Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A novel in three acts: Act Three

So, here we have the final act. It's the easiest to write, but the hardest to write about; at least, I think so.

Again, before we go further, remember: this is my way, and the way of a few writers I know. It is NOT the way of every writer I know; it is not the only way; it is not an iron-clad rule or something which requires complicated flow charts (although the post Patrice Michelle linked to in comments for the last post, which was a post she wrote about, essentially, keeping a flow chart, is a great post and a great method for people who can work that way) or strict word-count deadlines (I'm using a 90k book as an example, and ending the acts at 30k, 60k, and roughly 90k, but you may vary by as much as 10k words or whatever and that's fine). No secret gun-toting Writing Police are going to show up at your home in the dead of night and arrest you for not doing this or not doing it properly or whatever.

These are just guidelines. It's the way I keep the story from getting away from me and the way I keep my pacing on-target. It's not something to obsess about. It's not something to force yourself to do. As Patrice said, if you're writing your first novel or your second or you're still feeling your way through this writing thing (which we all are to some extent, really, no matter how many books we've written), don't get all tangled up in this. You can always go back later and see how you've done and fiddle with it then.


So. We've now written our first act, in which we laid out all of our clues and introduced our main characters, and we ended that act with a bang. We've written our second act, where we deepened our mysteries and conflicts, and added depth to our subplots. We also ended the second act with a bang; hopefully a hell of a big one, which turned everything around, but again, this depends on the book.

Our third act is about solving our problems. Whodunnit? What happens with our detective Jennifer's grandma in the home and her ex-lover? Does she end up with him again, or is she suddenly realizing she's got a thing for one of the cops or the drug dealer or whatever? What deadly jeopardy is Jennifer in--or about the be in--when the second act ends, and will she survive act 3? Will anyone? In comments to the last entry Patrice and I discussed how the information a character receives shouldn't come easily. It's not true for everything but for most of it; well, that's where your story actually comes from, right? The difficulties and complications of getting necessary information and/or aid? It wouldn't be a very interesting book if in Chapter Four Jennifer found an eyewitness who told her exactly what happened, and then they just went and caught the Bad Guy, right? (Unless you're going for courtroom drama, of course.)

Anyway. Patrice suggested that sometimes information is paid for in lives, or in giving up things which are important to the characters. And that's very true. So the question of whether everyone survives to act 3, and whether everyone will survive act 3, is a pretty big one. What is your MC going to lose in the climax? What will she gain? Is what she gains going to be worth it?

I digress. The point is, Act 3 is where everything comes together. All those subplots we started, and all those clues we planted, all those threads we expanded on? It's time to wrap them up.

And it's fun. The tricky thing about the third act, though, is making it fun and interesting for the reader as well. Oh, sure, they're going to be interested in your climax and the solution to the mystery or resolution of whatever the conflict is. (Personally, I adore those big Agatha Christie-esque "drawing room" scenes; I don't need a lot of action, I just want to read those slowly and savor them.)

But they're not very fashionable anymore, so usually what we end up with is a big action-filled climax, and I love those too. But you have to have raised the stakes high enough. And you have to keep enough tension going, enough conflict going, that it doesn't feel like you're ticking things off a list.

I generally up the pacing in the third act, which I think helps; shorter scenes. More active ones. A little less internal monologue. The reader feels the tension building, even if they're not conscious of it; they know something is coming, because the shorter scenes move the book along faster, and of course they're aware of how far into the book they've gotten, but it's pacing and increasing conflict which really works magic when we near the book's climax.

To me the third act is like knocking down dominos, for lack of a less-cliched image. I've set all these things up; I have loose threads waving in the breeze. Now I start grabbing them and tying them together.

In act 2 we had Jennifer place her grandmother in a nursing home, which happened to be run by the mother of one of the victims. Now is the moment when one of the nurses at the home can make a casual comment which rings a bell in Jennifer's head; perhaps Jennifer realizes the nurse had a heretofore unguessed motive to kill the first victim. And the second. (I feel guilty making a nurse the Bad Guy, btw; my mother is an emergency room nurse. Sorry, Mom. For the record nurses are AWESOME.) And of course, she had access to the drug which killed them both.

Now Jennifer has to figure out how to get out of the room and call the police. Perhaps the nurse twigs on to Jennifer's newfound knowledge? And insists that she take Jennifer's grandma to get a spongebath or something? And the director of the home, who of course has no idea, backs her up. Now Jennifer's grandma is a hostage, and Jennifer knows the nurse will kill her. Maybe the nurse thought Jennifer had figured it out before, and slipped something into Jennifer's drink.

This is all well and good; we have a climax. But we have other subplots which need to be tied up, and we need to do it before we get into our climax; not all of them, necessarily, and of course if we're writing a series we need to leave some open-ended questions, but some of them.

