn’t have plague after all? Nope, the tests were wrong.
Or: But I thought she didn’t have an alibi! Nope, her clock was still on central time.
In other words, if you put in a red herring, acknowledge it, and get rid of it. Otherwise, readers will think it was a mistake or a cheat.
Every question must be answered. Except. In a series, the central conflict or mystery must be solved, even though the personal journey of your series character is unresolved.
Beware the rush
Trust me, you may be tired of your book by this time, and be so happy that it’s almost over that you’ll be tempted to say, boom, there was a big explosion and everyone dies. Don’t succumb. And as a reader, you know how annoying it is when the author is clearly rushing to get the whole thing over with. Your ending should be slow enough to be deliciously satisfying, but fast enough to be compelling.
Beware the BOGSAT
We recognize it as the beloved method embraced by Agatha Christie: bunch of guys, sitting around talking. Or bunch of girls, standing around talking. There’s a temptation to have Act Three include a big scene where everything is talkety-talk explained. You’ll need to do some of this, of course, but keep in mind how you can split it up, maybe have some of it take place during something else, or at a different location, or in an intriguing way. On a ski slope in a blizzard, in a speeding car, via email interruptions at the dinner table.
The ending—don’t kill me—has to be surprising but not surprisingly outrageous. No twins, or new characters first seen on page 343, or any solution that is not firmly rooted in the groundwork you’ve laid throughout the book. You want the reader to say: Oh! I should have seen that coming! Not: What the heck?
The late-pages twist
Sure. Pull the rug out from the reader at about page 325 in our imaginary page-count. If you can do it, great. When it comes to suspense, readers are willing to accept that the big finish ending is truly the ending—but if you can manage another twist or two, great. Again, the twists have to make sense.
A good twist takes exactly the same events and shifts them to a different perspective—allowing the reader to take their assumptions and see them a completely different way.
Classics include The Sixth Sense. Gift of the Magi. Appointment in Samarra.
Make sure your theme—redemption, friendship, loyalty, justice, family—is acknowledged, completed, and tied up with a shiny satisfying bow. You want the reader to say: “Aw, that’s exactly what his book is about!”
You may have to go back to Act One to make sure you’ve laid the groundwork for this, and follow the theme thread throughout to make sure it’s always there.
I know I’m finished with a manuscript when I’m editing along and get to the end and tears come to my eyes. Not because the book is sad, but because it is meaningful and satisfying. You wrote your book to make readers care about what happens. Does your ending touch their hearts? Even in the toughest thriller or sci-fi, there’s a place where that can happen.
A reader should not be able to turn to the last page and figure out “what happened.” For the last few pages, maybe a last chapter or epilogue, give the reader some context, some indication that the characters’ lives continue outside the book, and some final wonderful touching information or event. (Jack Reacher moves on, but to where? Miss Marple gets a visitor. But who? Weddings are also good for this, or births, or even departures or funerals. Remember the final montage of Love, Actually, with all the arrivals at the airport? Perfect.)
Act Three, when you get it right, is a joy to write. Authors sometimes talk about feeling so excited they cannot stop writing, and if only they could write twenty-four hours a day, they’d be done. That’s how you should feel—eventually—about your Act Three. And your readers will feel the same way about reading your book—they will not want to stop.
What are your thoughts about Act Three? Any pitfalls or questions? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page. Now: get writing!