Understanding the Underworld of a Story’s Third Act

A story’s Third Act is unique. We often think of the Third Act in terms of its being climactic—and therefore full of excitement and high stakes. And it often is. But ultimately the Third Act fulfills a much more symbolic function within a story. Simply put, it is the proving ground for all the character has learned and accomplished in the Second Act. Even more than that, it is representative of the human psyche’s deepest levels of integration. It is, in many ways, the Underworld of your entire story.

These past few weeks, we have been exploring the symbolic lens through which we can see a story’s First Act as its Normal World and the Second Act as its Adventure World. I’ve used these metaphors for the First and Second Acts for a long time, based on my own distillation of the Hero’s Journey’s “Ordinary World” and the adventurous “Quest” that symbolizes its central conflict. As mentioned in the previous two articles in this little series, these terms are specific to the archetype of Hero, and yet I still find them useful as umbrella terms for understanding story structure in all types of story.

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When I first sat down to write on this subject (in what was intended to be a single post), I realized that if the First and Second Acts were “worlds” unto themselves, then of course symmetry demanded the Third Act must be a “world” as well. Today’s post is an overview of what I came up with in this regard.

First a look at where we’re at in this series:

1. The Normal World of the First Act

2. The Adventure World of the Second Act

3. The Underworld of the Third Act <— You are here. :p

4. The New Normal World of the Resolution

Most of the time when authors (especially genre authors) think about the Third Act, we tend to think of making it the biggest, best, most exciting part of the story. But the Hero’s Journey itself, as well as Freytag’s Triangle, shows that in some ways the Third Act is the “lowest” part of the story. Even if the external action of the story includes fireworks, a race to the finish line, or the biggest fight yet with the bad guy, the Third Act’s structural and thematic role within story structure is to dramatize the consequences of the Death/Rebirth at the Third Plot Point (which opens the act).

Therefore, I think it’s useful (and also in keeping with the general tribute to the Hero’s Journey terminology) to think of the Third Act as the story’s Underworld. The Third Act is a zone deep within the protagonist’s subconscious in which old parts (those in service to the Lie) are put forever to rest and new parts (in service to a new Truth) are assembled and animated, in a way that allows the character to then bring totally new tactics to bear upon the final confrontation with the antagonistic force.

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In stories with transformative character arcs, readers will get to witness this transmogrification close up. But even in stories in which the action is primarily focused on the external conflict, we can still see the overtones of this Underworld simply in the high stakes the character faces. This is where the emphasis on tension and therefore excitement in the Third Act comes from. In understanding the underpinnings of the “climactic excitement” we so often seek to create in our stories, we can deepen the entire thematic weft of the work.

The Underworld of the Second Act

The Third Act represents the final quarter of a story, from 75% to 100%. Having been launched by the Third Plot Point at the 75% mark, it is primarily focused upon the Climax (which begins around the 88% mark, or halfway through the Third Act) and concludes  with the Climactic Moment and subsequent Resolution. The Third Act brings the story full circle by presenting the protagonist with a final confrontation that will allow him to conclusively gain or lose his goal. After that moment, the story’s conflict is resolved one way or another and the story ends. The Third Act is the proving ground of the entire story, bookending the First Act and bringing context and meaning to the events of the Second Act.

Third Act Timeline

What Does the Underworld Symbolize?

The Underworld is the Land of the Dead. It is the Nether World, the Lower Realm, Hades, the Grave. By whatever symbolic name you choose, the Underworld is a place of Death and Rebirth—of undoing, but also potentially of reconstructing—of dismembering, but also of re-membering.

Obviously, the Underworld, even more so than the Normal World or the Adventure World, is utterly symbolic. Unless you are faithfully recreating a myth such as that of Hercules or Coyote, the Underworld in your story will not be literal. But the stakes will be life and death.

This life-and-death confrontation may be literal, as in many action stories, such as True Grit or The Hunger Games or The Avengers.

It may be even more obviously so in dramatic stories such as The Book Thief or All the Light We Cannot See or Wuthering Heights.

But it may also be represented in a characters’s psychological trauma as in The Manchurian Candidate.

Or the loss of a job as in Promised Land.

Or simply, and most inherently, a personal inner transformation for the protagonist, as in any story with a strong character arc. This is true in tragedies such as The Godfather, comedies such as What About Bob?, romances such as Pride & Prejudice, coming-of-age stories such as Stand By Me, and many, many more.

If there is any change at all within the story—and if there isn’t, that’s, at best, unusual—there will be at least the ghost of the symbolism of the Underworld in the story’s Third Act. What was “normal” in the story’s First Act is normal no longer. What has been is now gone. It has passed away. By this point, the character could not return to who she was in the First Act, even if she wanted to—and if she tries to retrogress, that too is a death, albeit a tragic one, as represented in the Negative-Change Arcs.

How Does the Underworld Function as a Physical Setting?

