The Importance of the Last Act in Story Structure

Seven days remaining in November means NaNoWriMo participants are nearing the end of their commitment to write 50,000 words this month. For some, that means their work-in-progress (WIP) is nearing the end of the story arc. Other writers may have many more words to scribble or ponder. Regardless of where you are, the importance of the last act in story structure, the last act of your WIP, is as big as the first act.

image of a stage with the curtains up and open and the words Act III on it--the importance of the last act is as big as the first act

The Beginning of the End

People will disagree where the beginning of the end of a story is. But if you get the last point of Act IIB wrong, your story will end with a reader’s whimper instead of the reader’s satisfied sigh.

The last plot point of Act II, often called the dark night of the soul, is when it appears all is lost. The antagonist has delivered a shocking blow, and the protagonist can’t see a way to go forward. She looks back at herself for a moment. She must face her flaw or fear—the lie she believes about herself or the world. Facing what she’s become, what she’s done, she’ll like or dislike. And in that mirror of self-reflection, she will see a piece of information in a new light. Despite her doubts and second thoughts, that information will solidify her new insights about herself. And those will propel her through the first half of Act III.

The First Half of Act III

photo of a wall with  seven identical closed doors-the importance of the final act in story structure leaves the protagonist with fewer and fewer choices.

The protagonist acts on her new information and yet she still cannot confront the big bad guy or solve the problem. Perhaps her doubts and second thoughts curtail her. Or defeat dogs her in such a way that just when she thinks she’s got it made, she must choose a different path. Each choice narrows the options she’ll have the next time. Each choice she makes drives her closer and closer to the final confrontation. She is on a runaway rollercoaster headed on the long downhill slope that takes her directly to a face-off with the antagonist. 

The Crisis Decision

At the halfway point of Act III, she faces a final decision. It’s do or die time. She will confront the antagonist face-to-face. Typically, we humans tend to shy away from this in real life. But this is fiction, and for the most satisfying story the protagonist must meet the antagonist head on. 

A rodeo clown with a barrel between him and a raging bull pictured here--shows the importance of the final act in story structure--the protagonist must face the antagonist

The decision that faces her demands she make a difficult choice. It’s the final sacrifice. In thrillers, it’s often literally a choice between a fight to the death or running away. In a love story, the protagonist makes a personal sacrifice for the one she loves. It’s that sense of giving up something personal (even if it’s not a life or death sacrifice) that makes the resolution satisfying. The protagonist gave up something and because of that she achieves her goal. Stories don’t always have to have a happy ending to be satisfying to your reader. Though a satisfying “unhappy” ending is much tougher to write.

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story resolves or hints at resolution to loose threads or subplots. And if you’ve hit your plot points and crisis decision well, the last page, paragraph, and line will give the reader that sense of ah—satisfaction.

Final Thoughts

There are other ways to discuss story structure—the hero’s journey, the five act structure, the seven point story structure, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, and James Scott Bell’s A Disturbance and Two Doorways. They are tools, variations of the same basic story structure. The structure I teach? It’s a combination of the three act and the seven point structure. Which one should you use? The one you understand. The one that fits your way of thinking and writing stories.

No matter which method or what terms you use, if you want to be a successful writer—study successful stories. Figure out what terms make sense to you. Then use them, not as a template but as guidelines.

Thank You for Reading

I hope you’ve gotten something out of this series of blog posts. Did you miss the first two? Check out my post about using story goals and the one about a strong midpoint.

If you’d like to learn more, read my posts on re-visioning your story or check out the list of resources for writers on this site. If you have additional questions about the importance of the last act in story structure or any other story writing questions make a comment below. I will do my best to answer your questions.

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