The Write Project gets you started in the screenwriting process by explaining the basics principles of the screenplay. In the seventh part of a 12-part series designed to aid you in writing a screenplay, we are going to look at how to build a satisfying climax in Act Three.
If you missed the first half of the series, you can just click here in order to catch up.
Note: You might want to rewatch “Back to the Future” in preparation for this series because it’s going to come up.
Day 7 – Third Act Climax
Oh man, you are so close to the finish line. Act Three is where everything comes to a head. Characters have to confront their feelings, desires, and goals. What’s awesome about the third act is that it’s where you start to see all your hard work pay off. Emotional beats are all about to hit home.
Act Three is about tying up loose ends and sending your characters off into the sunset. Or killing everyone off and letting the bad guy escape.
It’s up to you!
But the third act can make or break your screenplay. As films explore new territory in terms of plot and storytelling, the craft of writing them becomes more of a challenge.
In the start of your third act, your characters should face their biggest challenge, or at least run into a huge problem that they can’t possibly surmount. This has to tie naturally into Act Two and should reflect the theme set is Act One.
Today, let’s talk about nuts and bolts of building a satisfying Act Three. Often when a writer says they have a great idea for a screenplay and they already know how it ends, it really means some combination of:
- They have an idea for a cool set piece to put in Act Three,
- They know what kind of event the “final battle” needs to be, where it takes place, etc. in order to make sense and feel organic for the story, or
- They know the outcome of the main conflict – whether the protagonist succeeds or not – but not necessarily how it plays out on screen.
Any and all of these can be a great place to start. But how do you take one of these nuggets and turn it into a fully developed, satisfying ending?
We have to build it. Take the moments or scenes or ideas you already have in mind and turn them into a story of their own – the Act Three story.
The Story of Act Three
If we break down any satisfying Act Three, we’ll see that it tells a story all its own, which means it has a beginning, middle, and end. Or, it might be useful to think of it as a setup, escalation, and climax.
Like any story, Act Three is constructed in a way that creates context and conflict, escalates that conflict to build tension and suspense, and then resolves the conflict in a satisfying way.
And since the climax of Act Three is also the climax of the entire story, it’s all about showcasing the final confrontation. The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. This is the battle that determines the outcome of your story.
Let’s see first what is the meaning of the word climax:
According to the merriam-webster dictionary climax is “the highest point” of something, the culmination.
If we take into account that the origin of the word Climax comes from a Greek word which means ladder or staircase, it makes absolutely sense.
So, think of your screenplay as a ladder that your protagonists are trying to climb, step by step. Sometimes they might slip back a step or two, but they’re always coming back and continue climbing, until they reach the top of the ladder.
And that’s the climax in your story.
The Climax comes with many names, such as:
- The Final Culmination
- The Endgame
- The Great Confrontation
- The Showdown (according to David Trottier’s screenwriting book)
- or (how I prefer to call it sometimes) The Big Fight
The Main Characteristics of Climax
- In Climax our interest is at its highest point. This is the scene that everyone expects from the beginning of the story. It is the moment where tension is at the highest point and the conflict has escalated at its peak.
- Here, it’s where most of the times the protagonist meets the antagonist and have a clear, blunt confrontation. It’s the final fight the protagonist has to give against the antagonist IN PERSON.
- Alternatively, here is the moment where our protagonist faces the biggest obstacle in the story which it will determine her/his fate. (Most of the times this obstacle is coming from the antagonist).
- All other characters aren’t so important in this scene. Only the protagonist and the antagonist are actually acting.
- After this sequence of scenes ends, there is no actual story left to be told. The protagonist either wins or loses. It is the last card that the protagonist has to play and he must play it right.
- The Climax sequence is followed by the results, the resolution and the epilogue of the story.
So according to screenwriter David Trottier the climax «is the final face-off between your central character and the opposition.»
As we’ve also seen in other episodes, there are many terms used for each plot point and sometimes this kind of naming leads to a lot of confusion.
For example, Robert McKee in his book Story, he calls the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist Crisis. And only the end of this Crisis sequence, the final action of this confrontation he calls it the climax.
BUT David Trottier uses the word Crisis for the Low Point and the word Climax for the entire sequence of confrontation.
That’s why if you want to avoid such kind of misunderstandings when talking with your fellow screenwriters, just use a more straightforward term like “The Big Fight” or “The Great Confrontation,” to make sure that you know exactly what you’re talking about.