The Underworld of the Third Act may be represented by a new or specific setting, but very often it is not. In most stories, it will be unwise to introduce major new elements, such as significant settings, this late in the story. Generally speaking, anything that figures prominently in the Climax should have been introduced or at least heavily foreshadowed earlier in the story. Otherwise, the ending can feel either too separate from what came before (robbing it of resonance) or even as if the author is employing the “cheat” of deus ex machina.

However, in some stories, the characters may physically need to enter a new setting, for instance when they are finally “storming the castle” of the main antagonist. We see this most often in action-oriented stories, such as Captain America and the Winter Soldier, in which Cap infiltrates the Project Insight helicarriers for the first time in the movie. However, it’s important to note that these helicarriers were not a late addition to the story. They were shown and discussed in the First Act before becoming the climactic focus of the story in the Third Act.

Bucky Steve Fight on Catwalk Captain America Winter Soldier Climax

In other stories, the true Underworld portion of the Third Act may be illustrated by a more symbolic setting, in which the character wrestles with the consequences and sacrifices demanded by the Third Plot Point before rising up and moving on to the actual climactic confrontation. For example, in The Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter literally enters a liminal underworld space where he speaks with the deceased Dumbledore about whether or not he should choose to return to life to finish his battle.

In Kung-Fu Panda 2, Po spends time in a healer’s hut, where he regains painful but important memories, before returning to the final fight with the antagonist.

In The Mists of Avalon, Morgaine le Fay loses years in the real world of Camelot when she crosses over into the bewildering mists of the Fairy Land, before finally returning to confront her brother King Arthur.

Hospitals and graveyards are common liminal spaces for this beat, as in stories such as Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias.

Whatever the case, the most important thing about dramatizing the Underworld in a physical setting is not so much that it be a new setting, but that whatever setting you do choose allows you to fully dramatize the life-and-death stakes (whether physical, spiritual, psychological, etc.) and the deep significance of the changes that have been wrought since the First Act and are about to come to fruition in the Climax.

How Does the Underworld Demonstrate Theme and Impact Character Arc?

If the Normal World thematically represents the Lie the Character Believes and the Adventure World subsequently creates a testing ground that pits that Lie against the story’s thematic Truth, then the Third Act is the true domain of that Truth. Whether or not the protagonist was able to move into a transformational embrace of this new Truth will determine whether or not he was following a Positive-Change Arc. In positive stories, the Truth will reign triumphant in the Third Act, proving itself out in the character’s more conscious choice of actions and, likely, in an external victory as well, as in stories such as Back to the Future.

But even in Negative-Change Arcs, in which the character proves unequal or unwilling to embrace the necessary change, the full weight of the story’s thematic Truth will nevertheless loom large in the Third Act. If the character is able to act in accordance with this new and necessary Truth, he will be rewarded, even if the result is nothing more than a moral victory (as it is in stories such as Casablanca and Dances With Wolves).

If he is not able to level up into the reality of the Truth, he or the world around him or both will suffer the consequences, as in stories such as There Will Be Blood or August: Osage County.

The “ferryman” will always have his penny in the Third Act. If the character cannot symbolically brave the River Lethe, journey to the Underworld, and return transformed, then he is most likely to return as a “zombie” or “vampire” and the darkness of the Lower Realm will dog him throughout the rest of the story. But if he can rise above his own losses and embrace the need to upgrade his perception of himself and the world, then he gets to return to the final conflict with newfound powers that can aid him.

***

The conflict in a story will end with the Climactic Moment, in which the protagonist’s ability to gain the Thing She Wants will be decided once and for all. In most stories, this will not be the final scene, but will take place around the 98% mark, allowing space for a few Resolution scenes in which loose ends can be tied off and a “New Normal World” can be sketched. Although this section of the story takes up a bare 2% (or less) and is properly a part of the Third Act, its symbolism and significance is different enough from that  of the Underworld that I feel it deserves a post of its own. So…

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will venture into the New Normal World of the Resolution.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What happens in your story’s Underworld? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I cannot resist the opportunity for the first comment, so into the underworld I go. It seems if the Truth is the centerpiece of the third act, it functions as a scarlet thread the protagonist uses to pull themselves out of the underworld. Following the Lie led them to this pit and now following the truth can extricate them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. I love that. I’ve always liked the metaphor of the “scarlet thread,” just generally, but this seems very apt–and visually compelling. I love the image of the Third Act as a black pit, with this scarlet rope dangling down into to the darkness.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    Thank you for this! The Third Act has always been my favorite, especially because of its symbolic properties. I always enjoy coming up with properly foreshadowed settings for the Third Act, as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Me too. I’ve always loved the Death/Rebirth symbolism of the Third Act. Very juicy. 😀

  3. ’If the Normal World thematically represents the Lie the Character Believes and the Adventure World subsequently creates a testing ground that pits that Lie against the story’s thematic Truth, then the Third Act is the true domain of that Truth.’ This is a great distillation that I can keep in front of me as I finish up my world building. Thanks!

