The Third Act: How to Write a Climactic Sequence

Writing the climax of your story can be tough, especially when you have so many storylines and threads of tension to tie up into one heck of an epic showdown. Need a little guidance? No problem! Check out this breakdown of the third act from Kristen Kieffer at She's Novel!

Ready to talk structure, folks?

Today, we're back with the third installment in our October mini-series on the 3-Act Story Structure. Hurray! If you need to catch up on the importance of structure and how to outline acts one and two of your story, click on these babies below:
 


All caught up? Great!

In today's blog post, we'll dive into the third and final act of our novels. Tension is thick and a huge conflict between the hero and villain lies on the horizon. Now it's time to get your readers there–and make the big moment as climactic as possible! 

But before we jump right into the climactic sequence, let's break down a few third act basics.

 

Introducing the third act...

The third act of the 3-Act Story Structure picks up right where the second act left off, typically around the 75% mark of the story.

At this point, your hero is hurtling towards the climax of the novel, both chasing down their story goal and actively seeking to stop the villain in their tracks. But Act Three isn't just the climax and the resolution, followed by The End.

Act Three actually consists of three distinct sequences: the climax and the resolution, of course, but also "The Dark Night of the Soul."

Never heard of it? Need a bit more guidance? Let's dive in deep!

 

Exploring The Dark Night of the Soul...

Nothing increases tension and raises the stakes more than roadblocks in your hero's path to success. Your hero has already faced many of them throughout their journey, including the epic midpoint we discussed in Act Two

But before your hero comes up on the biggest conflict of the story, they first need to face one final, massive roadblock in their journey. And this is a moment that should make or break your hero.

No longer do they have myriad options. Either they must overcome this horrifying roadblock or they must go home–or, in some cases, face death.

This final roadblock is called The Dark Night of the Soul because the hero's choice to overcome this roadblock often forces them to finally face down whatever internal conflict or flaw has been bogging them down throughout the story. 

Need a few examples? No problem:


The Hunger Games. The Dark Night of the Soul occurs when Katniss, Peeta, and Cato are being chased by the dead tributes that have been mutated into mutts. The mutts force Katniss to mentally confront all of the horrors that she has suppressed thus far in order to survive.

This warps Katniss's mindset, but this Dark Night of the Soul is a bit unique in that it's not a hurdle that Katniss can overcome before the climax. Rather, it serves to up the stakes during the big climactic sequence, making it more difficult for Katniss to succeed in surviving the games.


Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie's view of Mr. Darcy has drastically changed thanks to the events of the second act, but it isn't until Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy's haughty aunt, shows up at Longbourn that Lizzie is forced to confront her change of heart.

Lady Catherine demands that Lizzie say she is not engaged to Mr. Darcy and never shall be, but Lizzie chooses to reply that she will never make such a statement as it is counterintuitive to her happiness.


The Fault in Our Stars. Another roadblock in Hazel's journey to find happiness–or more aptly, overcome fear of oblivion–occurs when Gus dies. At last, Hazel is forced to confront the inevitability of death that she has feared for so long.

Hazel comes to understand that it's not the end that matters so much as the journey. This is made manifest when Van Houten shows up and reveals the truth behind the ambiguous ending of his novel, but Hazel isn't interested anymore.

 

Facing down the climactic sequence...

Now that the Dark Night of the Soul has given your hero a new mindset or outlook, they are finally ready to face down the villain and achieve their story goal. 

This point in your novel is popularly called "the climax", but the term "climactic sequence" is–in my opinion, at least–more appropriate. Why? Because very few stories have climaxes that play out in the space of just one scene. 

In most cases, the hero achieves their goal and overcomes the villain in separate scenes, not to mention the other scenes of conflict that occur as a lead up or wind down from the biggest instance of conflict between the hero and the villain. 

But more important than what you call the climactic sequence is how you write it.

This sequence should be absolutely engrossing for readers. The stakes are higher than ever, your villain is looking mighty terrifying, and the hero's chances of overcoming them are slim. And so your readers should be flying through the pages, desperate to figure out how it will all end.

