your character's arc in the third act

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 13: The Third Act

Character arcs in the Third Act are all about intensity. On the story’s exterior, the conflict is heating up. The protagonist is a runaway train thundering toward what has now become an inevitable confrontation with the antagonistic force. But, on the inside, he’s reeling.

Creating Character ArcsThe Third Plot Point sucker punched him. Something horrible and unexpected came out of the blue and knocked him woozy. But most important of all: this event revealed his progress in his character arc when he reflexively lashed out and acted according to the Truth, instead of his Lie. In doing so, he very well may have shoved the Thing He Wants right out of reach.

He did the right thing. And he did it from the depth of his soul. But now he has to live with the consequences. He’s grown to believe in the Truth—and yet, the Truth just ruined his life. On its exterior, the Third Act is all about your character scrambling to regain his balance before he has to face the antagonist in the Climax. But inside the character, the Third Act is all about him figuring out if he really wants to serve the Truth after all. Is it worth the price he’s just paid? If he’s ever going to return to his life of “safety” in the Lie, this is going to be his last chance.

To start us off, let’s review the structural plot moments that need to occur in the Third Act:

  • The Third Act opens with a bang—the Third Plot Point.
  • The Third Act assembles all the characters (and other important playing pieces, such as props, à la the Maltese Falcon).
  • The Third Act ties off the subplots.
  • The Third Act fulfills foreshadowing.
  • The Third Act occupies the final quarter of the book, beginning around or slightly before the 75% mark and continuing until the end.

4 Parts of the Character Arc in the Third Act

In the landscape of the Third Act, we have four important road signs to guide our journey. With the exception of aspects of the first and last of these elements (which need to be placed, respectively, just after the Third Plot Point and just before the Climax), most of these elements will be spread throughout the Third Act and will be evolved piece by piece, rather than presented in their entirety all at once. As always, pacing—which will be significantly tighter in this section—is the major consideration.

1. Up the Stakes

After his soul-wrenching realization in the Third Plot Point, the character now has to deal with the aftermath. And it’s pretty gruesome. He just threw away all his work and all his progress in moving toward the Thing He Wants. Yes, he stood on the moral high ground. Yes, he freed his soul from the oppression of the Lie. But right now, that’s not much of a consolation.

The Third Plot Point stuck a knife in the character’s back. This is where you give it a little twist. This is the sequel to your Third Plot Point, in which your character reacts to the havoc the Truth just made of his life.

So why not make it even worse? Up the stakes. If the character is emotionally miserable, why not make him physically miserable too? He just saw his best friend get killed? Perfect. Now, why not also put him on the run for his life? In a blizzard. With a bullet in his leg. Don’t make it easy for him to come to the conclusion that acting on the Truth was really the best thing he could have done for himself.

Let him wallow in his misery for just a bit. And then have him stand back up. The character must choose between surrendering to his pain and rising to continue the fight. He has to realize the price he paid to gain the Thing He Needs was worth the pain. He raises his chin and faces the wind. He knows he did the right thing—to the point that he’d do it again if he had to. He is now officially remade. That doesn’t mean he’s not still rough around the edges. He could still topple if somebody punches him hard enough. But, from this point on, he is a new man.

In Green Street Hooligans, Matt is tremendously uncomfortable with his decision to leave behind the violence of the football firms and abandon his “mates” just as they’re headed off to battle the opposing firm that tried to kill his brother-in-law. He knows he’s in over his head this time, and he knows he needs to get his sister and nephew to safety, but he can’t help feeling like he’s walking away when he should be fighting. Still, he gets in the car and starts driving to the airport.

2. Keep the Character Off Balance

In many ways the events at the Third Plot Point are climactic. The character not only acted upon the Truth, he claimed it. His arc seems like maybe it’s complete. But, in fact, the entire Third Act is about his continuing to claim the Truth—not just reflexively, but consciously. His final test won’t come until the Climax.

The important distinction here is that the character has claimed the Truth, but he still hasn’t 100% rejected the Lie. He has already turned the most important corner in his arc—the Truth is rising and the Lie is setting—but the ascendancy of the Truth isn’t yet absolute. Even as the character adjusts to his new paradigm, he will continue to experience doubts throughout the Third Act.

