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How To Write A Better Third Act

By Marilyn Horowitz

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There are two basic problems with third acts.

The first problem I find is that when my students are structuring new screenplays, there is always a concern about whether or not they need to know the ending before they begin to write. My reply is always that they already know the answer: the ending will be happy, sad - or something else. I suggest they write the scenes they are sure of and the end will become apparent.

Also if the writer has created juicy, dynamic characters, they grow and change during the writing process. If the writer forces the characters to behave in a certain way in order to fit the ending he or she has planned, this can dilute an otherwise strong piece of work.

Writers who are willing to be open to what happens in the third act write better scripts. There will be greater suspense because the writer doesn't know what the outcome will be.

The second problem I find is that writers often don't answer the dramatic questions in Act 3 that they have set up in Act 1.

Bill Wilder said, "If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act."

And he was right. If your third act isn't working, don't blame it. The trouble is probably back in the first act. The first step is for you to go back and look at Act 1. What expectations have you set up for your audience?

Now review what happens in Act 3. Have you really answered those questions and satisfied your audience? If not, you know what to do.

For example, in Witness, the first act raises questions: will John book catch the killer, will Samuel and Rachel escape and will Rachel, a widow, find love?

The third act, answers these questions: the bad guys are caught, the boy is safe, and Rachel will find love, but not with John Book.

By identifying the dramatic questions you have set-up in Act 1, and pay them off in Act 3, you will definitely create a strong third act.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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