How you do this is up to you (hey, I warned you the third act was hard to write about.) For a 90k book, I generally start the real run-up to my climax at around 70k; in the above example, this would be when Jennifer arrives at the home. That way we're around 75k or so when she gets drugged and solves the mystery; it gives us some room to play. Your runup may be longer; my climaxes tend to be longer, involving as they do complex rituals and secrets and abandoned asylums full of zombies.

But if you've set up your first two acts properly, really, the third will essentially write itself. Honestly. You'll have some scenes and resolutions in mind; you'll have arranged events in such a way that logic will move you smoothly from one scene to another. And that is extremely important. The last thing you or anyone wants or needs is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it climaxes, or one where everything just falls into place and it ends up being more of an anticlimax than a climax. We've all read books like that, where we fly through 320 pages of excitement and then the hero shoots and kills the bad guy and that's it.

You don't want to do that. You want to make sure you planted enough seeds, and grew them, in the first two acts, that there's plenty of stuff to work with at the end. You want to try and tie at least one subplot directly into your climax; in PERSONAL DEMONS I had the msytery of Megan's past; it was a minor point throughout the book but without it the climax never could have happened, and it figured prominently therein. In our Jennifer example, without Grandma and her poor health we wouldn't have solved the murders. Perhaps Jennifer's ex is involved here somehow too? Maybe he calls her and she says something, an old private joke, which warns him she's in trouble so he can call the cops? However you do it, the key (IMO) to an interesting and fulfilling climax is to bring as many story threads as you can into it, and end them all with the biggest bang you can muster.

Here's the thing about structures like these. Whether you're using a three-act structure or a four-act structure or a twenty-two-act structure (NO, I've never heard of that and know nothing about it, ha) is that at some point, you have to stop setting your book up.

It has to stop. Your book cannot be 300 pages of setup, a climax, and an ending. Well, okay, if you want to look at it a certain way, that's what all books are, but you know what I mean and don't pretend you don't.

The longer your subplots are part of your story, the more interesting and surprising and satisfying their resolution will be for the reader. The more danger you put your MC in, the more exciting the climax will be for the reader.

A book where subplots and plots do not carry through all the way feels episodic; it's not a story, it's a selection of vignettes. This why I stop adding new subplots to the book after the first third (again, I may make an exception if a new character is introduced, but chances are that's actually more of a setup for the next book). Because at some point you have to work with what is already there. You have to deepen and expand what is already there. You have to sink into your story and work at it from the inside, rather than throwing more stuff at it from the outside.

And that's the other big thing (aside from pacing) this structure does for me. It forces me to work with what is already there. I can't write a deux ex machina, because I have to work with what is already there. I can't veer out of the story and suddenly decide to change the focus, because I have to work with what is already there.

It keeps my books focused. It keeps my mind focused. It keeps my pacing even and makes sure my middles aren't long saggy stretches of not-much-happening. It gives me discipline, and discpline is tremendously important for a writer.

So there you go. :-) Like I said, I think the third act is very difficult to write about, because what it essentially boils down to is 'finish the book'. Pick up the seeds and hints and clues you dropped and make sure they have a solid place to land. Make sure you keep the tension high. Make sure you use everything you can in the climax. Remember that if you've written your book logically, so your climax and resolution will also come out logically.

And then you have a book.

Questions? Thoughts?


Charles Gramlich said...

when I wrote Cold in the Light, I unconsciously followed this pattern and even named them this way. Part 1 was Things Begin Alone. Part 2 was broken into two parts really, 2a) Things Come Together, and 2b) Things Fall Apart. Part 3, which was called part 4 in the book, was Things End in Blood.

BernardL said...

Cutting off the subplots is one of the hardest items I have to force myself to deal with. Episodic best describes it. :) Your suggested run-up to the end at around the 70,000 word feels just right.

Anonymous said...

About how many pages is a 70,000 word book? Or a 90,000 word book? Just curious


December/Stacia said...

Lol, Charles, those are awesome titles! Yes, that's exactly how it all plays out, isn't it. Wow. Really cool! :-)

Thanks Bernard! Yeah, it usually seems to work out best for me that way. The third act is usually not as long as the others, so...

Hey there T. Morgan! {{hug}} It depends, actually. For word counts I go with Word's word count, which is different from ms-format word count (250 words per page). So when my document says 90k words, I've got about, oh, 410 ms pages or so, give or take. But according to ms-format, that's about 103,000 words.

None of which answers your question, really. So a 70k book for Word is maybe 380 pages or so; a 90k book would be over that. I just finished copyedits on UNHOLY GHOSTS and that one by Word word count is about 98k; including front pages and a few backpages it's about 477 pages of manuscript altogether.

I was a little worried about length since my contract states mss around 90k, but the agent man says not to worry about it and that although the books might be a little long, I don't "write" long--they don't feel like long books, in other words, which was a nice thing to say. :-)

I'll explain it better when I see you, if you want.

laughingwolf said...

thx for all the great tips, dee :D

Anonymous said...

Thanks-the eternal sun of skartaris eagerly awaits you!



circe said...

Thank you!! V., v. helpful.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great info!