Three act storytelling makes for one of the most popular ways to tell a story. You’ll find it in short stories by Roald Dahl, books by Stephen King and James Patterson, fables by the Grimm brothers – and nearly every other story you can think of. It’s widely used because it works, and when used right, it’s impossible to predict what finally takes place in the third act or how.
Landing the third act of your story is vital. If you’ve ever read a book that had a great beginning or middle but a terrible, disappointing ending, you’ll know how important it is for you as a writer to get it right.
Here are a few practical and easy ways to land act three when using third act storytelling.
Classic Bad Endings
What makes for a bad ending? Any third act that doesn’t make the first two acts feel satisfying is a bad ending to your story.
Endings can successfully be final endings or cliffhangers that leave a few exciting loose ends for the reader’s imagination or the next story or book in the series.
But endings can’t be anything that makes the reader feel disappointed in how the story got there. Endings also can’t (and shouldn’t) ever be ones that can be predicted in the beginnings of your story.
“When he/she woke up, it had all been a dream.” is one of the most popular forms of a bad ending. It nullifies the journey that your hero took before that. “Obviously he/she did it.” is a bad ending for a mystery story unless you have a good reason for identifying your story’s murderer as an obvious one.
Use the Second Act Right
The second act of your story is the part where you build up the tension towards your ending. For a lot of murders and mystery stories, it’s where your protagonist investigates the story (or chases the villain, whether or not the reader or protagonist knows who they are at this point in the story).
The second act is a great place to show the journey and to build your characters. It’s also a great place to throw in conflicts that distract your characters from their journey – or quests that help to get them there faster.
Things like false-truths, useless leads and lying clues are a few things in your second act that might help to distract the hero (and keep the reader from figuring out where the story is going from there).
When used right, the second act of your story doesn’t have to be predictable.
Ending Act Three
How do you end a story effectively?
Some endings are twists. Some endings are epic confrontations. Some endings are emotional conclusions. Other endings leave a few loose ends for the next series or book – or for the reader’s imagination.
To see how story endings work – and which ones work well – pick five of your favorite stories and look at the last sentence or paragraph. How does it end? How did the writer help the story to get there and which elements of the story helped so that you didn’t see the ending coming a few pages ago?
Next, choose stories where you didn’t like the ending – or the story. Look at these and compare them up against the other stories that you just looked at. What makes them different? The three act structure can be quite difficult to master.
Twists and Turns
Different twists and turns are often what helps to make a story worth it. Not all leads have to lead somewhere useful, and stories can contain a lot of other side-tracks that can lead your hero around (and keep your final ending exciting).