You: I feel like I’m staring down the barrel of a gun.
Me: Oh, sorry about that. *puts gun away* It’s just a pellet gun, jeez.
You: No, I mean metaphorically. With this book.
Me: I don’t follow.
You: Well, it’s Day 20. I’ve got about 15,000 more words to go. I’m rounding the bend on this thing. I think I’m almost done. Maybe. Sorta. Kinda.
Me: Still not getting the problem.
You: I HAVE TO END THIS THING. Sooner! Rather than later! Gah!
Me: Ohhh. You don’t know how to end it.
You: Yeah, yes, exactly. Like, in video games, landing a plane is already a whole lot harder than the “taking off and flying around” part. I have to bring this thing in for a landing without everything going all SPLODEY FIREBALL. Can I just keep it up in the air? Maybe I’ll keep flying this thing for another 50,000 words. Or 100. Or forever and ever this book will never end. I can write a 10-book epic fantasy cycle that has no actual narrative breaks, right? That’s doable?
Me: Robert Jordan did it. Well. Maybe not. I guess he kinda died in the middle.
You: Too soon, man. Too soon.
Me: It wasn’t a joke, it was — oh, never mind. Listen, bringing this story in for a landing won’t kill you. Or kill your book because, duh, you can always come back and rewrite things. Just the same, you’ve gotta keep some shit in mind.
You: All right. School me, Dumbledore. I am your Jedi.
Me: What? Never mind. You’re about to enter what is narratively considered to be the third or final act of your work. Now, any act structure is ultimately artificial — whether it’s three or five or a hundred-and-fifty-four acts, we like to think of our story architecture as being rigid and perfectly defined, but it isn’t. We’re not building the narrative out of oaken beams and whale bones. We’re building them out of thoughts and ghosts, out of ideas and arguments, out of the hopes and dreams and fears of characters that never existed. It’s a teetering tower made of marshmallows and monsters. So, trust me when I say: the act structure is very wifty, wonky, and wibbly-wobbly. Just the same, there’s gems to mine in those dark spaces.
You: I don’t know what any of that means.
Me: It means, the third act is you rounding the narrative bend. It’s a time of high stakes and terrible transformation. Here, the story pivots hard and the characters have to navigate the shift.
You: I feel like you’re just saying things. Just babbling writey-toity buzzwords at me.
Me: It sounds like that, but let’s talk some examples. Like, in the movie —
You: Oh, Christ on a crumbcake you’re going to talk about Die Hard again.
Me: … was not.
You: What were you gonna talk about then?
Me: Uhh. Mmm. Whhhhhuhhh. Mac and Me.
Me: Yep. Yes. *coughs into hand* … Yes. Yeah.
You: Okay, let’s hear it.
Me: So, in the third act of the film, the alien — who, ahh, wants to save his alien wife — has been battling German terrorists all along, but now, now, the conflict dial is turned up to 11 as McC… as Mac the Alien loses the detonators, discovers the plan for the hostages, has to battle the FBI in addition to Gruber’s men, and worst of all, his own children are the signal that shows Hans Gruber that Holly Gennaro is actually Mrs. John… er, Mrs. Mac the Alien.
You: You just — that’s the plot of Die Hard.
Me: Nuh-uh. Nope. Not — okay, you know, I see how you’d think they were similar, but no, two, ennnnh, two totally different movies.
You: Have you ever even seen Mac and Me?
You: Fess up.
Me: Jesus, has anybody seen that movie? No! I haven’t! We’re talking about goddamn fucking Die Hard now because it’s an easy example and also an awesome one and SHUT UP YOUR FACE.
You: Fine, go ahead with your Die Hard horse-hockey.