These doubts are keeping the character from being either completely fulfilled or completely effective in his new Truth-driven life. He is off-balance and unhappy, still not completely certain he made the right choices earlier. The irony is that, although in choosing the Truth, he has opened the door to happiness and empowerment—he still hasn’t stepped through that doorway yet.

In What About Bob?, Bob agrees it would be best for Leo if he went back to New York City. He bravely marches out into the dark forest. But even though he’s proven his sanity over and over throughout the second half of the story, he’s suddenly riddled with doubts. He surrenders to his fear and runs, screaming, back to the lake house.

3. Prove How Far the Character Has Come

Your character may be currently feeling as if he’s making no progress, but, of course, that’s not true at all. He’s made tremendous progress; the person he is now is miles away from the person he was back there at the beginning in the Normal World. You’ve already dramatically proven this in the Third Plot Point—and will dramatically prove it once again in the Climax. But you should be reinforcing the changes, in smaller ways, throughout the Third Act.

One of the best ways to do this is to create an instance in which your character can reject the Lie in a physical way. In the midst of all the other drama and trauma going on, this is usually best presented casually, even offhandedly. In Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid, the protagonist—who was previously an arrogant jerk—humbly seeks the counsel of a local news anchor, whom he’d memorably snubbed in the First Act. The point of the scene is the counsel itself, not the fact that the protagonist was willing to seek it, and as such it provides a reinforcement of how the character has already changed without making a big deal of it.

In Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant demonstrates his newfound affection for the children when he reassures them before leaving them in (what he believes is) the safety of the main lobby. He pats down Tim’s static hair and teases, “Big Tim, the human piece of toast”—something he would never have contemplated in the beginning of the story.

4. Renew the Attack Upon the Character’s New Paradigm

Prior to the Climax (which begins roughly halfway through the Third Act—and which we’ll discuss in depth in the next installment), the character’s new paradigm of Truth should come under a penultimate assault. In most stories, this renewed attack will be initiated by a character other than the main antagonist (who should be saving his big guns for the Climax itself). The attack might come from a minor antagonist (such as the contagonist), a skeptical or fearful ally, or even the character’s own inner doubts.

The point of this attack is to batter the character’s doubts about the truth. The Lie should be reinforced in convincing and attractive terms. If the character would only go back to the Lie, surely he would have a better chance of winning the battle—or maybe even avoiding it altogether. The character shakes his head, rejecting the bad advice, but he is tempted. The more convincing the attack and the greater the peril of the protagonist’s relapsing, the higher the tension will be.

Sometimes this renewed attack will segue right into the final climactic decision itself. If not, be wary of intensifying the attack too much at this point. The final and most powerful assault should come from the antagonist himself in the midst of the Climax. This renewed attack should logically lead up to the Lie’s final attack and the character’s final rejection of it. Pay attention to the needs of your story’s pacing. Sometimes, the only renewed attack your story will be able to support this close to the Climax is a brief paragraph or two of a minor character’s shaking his head and telling the protagonist, “Are you crazy?

In Jane Eyre, just before the Climax (in which she will flee back to Thornfield, fearing for Rochester’s life), Jane is subjected to a brutal attack upon her new Truth. Her cousin and would-be husband St. John Rivers insists her new Truth is a selfish and worthless pursuit. He uses her own former beliefs against her to try to convince her she can only live a worthwhile life if she enters a loveless marriage with him and joins him as a missionary in India.

Further Examples of the Character’s Arc in the Third Act

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Most of Scrooge’s Third Act is a progression of the Third Plot Point scene, in which the terrifyingly silent third spirit shows him the bleak future that awaits him. Although Scrooge is currently in no physical danger, he is shown a future in which he will not only be friendless, but in which he will die. (Mickey’s Christmas Carol ups the stakes in this section by seemingly subjecting the already miserable present-day Scrooge to the physical fires of hell when he falls into his own grave.) Scrooge has come far since the beginning of the story, but he isn’t yet convinced money isn’t the ultimate deciding point in a man’s worth. The Third Act is all about proving his own worthlessness to the rest of the world, despite his money—as evidenced by his neighbors’ heartless response to his death. Scrooge’s heartache over Tiny Tim’s death and the Cratchits’ grief proves his evolution.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: After being dragged away from his friends in Radiator Springs, without even being able to say goodbye, Lightning is an emotional mess. He’s about to compete in the race for the Piston Cup—the thing he’s been after all movie long—but he can’t focus. He’s having a hard time even finding a reason to care about this all-important tie-breaking race. His rejection of his “solo mio” attitude is jeopardizing this crucial moment in his career. He doesn’t quite understand what’s come over him, but he does prove his changed attitude when he humbly thanks Mack for filling in for his fired pit crew. Just as the climactic race begins, antagonist Chick Hicks mocks Lightning for losing his focus and missing his opportunity to “schmooze” the valuable Dinoco sponsor. Lightning is distracted and gets a slow start in the race.

Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Third Act

1. How does your character react to the Third Plot Point?

2. How has his embrace of the Truth made a mess of his life and, specifically, his pursuit of his plot goal?

3. How can you up the stakes by forcing him into physical, as well as emotional, straits?

4. How do these straits force your character to reconsider whether or not the Truth is the right choice for him?

5. How does he rise from these doubts determined to cling to the Truth?

6. What doubts is the character still experiencing about the Truth?

7. How is his inability to completely reject the Lie keeping him from total happiness and empowerment?

8. How are your character’s attitudes and actions different in the Third Act from how they were in the First? How can you subtly reinforce the difference prior to the Climax?

9. How will your character’s devotion to the Truth be put to the test? What character or situation will you use to try to tempt or bully your protagonist back into serving the Lie?

The Third Act is the place in which we get to tie off our loose ends. When it comes to character arcs, those loose ends include testing the character’s devotion to the Truth and showing his final growing pains as he sheds the Lie and moves forward to face his final test in the Climax.

The Third Act should be an exciting and tension-laden section of your story. But it’s also an all-business section, as you focus on getting all the pieces—both character and plot—assembled for that final showdown. If you’ve set up your character’s arc correctly in the previous 90% of your story, you’ll already have everything in place for an incredible character transformation in the Climax.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the Climax.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Part 5: The Characteristic Moment

Part 6: The Normal World

Part 7: The First Act

Part 8: The First Plot Point

Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act

Part 10: The Midpoint

Part 11: The Second Half of the Second Act

Part 12: The Third Plot Point

Tell me your opinion: How is your character’s devotion to the Truth tested in your Third Act?

your character's arc in 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. When it’s revealed that everything he thought about family, belonging, the pain he’s suffered is a lie, he learns that not all of them care about the details, to them, he will always be family. It gives him courage to go against the antagonist who has used the lies to prevent him from standing his ground, for himself and for his people.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example. The character’s rejection of the Lie allows the Truth to empower him for the final conflict.

  2. Wow, can I tell you how grateful I am for this series?! I just got on board recently, and have spent the last few days going over it from the beginning and using it to take notes on my WIP. Already, I figured out I need a totally new opening scene (thanks to your post on #5 Characteristic Moment) and I’m halfway through and LOVING it. Your wisdom is so incredibly helpful, especially for a a novice novelist like myself. So, thank you again for sharing all this!
    -Dana

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you’re finding it helpful! The Characteristic Moment (and how it ties into the Lie) is arguably the single most important element in a successful beginning. Once we realize that, those crazy beginnings actually get a little easy to figure out. That’s always a good thing!

  3. Wow! So much to consider and that is a big question. I’m working on developing the plot of my latest manuscript and am about to delve into issues like this – i.e. the protagonist’s devotion to the Truth in the Third Act, so this post has been so insightful. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Truth in the Third Act is one of my favorite aspects of the character arc. So much to explore!

  4. Ryan Wilson says:

    I’m not a writer. I am a social worker, addictions counselor, and math tutor. A couple months ago I got the sense that one day, I will need to write. So, I began a quest to learn how, like how to really write. With some apprehension, I signed up to your blog although I had no intention of writing fiction. And then I became totally engrossed in this character arc series. There is still a good chance that I won’t write any fiction in my career, but I’m starting to see how I can apply these structural and character arc principles to non-fiction writing. I began by seeking to organize and communicate information clearly, but your blog inspired a course-correction. I now think that a non-fiction writer’s first goal is to engage the reader’s affections, thereby opening a pathway for them to receive the information being presented, connecting head with heart. This is much more fun, by the way. Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for stopping by! Storytelling is storytelling – whether it’s fiction or non. So many of the same principles of structure and character apply across the board.

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