Three Act Structure 3.4: The Final Minutes

The second act usually ends with the protagonist(s) on the verge of defeat, before something happens that brings hope of the possibility of victory. But it can’t be easy or certain. For much of the third act, the antagonists still have the upper hand. Even when it looks as if the heroes will win, there is often one final complication, the moment in which the fortunes are reversed once again, and it appears that the good guys will lose after all.

The main purpose of the constant question of who will emerge victorious is to keep the audience interested. The final complication plays into that, keeping the viewers at the edge of their seats, even if we’re all pretty sure that the Council will fail to nuke Manhattan in The Avengers. There, the nuke ends up helping the team defeat the alien armada. This type of thing happens often in movies. Because screenwriting has to be economical, the closing difficulty sometimes provides the tools for the win. I suspect that audiences find it more agreeable than a Deus Ex Machina ending, as this isn’t an example of a friendly force suddenly showing up to save the day. Instead, the protagonist is forced to use skill and ingenuity to turn what appears to be an impediment into a blessing.

That ties into another reason for the final dilemma: it shows just how much the protagonist has changed over the course of the film. This complication is something that would have felled him earlier, but because of what he’s learned in all three acts, he is able to succeed despite the new difficulties. In earlier acts, the hero may have been defeated when he learned just how hard his task was. But now he is a significantly better man than he was even at the end of the second act. Not only could he withstand the challenges at the end of the first two acts, he is capable of overcoming this new hazard, and presumably anything else life throws his way.

A variation of this moment is the dramatic equivalent of a jump scare. It’s when something seems dangerous, but turns to have been overpowered. It might seem as if the rival boxer had been able to withstand the hero’s blows, but then he falls to the ground unconscious. This also serves to demonstrate how much the hero has changed. He’s able to withstand the final hazard, and the enemy is not.

Alternatively, the protagonist could lose. Part of the twist could be that the hero isn’t strong enough to overcome everything. It could be an indictment of the character, or the setting. Perhaps the world is too harsh, or the lead just isn’t fit for it.

There can also be unresolved questions for the denouncement, after the main antagonist has been beaten. 2002’s Spider-Man and 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man had the hero making the decision of whether to keep the girl. John Carter of Mars had an epilogue about the hero’s attempts to return to Mars, which provided an explanation for events in the first ten minutes of the film. Iron Man ended with Tony Stark deciding whether to go along with SHIELD’s explanation about his connection to Iron Man. The Searchers revealed whether Ethan Edwards could find a place in polite society.

The conclusion informs an audience’s impressions of what the movie was about. In Bambi VS Godzilla, Mamet recounts some advice on ending a film. (202)

Stanislavsky wrote that the last ninety seconds are the most important in the play. Hollywood wisdom casts it thus: Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you could live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel-Air.

He uses The Pride of Yankees as an example of a film with a particularly effective ending.

The Pride of the Yankees is a rather good baseball biography. Gary Cooper, playing Lou Gehrig, is dying of a wasting disease. He is given a fairwell party by his New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. He is honored and cheered, and decleares himself the luckiest man who ever lived. He then hobbles off the field, supported by his beloved wife, Teresa Wright, walking into a medium long shot, stadium corridor, day. And as he walks from us, as we begin to stir, knowing the movie over,  we hear the umpire in the distance shouting “Play ball.”

This, to me, is great filmmkaing. The information introduced is new and inevitable-familiar: the filmmakers have apostrophized their potentially sententious tribute (both the stadium fete and the film) in the name of a greater ideal: the games goes on.

In contrast, he thinks Cocoon went on a bit too long.

All the old folk go up in the sky at the end. And then we gather around the grave site of Hume Cronyn, who, as I remember, didn’t quite have the bottle for the trip. The fellow playing the pastor does the eulogy quite well and then says, “Let us pray”; This, now, is bold filmmkaing. It is as completive as the final chord of Tristan and lacks only the funny hats.

Yes. Cocoon is not a story about space critters come down to Earth but about old people learning to face death. It is a spiritual journey. Yes, let us pray that when our times comes we can face the end with perhaps the same good humor and philosophy that the filmmakers face at the end of their journey.

And then the thing went on one beat too long. We were transported from the graveside to the spaceship, where we again saw Don Ameche et al., and I found to my chagrin, that the film, no, was in fact about space critters.

One way to tell that a film is going on too long is when the ending starts to contradict what the writer and director are trying to say about the human condition.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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