Story Engineering Story Structure Writing

Writing the final act: a step-by-step guide

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

In some ways, the fourth and final act in a novel (somewhat confusingly titled Act 3 (since there is an Act 2A and 2B)), is the easiest to write. Unlike the other three acts in a four-act structure (which come only with some broad guidance on what you need to include), you can write the final act in an almost step-by-step way. Following the steps is the easy part. But, it won’t work unless you’ve done your groundwork first and you’ve got a real grasp on your story elements – who your protagonist is, what is up against them, what promise you have to deliver to your readers. So go back and figure those out, if you haven’t already, and I’ll see you back here in a bit.

Got your story elements sorted? Great. Let’s start writing that final act.

Ten steps to write the final act

STEP ONE: Figure out what ending you’re giving your protagonist – there’s only four to choose from:

  • The HAPPY ending: The protagonist wins, and…(gets what they wanted, gets what they wanted and more, etc)
  • The BITTERSWEET ending: The protagonist wins, but…(they sacrifice something important, the win doesn’t bring them happiness, they’ve turned to the dark side, someone close to them loses, etc)
  • The TRAGIC ending: The protagonist loses, and…(suffers all that entails)
  • The RIGHTEOUS ending: The protagonist loses, but…(is redeemed, saves someone close to them, makes a difference in the world, has a moment of pure happiness, etc)

Whether the protagonist wins or loses shakes up the ‘valence’ of the next steps. The valence is essentially the positive or negative charge of the story (chapter, scene, beat). Stories where the protagonist wins in the end will build towards victory, and have an overall positive lead up. Stories where the protagonist ultimately loses will build towards defeat, and have an overall negative lead in. ‘Overall’, because good stories have tension and conflict – so you need to throw in some contrast along the way.

Ideally, this will have been pre-empted by the story’s midpoint and events of Act 2B (where things seem to be on a serious decline (for victory endings) or are looking up and up (for defeat endings)).

Okay, now to the writing part:

STEP TWO: FALSE VICTORY | FALSE DEFEAT: Our protagonist has been suffering and valiantly fighting the challenges of Act 2B. If they’re on track for an ultimate victory, this is the moment where they think they may just have it in the bag. In horror movies, this is where they’ve knocked the big baddie on the head or shot it and hooray they are safe. In stories where the protagonist is destined to lose, this is the moment where all seems lost and it is lights out. In The Matrix, this is where Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus from Agent Smith.

STEP THREE: DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL | ELATION: Just when all is won, or lost, something big happens – the thing that makes the victory or defeat of the previous step ‘false’. For false victories, the protagonist is then faced with the worst possible thing that could happen – the thing that strips away all their hope and belief, that crushes them. For false defeats, the protagonist hits the jackpot – they get what they need, they come into their element, they’re saved. In The Princess Bride, this is the moment where Westley is being tortured ‘mostly’ to death by the six-fingered Count Rugen.

STEP FOUR: GLIMMER OF HOPE | HINT OF THREAT: The big thing doesn’t last, though – there’s something that shouts ‘it’s not over yet!’. For victory endings, there’s a glimmer of hope – something to suggest the protagonist could win. For defeat ending, the hint of threat tickles between the protagonist’s shoulder blades, suggesting their earlier victory was short-lived and defeat may be on the horizon. But, it’s only a glimmer or hint at this stage – there are still complications. If victory is possible, it won’t come easy – there are still obstacles to overcome. If defeat is hinted, it’s easy to downplay it because things still seem to be going to plan and victory imminent. In Hunger Games, the Glimmer of Hope is when the rules change that allows two victors and Katniss finds Peeta. The complications are that he is badly injured, she needs to play up the star-crossed lovers angle, and get to the Cornucopia to get what she desperately needs to save him.

STEP FIVE: THINGS START GOING RIGHT | THINGS START GOING WRONG: Even with the complications, the protagonist is on the path to victory or defeat, and things start to go their way or go against them. Things fall into place or things fall apart. In Edge of Tomorrow, this is the moment when the J team is reunited and they make their way to the Louvre. In Labyrinth, this is when the team is reunited and make it into Jared’s city and past his goblin army. In Be Kind Rewind, it’s when the town come together to make a documentary dedicated to the fake life of Fats Waller.

STEP SIX: FINAL BATTLE: The protagonist finally faces the threat, confronts the antagonist, battles the enemy. This is a blog post all of its own (one for a future day), but essentially it’s the culmination of the protagonist’s journey – their new self emerged and in full power against what’s been stopping them from achieving their goals and/or destiny.

STEP SEVEN: THREAT OF FAILURE | PROMISE OF SUCCESS: But, the battle isn’t an easy one. In victory stories, the protagonist will have a moment when the threat of defeat is real, and in defeat stories, the moment will be one where victory is almost in their grasp. In Karate Kid, this is where Johnny sweeps Daniel’s leg.

STEP EIGHT: PICKED UP | BROUGHT LOW: And then, bam, the protagonist finds an inner strength that puts them on the path of victory again. Or, bam, there’s a knock-out punch, and the protagonist’s grasp on victory is lost and they instead find themselves facing defeat. In Rocky, it’s picking himself up when he’s down for the count. In Karate Kid, it’s Daniel pushing past the injury and setting up his crane move.

STEP NINE: ALL IN: One last, final attempt to win. Nothing left in the tank.

STEP TEN: PROTAGONIST WINS | PROTAGONIST LOSES

STEP ELEVEN: AFTERMATH: Tie up the loose threads, and put a bow on it 🙂 This is your denouement – the ‘and’ or ‘but’. What does it mean for the protagonist to win or lose the battle? What’s the ultimate outcome of the story? What was the protagonist’s ‘real’ goal (beyond winning)?

And there you have it. All the critical elements that make up the final act of your story. Wishing you the best with your writing!

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