- Go to Act 3. Climax is always in Act 3. If you’re not in Act 3, it’s not (or it shouldn’t be) Climax.
- Find the scene where the protagonist is fighting against the antagonist. In the case of a romantic comedy, that would be the final confrontation between the couple. There’s the Climax.
The climax sequence is where you get to shine as a screenwriter. Here you need to put all your efforts and to write the best scene of your entire screenplay. Up to this point there has been no scene as intense as this one, the climax scene.
Day 8 – The Coda
You’ve done all the hard work. The amazing screenplay you’ve been writing is 99% finished; now you just have to end it.
Ending a story can be an excruciating and frustrating experience. We all want that perfect conclusion, one that complements and fulfils the purpose of the story. We especially want an ending that leaves ourselves and our audience satisfied. Achieving this is not as easy as it sounds; an ending takes on a lot of gravity when you realize there’s no coming back once it’s done.
Often, the audience’s most long-lasting memory of your movie will be its ending, so it’s important to agonize over it just as much as you did your faultless first scene.
Thankfully, there’s a limit to the numbers of ways you can tie up your tale. The way your piece ends should largely be connected to how you’ve written the rest of the screenplay.
You should know what you were trying to say when you set out to write, and thus have an idea of the impression you want to leave when the story is over.
There is a theory that stories can only have five possible outcomes, but to make things even easier, here are six specific types of endings you can consider to help you finish your screenplay.
1. Resolved ending
A resolved ending is great if you want everything neatly packaged and put away.
All the plotlines and character threads are concluded. There’s no conjecture and no questions to be asked. The fate of everyone in the story is known and it is clear how the characters might live on into the future.
2. Unresolved ending
This is basically the opposite to a resolved ending. The overarching plot is left unfinished and the ultimate outcome of the characters’ story arcs is unknown based on the textual information.
This might be used to entice your audience to use their imagination and create their own ending, satisfying themselves.
More commonly, it’s used to set up for a sequel. References are usually made to tasks still to be done or conflicts still to be determined, essentially making the film one big chapter of a larger story.
Obviously, this is one of the easiest endings to write. Nothing has to be wrapped up here, but it’s still vital to create a sense of excitement and anticipation using an unresolved ending, otherwise people may not be interested in coming back for the second instalment.
There are plenty of famous examples to pay heed to, such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or The Harry Potter films.
3. Implied ending
This is often the most tempting ending for a screenwriter and the most frustrating for the audience.
The conclusion, or ‘what happens in the end’, isn’t explicitly stated or displayed. This is achieved by holding back information or leaving multiple logical explanations up in the air, allowing the audience to make up their own mind.
The audience is refused a fully informed outcome. They may be left thinking a range of questions:
- ‘Did he or didn’t he?’
- ‘Is she alive or dead?’
- ‘Is it that or is it this?’
- ‘Is the narrator lying or telling the truth?’
This ending is very effective because it creates a talking point and keeps the audience pondering long after they’ve finished the movie.
4. Twist in the tail
In theory, a story that ends in this way catches the audience by surprise with a completely unexpected turn of events.
As a result, the whole story is usually turned upside down, with a previously believed fact turning out to be false.
This may involve a character ‘coming back’ from the dead, a hero revealing themselves as a villain (or vice versa), or a new and vital piece of information coming to light at the last minute.
A ‘twist’ ending is good for playing with audience’s emotions. You can bring them up quickly or send them crashing down, depending on what route you decide to take with your ending. Either way, you can cause a dramatic shift in an audience’s attitude.
To put it simply, a story written in this fashion will begin and end in the same way. The ending is revealed first before the screenwriter fills in the details of how that ending came to be. While this may take away some of the suspense for an audience, a clever screenwriter is still able to introduce twists and surprises.
A tie-back ending also allows for a very focused method of writing – it’s always easier to navigate if you know where you’re going, right?
It also creates a feeling of balance and equilibrium for the story.
6. Crystal ball
This conclusion goes ‘beyond the ending’ in a way, looking into the future.
It explains what happens to the characters years after the main events of the story.
A common way of writing a ‘crystal ball’ ending is with an epilogue. An example might be a section in which the perspective is from the main character’s child, who was absent from the main story. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows fits nicely into this category, rounding off the series with an epilogue set 19 years after the main story.
So there you have it!
Six endings to consider when finishing your script.
Always remember what you set out to achieve and consider the feelings you want to leave with your audience. Last impressions are just as important as first impressions.
