how to write a flat character arc the third act

How to Write a Flat Character Arc, Pt. 3: The Third Act

The Third Act is where we find arguably the greatest similarities between the flat character arc and the positive change arc, since in both types of story the protagonist will have a full grasp on the Truth by this point. The primary difference, of course, is that the protagonist in a flat character arc will have already been in possession of that Truth almost universally throughout the story.

The other difference is that, in a flat arc, select supporting characters (who are representative of the world around the protagonist) will have reached the point in their change arcs where the protagonist’s Truth will have convinced them to reject the Lie. The protagonist will still be facing overwhelming odds, but he won’t be facing them alone. Even should he die now, his cause will continue thanks to the converts he’s made along the way.

However, this does not necessarily mean all flat arcs will demonstrate deep themes. Every flat arc will present a protagonist whose views are opposed to the antagonist-influenced world. But those views may not be deep moral issues. Sometimes the Truth can be as simple as the evergreen “the bad guy will destroy the world if he isn’t stopped.” Flat arcs of this type are popular in action stories, and while their thematic elements aren’t as obvious, they’re still viable story forms. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge comments:

Lots of excellent, entertaining, emotionally involving, and profitable [stories] don’t explore theme at all. I think Raiders of the Lost Ark is a terrific movie, but I don’t see anything more there than what’s on the surface. That’s fine. It is your choice as the [writer] to explore these underlying meanings or not.

The Third Plot Point

After what seemed to be a great victory at the end of the Second Act, the tables will be completely turned on your protagonist and he’ll be smacked back down into his most intense defeat yet. No matter what kind of arc your character is pursuing, this is going to be his low moment—his breaking point. He’s going to face down death, figuratively or literally, and he’s going to come to terms with his fears, re-embrace the Truth, and rise with renewed determination and vigor.

In a flat character arc, the protagonist won’t actually doubt the Truth, but he will be brought to a point where he seriously doubts his ability to use the Truth to defeat the Lie. This is the scene where he throws stuff against the wall and rages against his own impotence. What’s the point of the fight—what’s the point of all he’s already suffered—if all he’s been able to do so far is put a dent in the antagonistic force’s armor?

Make the Third Plot Point as personal as possible for your protagonist. The antagonistic force needs to hit him where it hurts. This isn’t just a battle lost. This is a battle that kills his best friend, threatens his wife and children, or perhaps even ends with him wounded and in captivity. Everything looks lost.

The Third Act

The first half of the Third Act will be all about the protagonist’s reacting to the Third Plot Point. By this point, supporting characters will have learned to fully embrace the Truth, thanks to the protagonist’s influence. Often, this will be a segment in which these characters will comfort and encourage the protagonist, reminding him how much he’s already accomplished in helping them see past the Lie. Or the protagonist may see supporting characters staggering under their own doubts and he will pick himself back up in order to strengthen them once more.

He will have to gather his remaining resources and personnel and figure out what to do next. Even though the protagonist possesses the ultimate weapon of the Truth, the Third Plot Point has left him at a serious disadvantage. He will have only one chance left to hit the antagonistic force—and it’s a long shot at best.

The undercurrent will be all about your protagonist’s re-pledging himself to the Truth. By this point, he is committed up to his neck. He will do anything he has to do to accomplish his goal—even it means sacrificing his life. Since this segment will be a comparatively quiet and thoughtful sequel to the Third Plot Point, it provides a good opportunity to have the protagonist outright discuss the Truth and the Lie, and why he has chosen (and re-chosen) to be so committed to it.

The Climax

The Climax begins roughly halfway through the Third Act (around the 90% mark). This is where your protagonist puts into play his final assault against the antagonistic force and the Lie. Just as in a positive change arc, the protagonist’s Truth will be directly pitted against the antagonistic force’s Lie. These two intangibles will be far more important in deciding the battle than will any display of physical power.

The difference between the Climax in a positive change arc and the Climax in a flat arc is that the flat-arc protagonist is already completely solid in his own belief of the Truth. The antagonistic force will fling the Lie in the character’s face and try to get him to weaken, but the protagonist won’t budge. Even if the antagonist gets the upper hand physically, he will discover his own impotence in the face of the protagonist’s resolve.

