Act III of any story should be the biggest, most exciting part of the whole movie. That’s when the hero risks everything against impossible odds to pursue a goal. Watch a bad movie and you’ll see that Act III typically has the hero charge at the villain to fight with lots of special effects, explosions, and gunfire. No matter how much mayhem and destruction you put on the screen, it just gets mind-numbing and boring without a reason to care.
To make an audience care, Act III needs three items:
- Internal conflict
- Threaten a loved one
Internal conflict creates suspense and makes us care because the hero is forced into making a choice, and we’re left wondering what that choice might be. In “Casablanca,” Rick has the choice of keeping the letters of transit for himself and his ex-lover, Ilsa, which will send Ilsa’s husband to the Nazi concentration camp. Or he can give the letters of transit to Ilsa so she can escape with her husband. This internal conflict makes us want to know what he’ll choose, and that keeps us in suspense until the end.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero learns that her client is actually innocent because she can prove she was having plastic surgery done while the murder took place. Yet if she reveals that she had plastic surgery, her reputation as a celebrity will be ruined. Now the internal conflict is should the hero use evidence to guarantee her client’s freedom, but at the expense of her reputation, or should she risk having her client sent to prison for a crime she didn’t commit?
Besides internal conflict, a second way to make Act III exciting is to create a deadline. A deadline forces the hero to act now, and is usually created by the villain’s pursuit of a goal. Knowing there’s a deadline builds suspense in the same way that the slow ride up a huge hill builds suspense in a roller coaster. A deadline means we know the story will end soon, but we don’t know how it will end.
In every Western, the classic showdown involves the hero and the villain in a gun duel. We know there’s a deadline when both will draw their guns. Now we’re held in suspense wondering how it will end and how can the hero possibly win?
Finally, there should be a threat to the hero’s loved one. If the villain should succeed, that means that someone the hero loves will suffer if the hero fails. In “Star Wars,” Luke has internal conflict (whether to use the Force or his tracking computer), a deadline (the exhaust vent is coming up soon), and a threat to a loved one (if he doesn’t destroy the Death Star now, it will blow up the rebel base and kill Princess Leia). With all three elements present in Act III of “Star Wars,” the ending is far more exciting.
Think of any bad movie and it likely lacks one or more of these items. If there’s no internal conflict, the actions of the hero are predictable and boring. The hero charges at the villain and beats him.
If there’s no deadline, there’s no reason for the hero to act and no suspense. If there’s no threat to a loved one, the hero could simply walk away and let the villain win. Luke in “Star Wars” would still have been alive if Darth Vader blew up the rebel base. If there was no one on the rebel base that Luke cared about, it wouldn’t matter as much.