Your assignment is to work on your conclusion. Reveal the fates of your characters, and wrap up all the loose ends.
Okay, let’s finish that script! Here’s your act three checklist to help you get there!
Alright, if you’re here…you might have a completed screenplay? Congratulations!
Now that you understand all three acts, you can comprehend why three-act structure is a screenwriter’s best friend. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but you have to master act structure before you attempt to subvert it.
If you know the rules, it’s easier to surprise audiences as well.
The building blocks of any great movie aren’t about characters succeeding; it’s about them failing over and over again until that last-ditch effort pushes them somewhere they never thought would happen.
Day 9 – Writers Guild Registration vs. Copyright
So you have your best idea, you wrote an incredible screenplay, and now you want to send it out to contests and to search for agents and managers…BUT WAIT!
How do you know your idea is protected? How do you ensure that your ideas remain your ideas?
The answer is simple: you can safeguard your idea via registering your screenplay with the Writers Guild in your country of residence or copyrighting the script with your government’s copyright office. But which is right for you and your screenplay?
Let’s dive into Writers Guild registration and copyrighting your screenplay to find out which is best.
What is Writers Guild Registration?
Writers Guild registration is a process where you tell the Writers Guild the origin date of your idea, so you can keep track of it in case you submit it somewhere and later see someone profiting with your same idea later. This is rare, but it has happened in the past. So, the Writers Guild invented registration to help protect writers.
If you register your script with the Writers Guild, your protections last approximately five years, depending from country to country.
The advantage of registration is that in the event of a lawsuit or a credit arbitration, the Writers Guild will have an employee appear and testify concerning the date of the registration.
Some examples of registerable material include scripts, treatments, synopses, and outlines. Also, you can do all the registration alone. So that’s super convenient.
Registration with the Writers Guild is not a Copyright. So why would you register your script with the Writers Guild?
Here’s what the WGA site says:
“As the world leader in screenplay registration, the WGAW Registry has been the industry standard in the creation of legal evidence for the protection of writers’ work since 1927…The WGA West is the home to nearly 12,000 of Hollywood’s leading TV and screenwriters, but you do not need to be a WGAW member to use this vital Guild service.”
Why would I copyright my screenplay?
Copyrighting your idea establishes ownership of it. That doesn’t mean you own every space pirate idea, but it does keep the specific details of your space pirate script your own. Copyright registration lasts for your entire life, plus 70 years, so that’s a little more than the five the Writers Guild can guarantee.
Copyright services also allow you to bill your lawyers out to whoever stole your idea, so you won’t lose money defending you stuff in court.
The major downside is that it usually takes 4-6 months to obtain a copyright, whereas Writers Guild registration is instantaneous.
Day 10 – Rewriting
Congratulations. I hope you’re reading this because you’ve finished your first draft. Or third. Or tenth. The point is, you’re ready to open the document back up, dust off your screenwriting software, and get into rewriting. Or, maybe, your manager got you a rewrite gig, and you’re not sure where to begin. Screenplay rewrites are hard!
Regardless, today we’re going to go over the skills and steps you need to tackle your rewrite and get the most out of the draft. So let’s get started.
What’s a rewrite?
In professional screenwriting terms, a rewrite is when you reopen a finished screenplay or pilot file and go back inside to alter or punch-up parts of the dialogue, scenes, or the entire thing.
What’s a “page one” rewrite?
A page one rewrite is one that entails throwing out everything except the concept. It happens all the time. It’s why people call it “development hell.” But it can be a great, fresh way for a writer to sink their teeth into an idea without being beholden to the ideas and situations came before them.
Who’s rewriting their scripts?
All good writers. And movie producers. And studios. And directors. And even some actors have writers come in to do a polish or rewrite for their characters.
The business of screenwriting means you’ll probably have a bigger and longer career rewriting screenplays than selling specs. And to make sure that career happens, you’re going to need to master how to plan and rewrite screenplays. That’s not too hard. It’s just fixing what’s broken inside them like a mechanic.
As John August put it in his blog, “Decide out what you want to accomplish, then figure out which scenes would need to change.” We’ll go over that. But first, check out this link to ScriptNotes where John August and Craig Mazin talk about how to strategize the rewrite process.