Me: Yay! Anyway. The third act of Die Hard is an amazing example of escalation. It’s complications piled upon complications. Everything gets a whole lot more urgent as the danger needle spikes and McClane’s chances at overcoming his problem fall off a cliff. Or, more appropriately, over the edge of a skyscraper. Things go from bad to holy goatfucker shitbomb we’re all fucked. He’s about to lose his life. About to lose his hostages. About to lose his wife. The bad guy is gonna win! In McClane’s John Wayne-flavored universe, that’s a no-can-do, motherfucker. But it’s not just in that movie. A lot of movies have this sense of high-octane complication. In the third act of of Star Wars, Obi-Wan dies and the Death Star follows Luke home to the rebel base like an angry dog. At the end of Empire, we lead into the betrayal at Bespin, the carbonation (erm) of Han Solo, the fact that Luke abandons his crucial training to go run off and confront Vader where we get the most epic hard pivot: Darth Vader telling Luke that, yep, he’s actually Papa Skywalker. Really, just look at any ending you’ve liked — whether it’s from a book, a movie, a game — and try to figure out why it felt satisfying to you.
You: Okay, but how do I actually engineer that?
Me: Newsflash — you’ve been engineering this all along.
You: Wuzzat now?
Me: I mean, you’ve been introducing elements all along. Conflicts. Problems. Failed solutions. Enemies. These are your pieces. You’re playing a chess game against your protagonist and she’s the king alone on the board and these are all the pieces that remain for you to use against her.
You: She’s a king? You’re confusing me. Why do you sometimes use the female pronoun?
Me: Because I don’t assume all characters — or writers, or editors, or whatever — should be men.
You: Okay. Carry on.
Me: Look at it this way: you know the idea of Chekhov’s Gun? You introduce a gun in the first act it better fire by the third act? That’s just a metaphor. That’s a metaphor for everything you introduce in the first two acts. Every aspect of the narrative is a gun on the table — and the third act is when you fire them all. Preferably at the protagonist.
You: So, what you’re saying is that, everything that goes into the third act has been in the story all along. Meaning — this is not the time to introduce new stuff?
Me: Correct. Not a great time to introduce new (unrelated) conflicts, new characters, new mysteries. The first two acts is you letting snakes out of a bag. The final act is you killing them. You set up dominoes: now it’s time to knock them down.
You: How do I make it satisfying, though? Like, how do I craft an awesome ending that everyone will love and they’ll give me pony rides through the town square and throw Kit-Kats in my mouth from great distances?
Me: You don’t. Blah blah blah, can’t please everybody.
You: Yeah, yeah. I mean — how do I make it work for the people who have been enjoying the book thus far –? I don’t want to let those folks down.
Me: This is real threading-the-needle stuff, trust me. Ending are tricky widgets. The last act of your work needs to a) feel like an ending nobody expected while also b) feeling like the only ending that could’ve ever happened. You’ve got to both surprise them and also give over to expectations. You’re Danny Torrance at the end of The Shining, leaving footprints that you will walk back over, fooling your isolation-mad daddy into frozen death there in the heart of the hedge maze. It’s like, at the end of Se7en we’re all surprised to find Paltrow’s head in the box, and yet — it all adds up, doesn’t it? It culminates the grand plan of John Doe. Even at the end of Die Hard —
You: oh christ
Me: — you get all these great surprising moments. The gun stuck to his back with fucking Christmas tape and blood. The helicopter exploding. The broken window. Hans falling. McClane punching out the bad guy from Ghostbusters. It’s not just plot stuff. This is all primo John McClane, baby. All this stuff confirms who we think he is and yet, at the same time, takes it over the top to show us even more.
You: This sounds hard.
Me: It is. Endings are hard. But a good ending should have momentum. You’re solving mysteries. You’re answering riddles. You’re forcing the good guy to deal with the bad guys. You’re forging romance or breaking hearts. You’re taking the theme you’ve had in play all along — meaning, the argument you’re making or the big question you’re asking — and you’re either confirming it or denying it. Most important of all, you’re bringing the journeys of all the characters to a close. In a way that’s compelling and curious and exciting and heartbreaking and triumphant for the reader as much as it is for the characters. Let the characters lead, even at the end of things.
You: I can do this.
Me: Even if you can’t, that’s why Jesus invented “editing.”
You: Cool. Smell you later, Dumbledore.
Me: Hasta la vista, Mac and Me.