Supporting characters who are following change arcs may reach a climactic moment when their devotion to the Truth is tested one last time, but how much prominence your give these moments will depend on the characters’ importance to the story. The protagonist always needs to be the primary catalyst in the final victory. If a supporting character’s final declaration of the Truth is the key to winning the conflict, then he becomes, in essence, the primary character. This isn’t necessarily a problem, particularly if you have a flat arc character and a positive change arc character sharing the lead. But never lose track of which arc needs to be kept at the forefront of the story.

The Resolution

As in any type of story, the Resolution exists to prove how the conflict has changed either the characters or the world. In a flat arc, the changes will be most evident in the supporting cast and the world around the protagonist. The Truth will now be ascendant over the Lie. Supporting characters who were changed by Truth will need to be presented in closing characteristic moments that prove the new direction their lives are now about to take. Supporting characters who believed the Truth all along will now be free to embrace and practice it.

If the Normal World in the story’s beginning was evil and Lie-ridden, it will now have been destroyed, and the protagonist and his supporters will be able to build a better world on top of the rubble. If the Normal World was based on the Truth in the first place, the characters will now be able to return to it and live in peace.

The protagonist himself won’t have changed dramatically. But that doesn’t mean certain aspects of his persona and lifestyle may not be different. He may decide to hang up his gun and become a farmer, now that there’s no longer a threat to his Truth. Or he may have gained significant new skills along the way that now allow him to pursue a different life of his own. Or he may travel on to fight the Lie in a different place. In fact, just about everything about your protagonist could be different at the end of the story. But the one thing that must remain the same is his absolute devotion to the story’s core Truth.

How Does the Third Act Manifest in a Flat Character Arc?

In the Third Act, your flat character arc could manifest as it does in the following examples:

  • After the seeming victory in which Katniss Everdeen learns how she can obtain the medicine she needs to save Peeta’s life, she risks everything in a showdown at the Cornucopia. She makes it back to the cave, heals Peeta, and collapses into delirium from her own injuries. This is a comparatively weak Third Plot Point, since the true emotional low point came earlier when Katniss’s young ally Rue was murdered. Here, the emphasis is on Katniss’s growing affection for Peeta and her determination to get them both out of the games alive. They battle together—symbolically reinforcing their own Truth—to conquer the last of the rival tributes, only to have the Lie hit them with all its power when President Snow tries to force them to kill each other. Katniss never wavers from her Truth and uses it to outsmart the Gamemaker and get both herself and Peeta declared co-victors. The Resolution hints at the changes her actions have wrought in the world around them. (The Hunger Games)
  • After a round of seeming successes (Rocky’s rescuing Ginger, the pie machine’s blowing up, Rocky and Ginger’s recognizing their feelings for one another, and Ginger’s belief that Rocky will fly for them now that his wing is healed), the Third Plot Point hits Ginger hard when Rocky abandons them and she realizes he lied about being able to fly. After a moment of bitter defeat, she rallies herself and the others with the new plan to build a plane. At the Climax, they’re forced to launch the plane early, and thanks to a changed Rocky’s return, they manage to pull it off. But the final defeat of Mrs. Tweedy’s attempt to reinforce the Lie belongs to Ginger. In the Resolution, the chickens literally arrive in a new world—one full of green grass and without fences. (Chicken Run)
  • After just barely managing to escape the massacre incited by the vengeful Magua, Nathaniel is forced to abandon Cora, Alice, and Duncan in order to escape being captured by the Indians. Nathaniel’s absolute devotion to his Truth (protecting those he loves) never wavers. He swears to Cora that he will find her and rescue her, no matter how long it takes. And, as it turns out, it doesn’t take that long. He manages—with help from a changed Duncan—to secure her freedom, but not Alice’s. The Climax actually shifts attention away from Nathaniel and onto his adopted brother Uncas, as he sacrifices his life in an attempt to save Alice, but the thrust of the Truth remains the same. In the Resolution, they return to Nathaniel’s peaceful world—free from Magua’s and Col. Munro’s Lie—in which Nathaniel and Cora must start anew together. (The Last of the Mohicans)
  • Maximus and Lucilla rally senators and soldiers to their secret plan to overthrow Commodus. But they are discovered, and several key members of the plot, including Maximus’s loyal servant (making the defeat even more personal to Maximus), are murdered. Maximus is captured and stabbed by Commodus. In the Climax, Commodus battles the wounded Maximus, one on one, in the Coliseum, and Maximus rallies to defeat the evil emperor—only to finally succumb to his own mortal wounds. He leaves behind him a Rome that is a better place, even for the gladiators. As Juba says in the final line, “Now we are free.” (Gladiator)
  • On the heels of learning the truth about Willoughby’s abandonment of Marianne, Elinor Dashwood’s own romantic hopes are finally and completely slain when her own love Edward Ferrars is forced to announce his engagement to the horrible Lucy Steele. Even Elinor’s pragmatism crumbles for a moment as she allows herself to break down in sorrow. But she gathers herself back together and turns her attention to getting Marianne back home. Tragedy strikes and the Climax begins when Marianne runs off in the rain and becomes dangerously ill. In the end, Elinor’s patience and good sense are rewarded when Lucy jilts Edward, freeing him to finally seek (and of course) receive Elinor’s hand. The Resolution finds both Elinor and her newly sensible sister Marianne wedded blissfully to Edward and Colonel Brandon, respectively. (Sense & Sensibility)
  • The Third Plot Point finds Cap and his allies captured and headed for execution. Even worse (and more personal), Cap has just been sucker-punched with the realization that the enemy he’s been fighting all along is really his long-lost best friend. He still wholeheartedly believes in the Truth that he must destroy SHIELD, but now that mission is going to come at a higher price than even he imagined. He moves forward, with the encouragement of his allies, and unflinchingly puts the Truth before his own feelings and even his own life. In the end, his actions create a new world, free of SHIELD, in which everyone must scramble to readjust their mindsets and their lives. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Further Examples of the Third Act in a Flat Character Arc

