The Third Act: How to Write a Climactic Sequence
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Writers, it’s time to go out with a bang!
Today, we're back with the third and final installment in our mini-series on the 3-Act Story Structure. Each article in this series builds upon the last, so make sure to check out the first two installments before diving in:
- The First Act: Nailing your novel's opening chapters!
- The Second Act: Is the middle of your story dragging?
All caught up? Fantastic! Today, we’re diving into Act Three of the 3-Act Story Structure. Tension is thick. The final conflict between your protagonist and antagonist looms on the horizon. How can you ensure you write a finale that will blow readers away? Let’s get started with today’s breakdown!
An Overview of the Third Act...
If Act One of the 3-Act Story Structure is about introduction and Act Two about opposition, then Act Three is all about resolution.
Beginning where Act Two left off (somewhere between the 75% - 90% mark of your story), Act Three flows through the very last page of your book and features three important hallmarks: The Dark Night of the Soul, the Climactic Sequence, and the Resolution.
But as these hallmarks suggest, Act Three does not begin by tying up loose ends. Rather, it shakes things up by pushing your protagonist to their breaking point.
Exploring The Dark Night of the Soul...
Throughout your story, your protagonist has harbored a core flaw or fear, which causes them to believe a lie about themselves or the world around them.
This is the Lie that made your protagonist hesitate to answer the Call to Adventure in Act One and that led them to remain largely reactive during the first half of Act Two. And still, despite the positive strides your protagonist has made post-midpoint, they’ve yet to address this core flaw or fear when Act Three begins.
The Lie your protagonist believes is their greatest weakness, but they won’t be able to ignore it much longer. After recognizing the protagonist’s growing strength, your antagonist rallies to deliver a shocking blow just moments before your story’s climactic sequence.
This moment is known as the Dark Night of the Soul, and it blindsides your protagonist, pushing them to their breaking point. At last, they must confront the Lie they believe or give up everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Though the Dark Night of the Soul is often short in length — just two or three key scenes — this turning point is immensely powerful. It reiterates the threat your antagonist poses, reinforces or increases your story’s stakes, and establishes your protagonist's full development as the story's hero.
CHECK OUT THESE POPULAR EXAMPLES OF THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss realizes that the mutated hounds chasing her bear striking resemblances to deceased Tributes, including those she killed, dredging up trauma Katniss suppressed to survive.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth is forced to confront her feelings for Mr. Darcy when his haughty aunt arrives, demanding Elizabeth state she will never accept a marriage proposal from her nephew.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel must confront the inevitability of death — which she has repressed throughout her battle with cancer — when Augustus dies.
Facing Down the Climactic Sequence...
Fortunately for your protagonist, the Dark Night of the Soul is unlikely to be the end of their journey. Having confronted the Lie they believe at last, they’ll rise from the ashes of this experience with renewed strength, as ready as ever to tackle the climax of their journey — but it won’t be easy.
The stakes are higher than ever as your protagonist prepares to tangle with the antagonist or opposing force one last time. In many cases, the protagonist’s odds of success are slim, but that won’t stop them from doing everything in their power to overcome the opposition in a sequence of events known as the Climactic Sequence or Climax.
The Climax may take place anywhere between the 80% and 95% mark of a story and will indeed spell an end to the conflict between the story’s protagonist and antagonist. But contrary to popular belief, the Climactic Sequence isn’t all about external action. It also solidifies the story’s theme.
You see, theme is intricately tied to the protagonist’s journey to overcome their core flaw or fear. Though the Dark Night of the Soul is the moment that will solidify the protagonist’s transformation, it’s the Climactic Sequence that will showcase just how important that transformation is to the protagonist’s future.
Free from the bonds of their Lie, the protagonist can at last complete their journey, overcoming the antagonist and / or achieving their story goal.
Need a few examples? Check out these popular climactic sequences:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss saves Peeta from Cato, the final tribute, later killing him as an act of mercy when he is mauled by mutts. When the Gamemakers try to force Katniss and Peeta to fight to the death, they move to commit suicide instead, maintaining their integrity despite the Capitol’s demands.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth’s conversation with Darcy’s aunt rekindles Darcy’s hope in her affections. He invites Elizabeth on a walk, where they both confess their wrongdoings — and their love. Darcy proposes, and Elizabeth accepts.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the author of Hazel’s favorite book confesses that his main character was based on his daughter, who died of cancer. Hazel realizes that the author no more has the answers to life’s ambiguous ending than she does, forgives him for his actions in Amsterdam, and encourages him to begin writing again.
Resolving Your Story’s Loose Ends…
After the Climactic Sequence of a story, there remain a few loose ends that need to be resolved before you can write The End, which is why the final hallmark of Act Three is known at the Resolution.
Depending on the type of story you’re writing, your protagonist may yet need to achieve their story goal. This typically occurs when a character must first overcome the antagonist before gaining the ability to achieve their goal, and so their ultimate victory comes during the story’s Resolution rather than its Climactic Sequence.
But the Resolution of a story should also see the protagonist righting any wrongs committed before or during their journey — particularly those that stemmed from their core flaw or fear. And, of course, the Climactic Sequence itself likely presented a few consequences that the protagonist will need to clean up.
With all of these loose ends resolved — of most of them, if you’re writing a series or a story with a more ambiguous ending — all that remains is to establish the protagonist’s new everyday normal. Hopefully, one that provides your protagonist significantly more satisfaction than the everyday normal they experienced at the beginning of your story.
CHECK OUT THESE POPULAR EXAMPLES OF THE RESOLUTION:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the Gamemakers cut the game short after realizing Katniss and Peeta’s intent to commit suicide. They are taken to the hospital and later home, where they must put on a show as the winners of the Games, but are ultimately safe — for now.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth and Jane both marry. Elizabeth’s family finds some much-needed financial and emotional stability, and Darcy’s aunt at last deigns to visit him and Elizabeth, giving the happy couple hope for the future.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel discovers a letter Augustus wrote to her before his death, explaining that there will always be pain in life but that one can choose who they allow to hurt them. He tells Hazel that he too has no regrets from their short time together.
Wrapping Up the 3-Act Story Structure...
The 3-Act Story Structure is not without its limits. The blueprint it outlines is largely linear and tends to work best with a limited number of sub-plots and points-of-view, though I’ve been known to tweak this bad boy to my own multi-POV needs from time to time.
But what I love most about the 3-Act Story Structure is its comprehensive nature.
It doesn’t just help you create a basic outline for your story; it shows you how to craft powerful, interwoven plot and character arcs that together create a story your readers won’t soon forget — and it manages to do all of this while maintaining the flexibility needed to support a wide variety of stories. Perhaps your own included.
If you’re new to the craft of storytelling, some of the topics I mentioned as we discussed the 3-Act Story Structure might have been foreign to you. If you’re ready to dive in deep, here are articles covering these topics in depth: