April 25, 2008

The Beginning of the End

Act I set up the story. Act II fleshed out the critical elements. Act III should be easy, right?

Answering Questions

If you’re using a framework (I’ve been using Syd Field’s screenwriting paradigm), then you’ve actually been looking at the end of your story from the very beginning. You might not know specifics, but you probably have a pretty good idea how to answer the following questions:

  • Characters: How have they changed? What have they experienced that has helped them change? What critical actions need to take place in Act III that prove that the character has changed?
  • Plot: What are the outstanding plot elements? What needs to be answered for the reader to be satisfied? What “loose ends” need to be wrapped up in order to call the story “finished?”

Even if you’re not using a framework, these are still pertinent questions that must be answered for the reader to feel fulfilled. Now you’ve got a starting point.

More Questions?

That’s what you need to answer, but there’s also the how. Act III is your opportunity to showcase your character’s growth. Often times, characters are reacting to situations that arise throughout the story. The antagonist(s) is acting and the protagonist is reacting.

In Act III the tables change. It's the protagonist’s duty to act. Why is this so important? Well, for one, the protagonist’s actions should prove that she has changed. Two, it ends the story with a climactic event. This is where the protagonist resolves the problem! Up until now she has been fighting to get to this very place.

To sum up Act III: this is where you resolve all the reader’s questions, showcase how the main character has grown (through her actions), and resolve all the story’s loose ends. When you put it that way it sounds so easy, right?


Anonymous said...

How do you feel about writers and filmmakers that just leave the reader/audience hanging at the end--the ones that leave us with unresolved questions, wondering if the characters or the world around them changed at all? This really seems to be the "trendy," "edgy," or "artsy" way to conclude a story. Is there a place for these kinds of endings? What value, if any, do they have?

J Sherer said...

Great question. The answer is that audience perceptions have changed over time. Depending on world or culture paradigms, different audience groups have responded to varying situations or endings. But, the prevailing train of thought is that people like and generally want closure.

If you don't resolve the conflict, then I think you need to at least prove who your character is (or has become). Why? Because if you've proven your character, then your audience can infer a resolution to the story/conflict.

So, for those writers who want to end the story without ending the story, make sure that the reader can determine their own ending or place their own feelings into the story. In other words, make sure the audience is engaged enough to want to make that effort.

It generally works better in short story format. One great example is "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway. He lets the ending hang, and it's intriguing because you choose your own ending to the conflict.

The issue is engaging the reader to the extent that they actually want to choose an ending. Often times, audiences just want to be entertained.

I'm a bigger fan of resolving the conflict.