True Grit by Charles Portis: Mattie accomplishes a resounding personal victory when she discovers the murderer Tom Chaney watering horses and manages to get the drop on him with her father’s huge old revolver. Her confidence in her Truth leads her to believe she can place Chaney under arrest all by herself. And she almost pulls it off—except her revolver misfires and a wounded Chaney takes her prisoner before Rooster and LaBoeuf can intervene. Her emotional low moment arrives when it appears Rooster is willing to abandon her to the outlaw gang. But she rallies and begins exerting her will on gang leader Ned Pepper, who leaves her with Chaney but insists Chaney not harm her. Rooster ends up killing Chaney and rescuing Mattie after she’s bitten by a rattlesnake, which relegates her to a comparatively minor role in the Climax. But the force of her personality makes the scenario work, since everything Rooster does is ultimately either because of the changes she has worked on him throughout the story or because of her own dynamism acting directly through him in the Climax itself. In the end, Mattie herself is physically changed by the loss of her arm, but her mindset remains solid (even rigid). Rooster and LaBoeuf are changed more subtextually—especially Rooster in his affection for Mattie—than dramatically. But, as the epilogue shows, the world around Mattie changes markedly in subsequent years, thanks to the actions of many law-abiding western citizens, all of whom are represented in the story by Mattie herself.

Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan: R’as Al Ghul hits Bruce Wayne where it hurts when he arrives to personally destroy Gotham—starting with Bruce and his family’s manor. Bruce is wounded and barely escapes being trapped in the burning house. He surveys the ruin and expresses his absolute doubt—not in his devotion to his Truth but in his ability to actually do anything to further it. He says, “What have I done, Alfred? Everything my family… everything my Father and his father built…” Alfred, who has previously expressed doubts about Bruce’s mission, now encourages him and urges him to pick himself up and try again. Renewed, Bruce flings himself into the chaos R’as Al Ghul has unleashed in Gotham. Practically alone in the battle, he faces R’as and uses his Truth to finally defeat him. In the Resolution, Gordon clearly describes the new world Bruce has created. He says, “You really started something—bent cops running scared, hope on the streets.” The new world isn’t perfect, since the story will continue in a sequel, but the movie makes it clear Gotham City has been definitively changed by Bruce Wayne’s beliefs and actions.

