In Act III, everything is action. If you watch Act III of any movie, you’ll see a lot of movement, action, and excitement, but none of it will mean anything unless you know about the rest of the story as well.
Strip away Acts I and II and you’re left with Act III, which consists of nothing but a lot of action. In a bad movie, all of that action is meaningless, but in a good movie, all of that action maks sense based on waht we’ve learned about the hero in Acts I and II.
In “Thelma and Louise,” Act III is about the two women being hunted down. It’s exciting, fast-paced, and utterly meaningless if you don’t know what happened to them in Acts I and II. Because we’ve seen the two women grow in Acts I and II, Act III’s non-stop action makes a lot of sense and holds our attention.
Now imagine if you just saw Act III of “Thelma and Louise” and never saw the beginning of the movie. All of that action might be interesting just for the sake of action, but it means far less than what you might feel if you had seen the whole movie.
That’s the big difference between a good movie and a bad one. Both can have plenty of action, but while one of them imbues its action with meaning like “Thelma and Louise” or “Terminator 2,” bad movies just throw up (liteally) a bunch of action and hope that all these special effects and explosions will keep you entertained like in “Transformers.”
Action without meaning is meaningless. Action with meaning is a good story.
Act III is basically what the movie is all about. In “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s the final battle scene. In “Die Hard,” it’s the final battle scene. In “Terminator 2,” it’s the final battle scene. By the time we get to Act III, we should have a clear idea what the hero wants, what the villain wants, and why the hero and villain are doing what they do.
A while back, I remember seeing a really bad movie with one of the Wayan brothers in it. Throughout the whole movie, the hero was just an ordinary guy, but suddenly in Act III, this guy knows how to use a gun. Huh?
If you’re introducing something new in Act III, you’ve just turned your screenplay into a bad movie. Act III should show us nothing that we haven’t already seen before. If your hero needs to know rope climbing or how to ride a unicycle in Act III, we better see that earlier in Acts I or II. Likewise, if you show something interesting in Act I or II, we’d probably like to see that later in Act III.
In the old 70’s movie “Earthquake,” there’s a daredevil motorcyclist who appears in Act I and II. For some reason in Act III, we never get to see that motorcyclist use his dardevil skills in any way. Again, Huh?
Here’s the general rule. If you make a big deal out of something in Act I or II, you have to make it pay off in Act III where all the action takes place. If you need the hero to survive by doing something in Act III, you better show us earlier how the hero used that skill in Act I or II.
Act III is all about action, but all that action depends on your setups in Acts I and II. By itself, Act III is just action, but when combined when what we know in Acts I and II, Act III suddenly moves beyond just a bunch of meaningless action and suddenly takes on a whole new significance, and that’s what you want in your screenplay.