August goes on to say:
The biggest problem with most rewrites is that you start at page one, which is already probably the best-written page in the script. You tweak as you go, page after page, moving commas and enjoying your cleverness — all the while forgetting why you’re rewriting the script. Instead, you need to stop thinking of words and page and focus on goals. Are you trying to increase the rivalry between Helen and Chip? Then look through the script — actually printed script, not the one on screen — and find the scenes with Helen and Chip. Figure out what could be changed in those scenes to meet your objectives. Then look for other scenes that help support the idea. Scribble on the paper. Scratch out lines. Write new ones.
And we’ll get into the three steps of how you can rewrite your screenplay and attack your pages with emphasis and direction.
How to handle a rewrite
If you’re attacking your rewrite, be prepared to rip it to shreds. But things are different if you’re rewriting someone else. If you’re rewriting your material, you don’t have anyone to offend. But if you’re hired on a rewrite, there’s some protocol. Also, if someone is hired to rewrite you, don’t be a dick and follow this protocol too. First thing, buy the person you’re hired to rewrite some dinner. Get to know them, their work on the idea, if they’re the first writer in, and what they tried with plot and character.
Then, when you’re rewriting them, don’t touch every word. Chances are you’ll be hired to do a structural pass or dialogue or maybe to beef up the set pieces. You move and touch what’s necessary, but don’t over-change things to make it go your way.
If someone is rewriting you, hand over a copy of the screenplay file, write the ma note, and don’t be afraid to talk about your experiences on the project. If they don’t offer you dinner, that’s annoying, but it’s not personal. This is just business. And some people have fewer manners.
So, by rule, be polite, be specific, and don’t change what you don’t have to. The executives will tell you what to do. Listen, make your plan, and write forward.
Let’s go over a few steps to make sure your rewrite comes across as a success.
The Three Steps of Rewriting Your Screenplay
Rewriting any story, movie or pilot, can be a daunting task. There’s so much to do that you can get overwhelmed easily and not truly commit to making the changes. You could also be too confident, or too scared, and be afraid to make the major changes you needed. So instead you tweak some dialogue and call it a day.
I wrote this post to challenge you to get better not only as a writer but as a rewriter. So let’s go over the three steps you should take to tackle this rewrite.
Script Rewrite Step One: Where do you want to end?
Start your rewrite from 10,000 feet. But backward. I like to make a list of goals of what I think the end of the rewrite should look like. What’s my ideal finished product? What genre do I want it to fit inside? Budget range? Once I have the shell of what I think this story should be, then I make a list of what needs to happen inside for thee goals to be achieved.
Do I need to cut characters? Change locations?
This is where you need to be BRUTAL. Get a second opinion, don’t pull punches, and always be honest with yourself and with the people who have hired you to work on the screenplay. If this thing needs a page one, understand what that takes. And be ready to explain why it needs that sort of work.
The list matters – you’re working as your development executive here. So take your time and don’t go nuts, even if the list winds up being long. Once I have everything down in a list I move onto the next step.
Script Rewrite Step Two: Make another outline!
That’s right, after all that work, I sit and I re-outline the movie. I need to look at the scenes in order. What needs to be added, taken away? Do I need to change the intention of any of these scenes? Once I have every scene outlined, I’ll feel okay to start writing. Since I have the foundation of my goals in the first step, I always know what I’m writing toward.
Outlining is not easy – you can get lost and forget the structure. But I like to think about the conflict in every scene. Give your characters obstacles and make sure they add up in the themes you’re trying to explore.
Script Rewrite Step Three: Perform surgery.
Here’s where you actually begin to type. Add a line here, take one away from there, bolster with scenes that help develop and arc characters. You need to write with intention. You can add voice to your original work and try to mimic the voice put forth by others. Remember, the rewrite is totally specific and important. As you add and subtract it can get messy, so make sure you’re always pressing “save.”
Once you’re done rewriting its time to… rewrite? Sure, you may have tackled it once and made it work, but it’s time to tackle it again and again until you think it’s ready for the world. Then you need to polish it. See, this is an ongoing process.
Your assignment today is to read three scripts or as many scripts as you can. Click here in order to access produced scripts.
You’ll quickly learn what NOT to do. And you can take that to your own writing after time.
Day 11 – Proofreading
What are some life-changing secrets to proofreading your screenplays?
The real writing begins in the rewriting phase. You’ve spent months trying your best to communicate the story that’s in your head by translating those story points, concepts, characters, and images into the cinematic language of a screenplay.
Now you are tasked with taking all of that information and crafting the best possible cinematic experience through editing and rewriting — and proofreading your draft is the beginning of that process.
