This is the 10th installment in our series on story structure. Prior posts are available in the Story Structure Series tab in the Categories menu.
#10 — Part 4… the Final Act
There are more than a few writers and teachers out there, some of them orders of magnitude more famous than me (not hard to do), who don’t like to compartmentalize or even attempt to define the sequential parts and essential milestones of a story’s structure. Too formulaic, they say. Takes the fun and creativity out of it, they claim. A write -by-the-numbers strategy for hacks, a vocal few plead.
And when they do talk about it, they tend to dress up all things structural with descriptions that are less engineering-speak in nature – “the hero’s journey” … “the inciting incident” … and more appropriate to a Lit class at Oxford. Makes them sound – or more accurately, feel – more writerly.
What’s interesting is that the stories these writers create follow the exact same sequential paradigm, to whatever extent it can be exact. Which it really can’t be in something as wide-open as storytelling… the paradigm is, with some exceptions, more directional than specific.
Or, more likely, if they don’t follow it, they’re probably not published at all.
None of how it’s labeled is inherently wrong, nor does it really matter. What you call it is far less important than how you implement it. And before that, how you understand it.
Thank God for screenwriters. Because they call it like it is. In fact, most of them think Oxford is a loafer.
Coming soon: what this has to do with Part 4
I, too, prefer – and based on feedback, a huge and growing constituency of writers also prefer – to call story structure what it is: four parts, four unique contexts and missions for the scenes in them. Two major plot points and a mid-point. Call them plot twists if you want to, the folks at Oxford won’t know. A compelling hero’s need and quest. Formidable obstacles. A couple of pinch points. A character who learns and grows, someone we can empathize with and root for. Scenes that comprise connective tissue between them all.
All of it in context to a fresh and killer conceptual idea, a clear thematic intention, an interesting world view and a clever take on the plot.
I dunno, sounds pretty creative to me.
In other words, a blueprint for storytelling. One that, when understood and marinated in artful nuance and dished with clean writing, becomes nothing less than the holy grail, the magic pill, of writing a novel or a screenplay.
Not remotely easy. But perhaps for the first time, eminently clear.
And then we come to Part 4. The finale of your story. And guess what?
There is no blueprint for it. And other than one, there are no rules, either.
Guidelines for an effective Part 4
The one rule of Part 4 – the resolution of your story – is that no new expositional information may enter the story after the Second Plot Point that commences it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced or already in play. This includes characters – no newcomers allowed.
Aside from that one rule, you’re on your own to craft the ending of your story. And in doing so, the enlightened writer observes the following guidelines.
That’s why they still call this art. You’re free to experiment as you please. And if you’re unpublished, you do so at your own peril.
The hero needs to emerge as the primary catalyst in the resolution. They can’t merely observe and narrate, they can’t assume a supporting role, most of all they can’t be rescued. They need to step up and take the lead. And
The hero should demonstrate that she or he has conquered any inner demons that have stood in their way in the past, either in their life or specific to your story. That may have begun in Part 3, but it’s put into use by the hero in Part 4.
They apply that inner learning curve toward their attack on the exterior conflict that blocks their path.
The hero should demonstrate courage, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, even brilliance in setting the cogs in motion that will resolve the story. In other words, this is where the protagonist earns the right to be called a hero.
The more your reader feels the ending – which depends on the degree to which you’ve emotionally vested them prior to Part 4, which in turn depends on the amount of vicarious emotion and empathy you’ve brought forth – the more effective the ending will be. This is the key to a successful story, the pot of gold at the end of your storytelling rainbow. If you can make them cry, make them cheer and applaud, make them remember – make them feel – then you’ve done your job as a storyteller.
You don’t have to tie off all loose ends. Only the major ones. A few flopping loose ends can leave your reader engaged and hoping for a sequel.
If you are writing a series, be very clear that your novel or screenplay needs to resolve the story-specific issues you’ve put in play at Plot Point One. Your story needs to stand on its own. What lives on to be published another day is usually character-oriented. For example, in the Harry Potter series the hero solves a problem in each installment, but the overriding story of him finding and avenging his parents’ killer goes unresolved – though further along – in anticipation of the next installment.
And then something amazing happens…
Here’s the magic of Part 4. If you’ve done your job well in the first three parts of your story, if you’ve plotted your story with powerful milestones in context to an effective hero’s quest and arc, then you’ll intuitively know how your story needs to end when you get there. Or if not intuitively, then after some serious introspection and long walks in the woods with a digital recorder.
And by “get there” I’m not suggesting you write the first three parts and then see where you are. Just shoot me if that’s what you think I mean.
No, I’m saying you should have strategized and plotted your main story pointsbeforehand – even if you aren’t yet sure of your ending – and in the process of developing the first three parts the final act will crystallize as part of the process.
If you do this through a series of drafts, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 needs to be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.
And, if you’re a drafter instead of blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner, that’s a different process yet), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages again does that to a writer.
Too many stories end disappointingly. And yet they somehow get published and even succeed to some degree. That’s because the rest of the story, the structure of it and the compelling essence of the character, triumphs to an extent that the ending doesn’t make or break the story at all. It just is.
That said, better to make your ending a home run, especially if this is your first novel or you’re an unproduced screenwriter. Anything less will get you rejected. Only previously published, name-brand authors get away with mediocre endings.
It is the understanding of story architecture that empowers an effective ending.
If you can’t craft a killer ending after a requisite deep immersion into the infrastructure of the first three parts, then you haven’t yet gone deep enough.
Tomorrow’s post: Story Structure… the Fine Print.