You may question why I’m beginning at the end. After all, there can be thousands of words that come before the Third Act. Ask yourself, though, have you ever watched a decent movie but found that the ending was less than memorable? What did that do to your overall experience? You probably remembered less of the good middle, because the whole experience was tainted by the unsatisfying ending.
This was always an interest of mine. I compare it to why we remember the bad times more than we remember the good times. In simple terms, it’s because good and bad feelings are processed through different hemispheres. It takes more out of us to analyze the negative experiences, so, naturally, we focus on those.
The Recency Effect
The recency effect has to do with the order of information presented. The more recent the information, the more weight it holds. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus came up with the Serial Position Effect. It consists of the Recency Effect and the Primacy Effect. That is, we will remember the beginning and the ending the most.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that most of your work can be crap, and as long as you have a great beginning and ending, you did your job. I’m pointing out why it’s so important that your ending (and beginning) is up to par.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig into the final act of your story.
The Makings of a Good Ending
Because novels are longer than short stories or flash fiction, I’m going to focus on those. Parts of this post will touch upon all endings, and I’ll try to point out where to draw the line. The final act usually occurs around the 75% mark of your story. You don’t have much time here, roughly 25%, but the good news is, you’ve had time in the first 75% to set up what’s about to go down.
Imagine this: The final act has just begun. For the sake of clarity, we’re going to start with the second plot point, which usually launches the final act. (Many writers will argue that it’s either at the beginning of the final act or the end of the previous act).
So. Here are the points you want to hit.
- The Second Plot Point
- The Climactic Sequence
- The Climax
- The Resolution
The Second Plot Point
The Second Point usually occurs somewhere between the 75% mark and the 90% mark, depending on where it’s needed in your story. It’s all about the final piece of the puzzle and it is usually considered a low point for your protagonist. This plot point will be the transition into your final act from the middle of the story.
Keep in mind that no new information or characters should enter after this point unless you’ve put the pieces in beforehand, which is foreshadowing.
Whatever happens here must make your protagonist change their game face again, from fight mode to resolution mode. (Note: they’ll still need to be in fight mode to get through the coming pages, but they now have what it takes to truly end the conflict, unlike before.)
The Climactic Sequence
The climactic sequence is a series of scenes that start after the second plot point and include the climax. These aren’t just any scenes, but rather scenes that ratchet up the tension more than you have so far in your work.
The sequence is three moments you must include. The moment of recovery, usually coming right after the second plot point, the confrontation, and the climax.
The moment of recovery
This scene is important for authenticity. Readers likely won’t believe your protag’s actions are “for real” if they’ve just hit their low point but launch right into the climax. So, then, we have the moment where your protag regroups and feels the losses. If you’ve done a good job, we’re feeling the loss that the protag should be feeling. We want to feel it together, so don’t cheat us out of that.
They’ll likely question themselves before deciding to continue on. In the real world, we would. Loss, the thing that has them questioning if they can take anymore, will also be a factor into deciding to continue forward to the confrontation
After the moment of recovery, your protag’s will is renewed because of the information they now possess. They’re sick of the antag’s crap and want to get back to their life, one way or another. They’ve come too far to turn back or run away.
This is where you’ll want your protag to take on any baddie you’ve put in their way before getting to the Big Bad. They’ll use the skills they’ve acquired along the way to do this, but it won’t be easy. You’ll want to raise tensions as much as possible, Twists are common here. It’s fine to use allies to help, but in the climax, your protag can’t cop-out. They have to be the one to defeat the antag (or be defeated, but it’s on them, and only them at that point).
This is where the battle comes to a close, but not after your protag has won or failed. The climax is often just a single moment that the conclusion of the book will depend on. It could be something dramatic as a sword fight, but it doesn’t need to be. As long as you fulfill the promises you made along the way. Keep in mind that this moment couldn’t have happened before. It is only now that your protag could defeat the antag because of that key piece of information.
Let me begin by stating that not all stories have a resolution. That is, the stories can end right after the climax. This isn’t always advised, but it depends on your story and type of story. Sometimes nothing more needs to be said. Sometimes, there is no more room (assuming you did a bang-up job resolving things that needed resolving previously). In the circumstances that you do need a resolution, don’t drag it out. Tie up the loose ends (usually subplots), get your hero out of trouble, whatever it is you need to do to complete the story.
This shouldn’t take more than a few pages, though those few pages should be important to the story.
There you have it, the final act. What are some of your favorite climactic sequences you’ve read, watched, or wrote? Leave a comment below and don’t forget to follow!