  4. Peter Moore says

    Great post on an area which, for me at least, is difficult to figure out. In my story, the protagonist spends the second act exploring, growing, and getting comfortable in the adventure world through a series of wins and losses. Since she is on a negative arc, her losses throughout the third act escalate even while her personal power grows – or perhaps because of that. The adventure world becomes a treacherous place as the nature of her antagonists becomes clearer and the stakes grow higher. She rejects help from one antagonist who betrayed and tried to kill her in the first act, setting up a confrontation with the other, more powerful, antagonist who ultimately defeats her.

    Your post helped me realize that the issue she grapples with and fails is the lie. Like many trauma victims, she never fully recovers or lets go of her pain and hatred. That inner ‘antagonist’ rules her, leading to the inability to overcome her physical antagonists no matter how powerful she becomes. In her quest for vengeance, she gains incredible destructive power which must be stopped before she can unleash it on the world. It’s only when she is imprisoned after the climactic moment (your new normal world) that she grapples with the question of if there might have been another way.

    Thanks for your insightful posts,

    Peter Moore

    • Peter Moore says

      Meant to say the Underworld becomes a treacherous place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “That inner ‘antagonist’ rules her, leading to the inability to overcome her physical antagonists no matter how powerful she becomes.”

      Ah, this such great phrasing for a Negative Arc.

  5. In The Rose of Versailles (one of my favorite manga) the underworld is represented by the French Revolution. It’s a historical event which forces the characters to choose which values they will defend and which values they will give up.

    I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Marie Antoinette doesn’t have a happy ending.

  6. “The “ferryman” will always have his penny in the Third Act. If the character cannot symbolically brave the River Lethe, journey to the Underworld, and return transformed, then he is most likely to return as a “zombie” or “vampire” and the darkness of the Lower Realm will dog him throughout the rest of the story. But if he can rise above his own losses and embrace the need to upgrade his perception of himself and the world, then he gets to return to the final conflict with newfound powers that can aid him.”

    THIS. Especially since in my book, “Lethe” is the name of the mysterious woman who calls my protagonist Paul to his journey in the first place, and mentors and taunts him along – and she is everything the mythical River Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) represents. For Paul, his Underworld is very much the dark past hidden in his psyche, which he is finally forced to confront – represented in the Real World as a harrowing and dangerous quest, in the dark, through the big lonely house where his mother died when he was 8, and which now holds all the answers he needs to save his wife and redeem ancient debts. He is almost literally “reborn” as he bursts through an upper-level window, his leg injured, the house in flames behind him, carrying his unconscious wife, gasping and near death himself, emerging from the very house that had imprisoned his soul, freed now by his willingness to face the truth.

    That’s wordy but oh well! Best I’ve got right now. 💜

  7. DAVID T. WOLF says

    Boy, this couldn’t have come at a better time for me! I am just into the third act of my new mystery. My main character is a lawyer on a complicated case. He tried a hail-Mary defense that ultimately failed and his client was found guilty at the end of Act II, and on the same day, his girlfriend returned to her husband, dumping him and announcing she’s pregnant. I was having some confusion about the 3rd Act–but this article helped me see my needs more clearly. I have never before been able to build a novel on the scaffolding of the 3 act structure as efficiently as I have this one. Hopefully, your explanation of Act 3 will guide me to a forceful and fulfilling conclusion. I have most of the elements in place. And I now realize that the lawyer’s visiting the home of his convicted client (convicted of killing her husband) will be the perfect setting for that visit to hell you prescribed and talked about!!

  8. I loved the part about liminal space! I just watched a YT video on liminal spaces in cinema. I didn’t realize healing could also be a liminal space. I have that in my 3rd act! Yay!

    I’m worried about the change in scenery. They find the killer’s lair and defeat him and his minions. I haven’t foreshadowed the setting because I didn’t want to give away the location. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  9. Thanks for this one. It definitely makes me think about the setting in my third act. My latest revision cycle sets it up pretty well, because it occurs in a wizard’s castle, which is not seen before the final act and a Spirit World, which is seen, but greatly altered by the movement of a foreign deity into it. It works out to be the place where the various external and internal conflicts come together.

    I do think its a good thought prompt to think about the world of the third act scenes separately from the rest. I think it’s too easy to make it a continuation of the adventure world rather than looking at it a different way.

    I’m keenly interested in the coming article on the resolution. I’ve read stories that just don’t have one, and that’s unsatisfying. I have a strong suspicion that I’ve overwritten my resolution, which risks losing the punch of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I think it’s too easy to make it a continuation of the adventure world rather than looking at it a different way.”

      I agree. And if you’re doing fantasy, a “spirit world” is a great symbolic representation of the Underworld for the Third Act.

  10. Edward Denecke says

    Katie, you are a seemingly infinite fount of story structure wisdom! This series is brilliant in its bird’s-eye-view perspective. Thank you so much for writing it. (Love the accompanying pictures!!)

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