Questions to Ask About the Third Act in a Flat Character Arc

1. How is the Truth now evident in the lives of the previously Lie-driven supporting characters?

2. What defeat will nearly break your protagonist—physically, emotionally, or both—at the Third Plot Point?

3. How can he face death—literally or figuratively—in the Third Plot Point?

4. How can you make this defeat as personal as possible for the protagonist?

5. How will your protagonist doubt his ability to conquer the Lie—without actually doubting the Truth itself?

6. How will he overcome this doubt? Will supporting characters encourage him—or will he encourage them?

7. How will you indicate your protagonist’s re-dedication of himself to the Truth after his defeat at the Third Plot Point?

8. Can you offer an outright statement of the conflict’s foundational “Lie vs. Truth” premise?

9. Why will the Truth be intrinsic to the protagonist’s ability to physically defeat the antagonist?

10. How can minor characters’ new grip on the Truth support your protagonist’s final attack on the Lie without stealing the limelight from him?

11. How will the Resolution prove the changes created by the protagonist and his Truth?

12. Will the world be different from how it was in the beginning—or will the protagonist return to the same world he was originally forced to leave?

13. Which of the supporting characters will manifest the Truth in the Resolution?

14. Will the protagonist demonstrate any exterior or personal differences from who he was at the beginning of the story?

15. How can you reinforce that his core Truth has not changed at all?

I hope you’ve enjoyed our (comparatively) quick look at the fundamentals of the flat character arc. This “arc” is often misunderstood and sometimes overlooked. Authors often believe something’s amiss with their stories because their protagonists aren’t changing. But in truth, flat character arcs have the ability to create some of the most dynamic stories. Strong, catalyst characters can be just as flawed and fascinating as can those with the deepest of change arcs. But their solid devotion to one foundational Truth gives them the power to create dramatic changes in the world and characters around them. When structured properly, the result can be unforgettable.

Next month, we’ll start another three-part series that will explore three variations on the negative change arc. Stay tuned!

Read Previous Posts in This Series: Part 1: The First Act

Part 2: The Second Act

Tell me your opinion: What’s your favorite example of a flat-arc character who is both changed but unchanging in the Resolution?

how to write a flat character arc the third act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Honestly, the idea of Luke Skywalker having a relatively flat character arc comes to mind. He does change some in the stories, but to me, it’s more he realizes just how evil the dark side is. His truth that the Empire is bad never really wavers, although he’s forced to be tempted by the dark side repeatedly. Leia I would also say has a pretty flat arc–flatter than Luke.

    Thank you for this series! Definitely is helping me in the final development stages of my series since while my main character has some changes to make, most of them are subtle and happen over several stories, so most of her stories are fairly flat. :)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know, I was absently pondering Luke’s arc the other day. He’s a bit tricky. On the surface, he seems to follow a change arc – especially in the first movie – since he changes so dramatically, from whiny farmer boy to empowered Jedi. But I think you’re right. He doesn’t change fundamentally on an inner level. It’s only his skills that evolve.

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    Another enjoyable read – thanks Katie.

    A protagonist, who feels unable to confront the Lie?

    Only because of the story’s format, would I espouse that Croyan is exempt from this flat-arc narrative principle. Were his narrative reformatted, then yes – his then own flat-arc story would be include his feeling unable.

    Of course, things being they are, it doesn’t: from the text’s inception point, he knows how he can get Krenok to do what he wants – the knowledge, he needs to blackmail him he already possesses.

    On the topic of Star Wars, and Luke Skywalker – he’s definitely a nuanced case.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Mostly, it was enjoyable due to its prompting me to think of and then discuss The Representative in relation to it.

        Also, I’d actually revise part of what I said:

        Even were the text to be technically reformatted, I think Croyan would perhaps still be exempt – just, in the mere virtue of his being selected, his Primal Governor Krenok has in effect checkmated himself.

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  1. […] The third and final instalment of K.M. Weiland’s flat character arc series: The flat character arc in the third act. […]

  2. […] (Note: K.M. Weiland has an excellent three-part series on how to structure flat-character-arc stories: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.) […]

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