Friday, March 19, 2021

Story Structure: How The Act Three Plan Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The act three plan kicks off the end of the novel and promises readers an ending to remember.

The act three plan is one of those moments that make it easy to tell if your ending is going to work or not. If this plan is strong (even if it won’t work), and clear about what has to be done, odds are the ending and climax will be equally strong and clear. If this is fuzzy, odds are you’re going to struggle with your ending.

This isn’t an absolute, of course, just something I’ve noticed over the years. This is the moment where the protagonist decides what to do to resolve the conflict of the novel and puts a plan into action. If you aren’t sure what that plan is or what has to be done to resolve the conflict, that’s a big red flag that you aren’t clear about what your ending is. It could also suggest you aren’t sure what the core conflict of the novel is.

“I don’t know how to end it” is a common issue with novels that don’t have a clear problem to solve, and the author doesn’t know what it’s truly about. Once they figure this out, they figure out how to end the novel.

The act three plan is the road map for the novel’s ending.

Act two typically ends on a downbeat or dark moment when the protagonist is at their lowest point. After digging deep down and finding the emotional strength to continue, the protagonist puts a new plan into action, using everything they’ve learned over the course of the novel. They finally know who they are and what they’re supposed to do, and they set off to accomplish that.

This is what act three is all about, and it mirrors the first half of act two in that way—protagonist chooses to act and then works toward a goal.

The act three plan is usually ambitious, clever, and unexpected, even though it also feels inevitable (the story was heading here all along). The plan may or may not be revealed to readers at this point, and often the details are kept secret, even though the general idea is mentioned to help drive the plot forward.

It’s also possible for the act three plan to be decided in the heat of the moment with little to no time to think. Events are spinning out of control and the protagonist has to act or all will be lost.

Regardless of how it happens, it’s important to remember that the plan doesn’t have to be something that will actually work if you want to surprise the protagonist in the climax and force them to think on the run. What matters is that the protagonist thinks it’ll work. Once the climax starts, plans can fail and the protagonist can revise in a hurry to win.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The plan to resolve the final problem (the core conflict) and show readers what act three will deal with. It leads the story, plot, and characters into the climax. Just like the act two choice launched the middle, the act three plan launches the end.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson and the others decide to fight Ra and get the stargate back so they can go home. They know they need to defeat Ra so everyone can be safe, the team can get home, and the locals can live in peace. The only way to accomplish all that is to send Ra packing.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen is presented with an opportunity to save both her and Peeta, and she takes it. She knows the Games are about more than just her survival, and her definition of “winning” includes both of them making it out alive.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart decides to stay to protect the pageant and its contestants, and stop the bomber. She knows who the bomber is, and knows she has to find the bomb before they set it off.

When it happens: At the beginning of act three, around the 75% mark.

This plan is the result of the events of the dark moment and the all is lost moments. Everything that happened in the middle has led to this, and the plan will be a result of what the protagonist experienced up to this point.

There’s often a literal planning session at this point, though not always. It can be as simple as the protagonist seeing the problem clearly, and making a conscious choice about what they have to do about it.

What its function is: To launch act three and state the goal for the last quarter of the novel. This is what the entire story has been building toward—where the protagonist will use everything they’ve learned and find a way to beat the antagonist and win. All the cards are on the table now (mostly), and everyone knows what they’re fighting for and why it’s so important.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and O’Neil escape with the locals’ help, and decide to help them fight Ra and gain their freedom. At this point, the team thinks there is no way home, because Daniel could not find the final symbol for the stargate. So staying has greater impact for them. But it also shows the best qualities of the characters and what they believe in—they’re going to do what’s right to protect and free the people they put in danger.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when the Gamemakers change the rules so if both tributes survive they both win the Games. Katniss wants Peeta to survive as well, and decides to play up the “star-crossed lovers” angle to create sympathy and support from the viewers. However, there’s a small snag to her plan, as Katniss realizes she may truly have feelings for him.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie uses everything she’s learned over the course of the movie to compete in “a woman’s world” with the same dedication she did in the “man’s world.” The other contestants flock in and she regains her support system in a new way. She’s no longer the outsider, she belongs.

Why the act three plan is important: This sets the protagonist on the path to face the antagonist and resolve the core conflict of the novel. It’s when they use their experiences in the book to achieve their goal. It’s also when the stakes are often raised again, making the resolution matter on a much bigger level, but the protagonist has grown or learned enough that they’re ready (they think) to tackle the “big bad problem” now.

This is also a moment where the protagonist embraces their character arc and makes a significant step forward to becoming the person they want and need to be. There’s usually one last test to face before the final step, but they’re mostly there, and that growth or knowledge will help them in the climax.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel finds out the “gift” of Sha’uri was actually a marriage ceremony and she’s his wife. They share their first kiss, giving Daniel multiple reasons to want to save these people and stop Ra. O’Neil’s plan to bomb the stargate and sacrifice himself also comes out, and he becomes another person Daniel must save. But saving the villagers will also help O’Neil get over his son’s death.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss eventually chooses to protect someone besides herself and it’s no longer just about survival. She doesn’t want to just beat the game, she wants to beat the Gamemakers, and she’ll turn their own tricks against them.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie participates in the pageant for real and has to trusts her own instincts and find her own strength. Without the FBI’s help, she has to make it into the top five on her own to keep protecting the contestants, so she must embrace her feminine side (and the women around her) to do that. But the women band together to help her, showing her she’s not alone.

