Often my screenwriting students hand in final scripts that are 80-90 pages long. Initially, when critiquing their scripts, I would make suggestions on plot elements they could beef up or characters to develop. But eventually, I realized the problem wasn’t that they needed to expand what they had; the problem was they were mistaking the big finale of the second act for the climax. They would get to the end of the second act and think, “I’ve blown up a bus, I’ve blown up a plane, I’ve killed half my characters, what else can I do?” The answer is write the climax, and the surprise is frequently the climax won’t involve an even bigger explosion or gunfight.
The climax is the confrontation between the hero and the true villain. Often it’s pared down to just these two characters. The climax of Spider-man is a fight to the death between Spider-man and the Green Goblin. But even more often, the climax is a fight between the hero and the true villain with one life hanging in the balance.
The average screenplay is between 95 and 120 pages; the rule is one page a minute; and a movie should end up between an hour and a half and two hours long. Screenplays and movies are generally accepted to have three acts. In the first act, the main character is introduced along with their central conflict and the environment or world of the story. If the main character is a rookie cop, the world might be the New York City police force, and the central conflict might be that this cop wants to stay clean in a world where corruption is commonplace.
Sometimes the main character will meet a mentor in the opening act, and something this mentor tells them will incite the hero to take action in some way. This action will set off the main plot of the movie and open the second act. The second act is characterized by rising drama and conflict.
One of the clearest examples of three-act structure is Speed, written by Graham Yost. In the first act, Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is working with his partner to find a bomb in a building. They discuss different scenerios for diffusing a hostage situation, and one is to shoot the hostage. Moments later, Jack’s partner is taken hostage, and Jack shoots him in the leg. His action sets off the second act where he will be working alone matching wits with the mad bomber, played by Dennis Hopper.
The second act of the movie is often what’s most memorable. In Speed, a movie about a bomb on a city bus, the second act takes place on the bus. In the finale of the second act, the hero saves the passengers, and they escape from the bus which rolls across an airport runway and smashes into an airplane causing a dazzling explosion. Many viewers will remember this as the end of the movie, but it wasn’t. Like all satisfying stories, Speed has a climax, a third act, where the hero faces off with the villain. In the climax of Speed, Sandra Bullock’s character Annie is strapped with explosives and taken hostage. Over the course of the second act, Jack and Annie fell in love, so saving her life is crucial to Jack. In this short final scene, the third act is usually only 10-20 pages; Jack follows Payne into the subways and saves Annie. Unlike the second act, which featured a bus load of passengers and the police force, in the third act, Jack works alone.
Sometimes the hero is forced to fight alone because his mentor was killed at the end of the second act. This is true in films like Star Wars, where the hero has to revenge his mentor’s death. Sometimes it seems like the problems have been solved, the movie is over, and the police are moving in to finish the job. No matter how many times I’ve scene The Silence of the Lambs, I’m always fooled by the ending. The cops thank Clarice for her hard work, then I feel tremendously disappointed that she’s not going to be there when they catch Buffalo Bill. Then the third act begins, and we realize the cops have gone to the wrong place. Clarice will have to stop Buffalo Bill on her own and save the life of the woman in the pit. Her mentor, Hannibal Lecter has escaped.
Collateral is another great three act movie. If you asked anyone about the world of the film, they would say it took place in Max’s cab driving around downtown LA at night. In the first act, Max picks up Vincent, who is both a mentor and an antagonist in this movie. The second act begins when a body drops onto the roof of Max’s cab, and he realizes Vincent is the killer. At the end of the second act, Max intentionally crashes the cab because he realizes the last person on Vincent’s list is Annie, a woman Max met earlier in the evening. Throughout the second act, Max and Vincent are working together, even though Max is not there by choice. In the final act, Max realizes he must defeat Vincent to save himself and save Annie. The final act becomes a struggle for life between these two central characters and the woman that one loves and the other wants to kill. In Collateral, the action moves out of the cab and off the streets of LA and into an office building, then oddly, like Speed, it ends in the subway.
The third act is not what we remember when we recount the story to our friends, but without the third act, the story isn’t resolved. In Ray, another film with a brilliant performance by Jamie Foxx, the third act is just Ray Charles alone on a hospital bed fighting his addiction to heroine. Ray’s true antagonist is himself. In the climax, he has to come to terms with his past in a series of flashbacks of his mother and younger brother who died. Ray Charles is an ideal character: a blind man, alone on the road, with no one to trust. He had to be paid in single dollar bills because it was the only way he could know that he wasn’t being cheated. Eventually, he hired business managers, but they always cheated him, and in his personal relationships, he was the cheater. Throughout the movie, Ray overcomes obstacles and turns his pain into music. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine this movie ending with Ray’s financial and artistic success, but I think Taylor Hackford and James L. White realized wealth and success alone wouldn’t end Charles’s story. The climax needed to address his personal demons and his need to ultimately overcome his heroine addiction.
Some people call the screenwriting rules a Hollywood formula. I tend to think we all want to have a similar experience in watching a film. We want to leave our lives and be transported into the world of the main character; we want that character to overcome obstacles and learn something; then, we want everything to be resolved so we can be transported back into our seats and go home. When the hero doesn’t finish what he or she set out to do, we leave feeling unsatisfied.
A movie like Smokin’ Aces had interesting characters, great sets, and lots and lots of action. The second act offered a non-stop roller-coaster ride of gunfights, but the film lacked a satisfying confrontation between the main character, a young FBI Agent played by Ryan Reynolds, and the true antagonist who I won’t give away. What I will say is there was a life hanging in the balance, so all the elements were there – they just didn’t add up a satisfying ending. A recent success, on the other hand, was Rocky Balboa. Everyone I know who saw this film was completely surprised by how much they liked it. And it all came down to the third act, the climax, when the hero, alone in the ring, fights the ultimate fight.
First published in StudentFilmmakers Magazine.