The climactic sequence should take place anywhere between the 80% - 95% mark of your novel, and the stakes should either be life-threatening or forever life-changing. 

Need a few examples? Let's uncover these:
 

The Hunger Games. The climactic sequence begins when Cato attacks Peeta on top of the Cornucopia, holding him hostage in an attempt to force Katniss to stand down. But Katniss, through her mental fog, manages to shoot Cato in the hand.

Peeta then shoves Cato over the edge of the Cornucopia and the mutts begin to tear him apart. But Cato doesn't die for hours, until Katniss finally shoots him to put him out of his misery. But the climax isn't done yet.

Katniss and Peeta now believe that they have won The Hunger Games, only to discover that the Capitol decides that only one of them can win after all. Not wanting to kill one another, Katniss and Peeta decide to commit suicide by eating poisoned berries.

Just as they are about to ingest the berries, the Capitol names both Katniss and Peeta the winners.


Pride and Prejudice. The climactic sequence in P&P is much shorter. When Darcy returns to Longbourn, Lizzie and Darcy go for a walk and confess their love for one another.

Darcy reveals that Lizzie's statements to his aunt rekindled his hope of her love, and he once again offers his hand in marriage. This time, Lizzie happily accepts.


The Fault in Our Stars. The climactic sequence in TFIOS occurs several days after Gus's funeral, when Isaac reveals that Gus was writing something for Hazel. Hazel frantically searches for Gus's pages when she happens upon Van Houten once again.

Van Houten reveals that the main character in his book, Anna, was based off of his daughter, who died of cancer. Hazel realizes that Van Houten no more has the answers to life's ambiguous ending than she does.

Hazel encourages Van Houten to get sober and start writing again, finally understanding what it means to live despite the fear of death. 

 

Wrapping up the third act...

The third act of the 3-Act Story Structure ends with the resolution of the story. The hero has now overcome the villain and reached their story goal. All that is left for them to do is wrap up any remaining threads of tension and find their new normal.

The resolution of your story should take place within the last 5% - 10% of your novel.

At this point, all of the major threads of tension and conflict have been resolved, so if the resolution begins any sooner, you risk boring readers in your final pages. And that's no good!

So what does the resolution look like in action? Here are a few examples:


The Hunger Games. The resolution in The Hunger Games occurs over the series of several scenes. First, Katniss and Peeta are taken out of the arena and transported to a recuperation center.

There, Haymitch reveals to Katniss that the Capitol saw the incident with the berries as an act of defiance and that she is likely in danger.

He later tells her that she performed well in the arena, and the truth about her romance with Peeta is revealed, angering him as Peeta did not realize it was all a sham. Finally, Peeta and Katniss return home, but are forced to put on a show for the cameras.

The Hunger Games' leaves two threads of tension–Katniss and Peeta's relationship and the conflict with the Capitol–open-ended to lead the way into the next book in the trilogy, while still wrapping up most of book one's major conflicts for a satisfying ending.


Pride and Prejudice. In the resolution of P&P, both Lizzie and Jane marry their respective beaus and begin their new lives as happy and wealthy ladies.

Lizzie also reports that Kitty has benefited from her distance from Lydia and that Lady Catherine eventually deigns to visit the Darcy's, thus sparking a new future for the happy couple.


The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel's story resolves when she discovers the pages Gus wrote for her. In those pages, Gus writes that pain in life is inevitable but that you can choose who you allow to hurt you.

Gus remarks that he is very happy in his choice to have grown close to Hazel. He hopes she feels the same despite his death, and Hazel affirms that she is very happy to have known him indeed, despite their short time together.


Let's Chat!


Look! We've reached the end of the 3-Act Story Structure. Wasn't that fun?

I had originally intended to stretch this mini-series into four parts, but as I wrote, I realized that sticking to one blog post per act was the best course of action.

That said, if you guys would like to see a fourth post in this series in which I answer your questions or give more examples, etc., please let me know in the comments below. I would be happy to oblige!

Now let's go structure our latest projects, shall we? Onward!


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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!

Kristen is the author of the upcoming The Books of Maveryn series and The Astral Series, as well as several non-fiction books for writers.