In essence, the act three plan is when the protagonist decides, “I’ve had enough, let’s do this,” and fights back.

(Here’s more with 5 Common Problems With Endings)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your  Act Three Plan

1. The protagonist merges old ideas and beliefs with new ideas and beliefs learned in the novel.

All the things the protagonist has experienced in the story can come into play here. Old lies are swept away, new truths are embraced, and a new way of thinking is possible. It might be small or large, but something about this new plan will show how the protagonist has grown.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel decides to make a life for himself on the alien planet, even though that life is in great peril. His old views (studying Egypt as history) have now become living the culture. By the time he’s figured out how to get the team home, he realizes he is home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss risks her own life to save another person’s (Peeta) and sticks her neck out for others. It’s no longer about her and her family’s survival, but all of them. She becomes the symbol of freedom and rebellion that will carry her the rest of the trilogy.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie proves she has what it takes and makes the top five. She can do this. Her plan is working and she’s one step close to finding the bomber and finding her own inner strength.

(Here’s more with The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)

2. The protagonist gathers allies to help defeat the antagonist.

In most cases, the protagonist doesn’t go into the climax alone—they have friends and allies who help them. Once they realize what has to be done and create the plan, they gather all the pieces and people needed to accomplish that plan. This typically happens early on in act three.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel reveals to the locals that Ra’s soldiers are not gods, but human in armor. This sways them to fight for freedom and defeat Ra. It’s a literal “reveal the truth about the Egyptian gods” that Daniel sought by studying the pyramids.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss uses all she learned about the Games (and how the media manipulates it), to bring public support to her side against the Gamemakers, which will ultimately force them to break their own rules in her favor later.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie accepts the help of the fellow contestants and embraces her role in the pageant. She’s embracing her feminine side, both literally and metaphorically.

(Here’s more with Why Should Anyone Help Your Protagonist?)

3. The protagonist overcomes past fears and embraces their new self.

This is a key step of the protagonist’s character arc—shedding the old self that was holding them back and embracing the new person they’ve become. This is what will allow the protagonist to win.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel finally has his theories proven right, and he finds a home he never knew he was looking for. For O’Neil, it’s when he decides not to complete the suicide mission and instead save the people of Abydos. Meeting the locals and caring for the “kids” who are willing to die to help him and their people, changes him. He finds a reason to keep living and keep fighting to get himself and his men home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss looks beyond her selfish nature to save others—both in protecting Peeta, and in a mercy killing of another contestant. She no longer has a “me and mine only” attitude to survive.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie realizes her feminine side isn’t holding her back, but offers her strengths she never knew she had. When some contestants drink her water glasses for her talent portion, her old FBI partner returns to help, allowing her to use both sides of her skill set—woman and FBI agent.

(Here’s more with Broken, but Still Good: 3 Ways to Create Character Flaws)

4. The protagonist has a “do or die” mentality.

Failure is not an option in a good climax, and the stakes are at their highest as the story races to a close. As the protagonist and their allies march toward that final confrontation, they know there’s no turning back. It’s all or nothing. The act three plan takes those stakes in account, and reminds readers what they are.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel realizes he can actually get them all home—they just need to survive Ra’s forces to do it.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss decides to do whatever she has to do save both her and Peeta—even if that means lying to the viewers and playing up her romance act.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie risks her life and career on what she knows is right.

The act three plan is the moment when everything falls into place for the protagonist. They finally know who they are and what they’re supposed to do, and they set off with a clear plan to accomplish that. There can still be plenty of uncertainty and even fear on the protagonist’s part, but most of that personal self-doubt is typically gone by now. The remaining fear is for the antagonist and the ability to win, not the fear of not being good enough to even try.

(Here’s more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

A strong act three plan focuses the entire novel on resolving the final conflict, and launches the ending of the novel.

By the time you reach this point, what has to happen in your ending should be clear to both you and your readers. You don’t have to reveal all the details to readers, but if you’re still uncertain what the protagonist has to do, stop and figure out what the novel’s main story problem is. If you’re not sure, look back at your other plot turning points and see what they were leading the plot toward. You might also check your beginning and see what problem (and promises) you made your readers.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your act three plan. Is the protagonist ready, willing, and able to take on the ending? Do you know what they have to do?

Here's the entire story structure series:
Is your act three plan clear, or do you need to figure out a few things still?

*Originally published November 2016. Last updated March 2021.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm so happy you're doing this series. I started a side project, and this is the first time I'm outlining the whole story (hopefully it saves me from gaping plot holes and characters wandering in and out of the novel). I have my beat sheet filled out, but was a little perplexed as to how to grow those beats into pages and chapters. This is helping me figure out what I need to focus on. Thanks!

  2. Janice, Your analysis is so helpful! I will take this article apart piece by piece (...maybe even sentences by sentences!) and use your insights to work through my Third Act. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks! I hope your third act goes well. This series is almost done. Just two more pieces to go--the Climax, and the Wrap Up.