No, the topic isn’t: the last thing we do before we die. But it’s akin to it. By bad last acts, I mean Act 3 of a lot of novels. For the life of me I don’t know how all these books with bad Act threes get published.
Alert: Kay goes on a rant.
I am one of those people who often put down books for good three quarters of the way through. I would like to hear if you are one of those people, too, just so I know I’m not alone in the world, and am not like, a hanging judge! Why do strong stories need to end so witlessly? Why do the authors of bad last acts just throw stuff at the problem and let the hero win? I’m not even talking about lack of believability, motivation and story arc (although there’s that as well) it’s that the whole last third of the story, especially the last quarter is just so frigging dumb and predictable. Please. You’ve taken me through 325 pages, and now there is just a frantic scramble, escalating in violence or horror and by golly the hero comes out on top? That’s what the author was leading up to? Just shoot me. Or the word processor that produced this ugly mish mash.
Last week I tried to finish a new author’s fantasy novel. It’s the first in a series, so it starts Very slowly. But I understand that’s how fantasy series often start (lots of context to deliver for a plot that will cover several books.) So I’m grumbling a little, but enjoying the world and the characters and a few mysteries starting to poke in. There is some furthering of the plot (finally) and now we are halfway through. What happens? The main character (MC) get’s involved with a totally new character and runs off on a mild adventure and now in the last quarter is chasing a monster around. The monster has no apparent connection to the first three quarters of the novel. MC conquers monster. Heroically.
As a story, this is a joke, and I wasted my money. Now, am I likely to read this author again?
Have a tentative ending in mind
Even if you are someone who doesn’t plan too much, it is courting disaster not to think of your ending in advance.
You may think of a novel like a leisurely road trip where you discover charming cafes and bodies in dumpsters, but if you don’t know where you are going, you may end up in some dreadful place like, say, the Canadian shield. (With apologies to the tundra and its admitted glories.) By all means change the ending if you learn more about your characters and their true arc. But chances are, if your MC has a story arc, you know how this story has to end.
You may not know how to make it especially interesting, but you’ll think of something. (You’re a writer, that’s what you do.) However, it won’t be hopelessly dumb and needlessly violent.
How to ruin Act 3
Here are some mistakes that will send your stories over the cliff:
The story doesn’t wind up enough in the first act, and therefore it has expended its energy by the midpoint.
You plan to introduce a completely new element in the last act. (Read Larry Brooks Story Engineering on the cardinal rule of what he calls Act 4.) The new element feels like cheating; it ruins believability; it can break your story in two. (Before the monster appears and After the monster appears.)
The MC is in prison or otherwise hobbled and cannot take action.
The last act is going to be full of action, but little emotion.
You’ve hidden the antagonist until now because he’s just so powerful and mysterious. When he comes on the scene, he’s got to breathe fire because you haven’t had time to deepen him. Thus it will all be about dodging fire and not inner demons.
Your MC has no inner demons. And therefore no story arc.
In a pinch, escalate the action to a violent frenzy. (I don’t mind a frenzy of violence, as long as that’s not All there is. Read Joe Abercrombie for great endings with appropriate medieval violence.)
Man up and deliver a great last act
How? Well, this is a hard question, because so much of the answer relies on what you set out to do, the extent to which theme is driving the story, the nature of your character, the expectations of genre.
But for starters:
Connect the ending to the stakes of the story. What possible outcomes were in play in Act 2? Why did they matter? By the end we should care very much.
Make the climax resolve, deepen and reflect the MC’s story arc.
The outcome may in general be inevitable and obvious, but plan for it to happen in a surprising way. Work hard at this. Reverse expectations to extent possible. Make the resolution emotionally creative. Try:
The MC wins but loses something.
A supporting character reverses loyalty.
Plant the seeds of the resolution in Act 1. When we see it in Act 3, we will reconnect with the whole story all over again.
Be devious, ruthless, original, emotional. But you know, subtle!
Make sure the MC fails at exactly this same thing earlier. How else will she learn, if not from failure? Don’t make this explicit in narrative. The reader will get it if you dramatize it well.
It’s all in the ending
Readers will forgive a slow start and a sagging middle (one or the other, not both!) But they will not forgive a crappy ending. Period.
At least this reader won’t.
So let’s all work on last acts. I’m rooting for you. We’re all in this together.