For screenplays, proofreading isn’t just about finding spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. You do want to take care of those mistakes to better the read of your script, but proofreading a screenplay is so much more than that.
It’s about crafting the best possible cinematic experience.
Screenplays aren’t just another storytelling platform. They serve the unique purpose of being a blueprint for a cinematic collaboration of hundreds upon hundreds of professionals that have one sole objective — to create a compelling and entertaining film. And to accomplish that, the screenplay needs to lay the foundation of what must be an excellent cinematic experience.
Too many screenwriters forget that factor. It needs to read like a movie. It needs to feel like a movie. It needs to prove that the story is worthy of becoming a movie.
And it all starts with the proofreading of each draft. Proofreading is what catches those spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes, yes. But as a screenwriter, you need to take that process even further.
1. Concentrated and Focused Read
This is the first proofread step. It’s the one that will catch those spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.
You need to find a time and place for this proofread that has no distractions. Many writers are accustomed to writing in book stores, coffee shops, or other public places. These environments offer multiple distractions. And when you are searching for those ever-evasive spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes that are difficult enough to locate already, any little distraction can derail a successful revision.
Sequester yourself. There can’t be any distractions — even the most subtle. The only person in the room should be you. No people in the background, no cars driving by, no birds in the sky.
Turn off your phone. Every time you glance at a notification, you’ve lost your focus.
Read line-by-line, no scanning. Your mind will try to tell you that you’ve read all of these words ten times over already. Don’t listen to it. As boring and laborious as it may be, the purpose of this read is to find every little error you can. And you can’t do that when scanning or skimming pages.
Don’t experience the story. That’s not what this read is for. You’re there to read the words and check for errors. If you get caught up in the story, your focus will shift.
Once you’ve completed the whole script and made your revisions, take a few days away from it before the second step.
2. Read the Script Aloud to Yourself
It’s time to return to your sequestered location and time. You’re about to reread the script. But this time, you are going to read the script out loud.
Yes, that means every location heading, every line of scene description, and every line of dialogue.
This verbal read will help locate additional grammar errors, reveal holes in terms of missing information, divulge awkward word placements, and help find repetitive words scattered throughout the script.
Verbalizing the words you’ve written is a life-changing way to write better. And it gets you out of your own head — which contains your own pre-conceived concepts, tone, and atmosphere — so that you can experience the read as an outside reader.
This process will help you craft more precise and articulate lines of scene description and better dialogue.
If you’re reading scene description lines out loud and find yourself struggling for breath because of long run-on sentences or lengthy paragraphs, you’ll recognize the areas within your script that need paring down.
If you’re reading dialogue out loud and it just doesn’t sound real, you’ll find opportunities to reword dialogue in a more naturalistic fashion, or discover that you don’t even need those lines at all.
Reading your script aloud to yourself will be a life-changing process. It will better the read of the script, and your dialogue will improve tenfold.
Day 12 – Table Read
Today, in our final step, we’ll go over the art of table reads, how you can prep for them, and why they’re important to the process.
So grab a water bottle and a name card and let’s go!
What is a table read?
A table read is a gathering of the cast, writer(s), and director where they read through the episode or feature. It’s where everyone gets to hear the story out loud, take notes, and can circle up after to make revisions. In television, table reads are done prior to recording an episode so final edits can be made.
Table reads are an invaluable tool. If you’re working on a pilot, they can help your cast gel before you shoot. On a feature, they can clue you into important changes that can affect or combines scenes to make your days easier to make.
How to organize a table read
The best table reads I’ve been to have lots of snacks, a few bottles of water per person, name cards with the actor/character and other crew positions, as well as printed out scripts so everyone can follow along. You’ll also want an assortment of pens and pencils so that everyone can make notes as they go.
If you don’t have an inner circle of peers to take part in the table read, you can go to acting groups, local film students, or just utilize your friends and family.
Table read example
Table reads are common in both film and television. Often, we don’t get to read the scripts of our favorite episodes or movies, so I love watching table reads to hear how the action is written and the dialogue pops. One of my favorite table reads to watch is this one from Beauty and the Beast. Disney puts a lot of money into their live-action remakes. We know they practice choreography and fight scenes, so it’s refreshing to see them putting the same amount of effort into the script and portrayals themselves. I love the way you can instantly see actors pivoting tone and inflection.
As a writer, sometimes I’ve lived so long with a character that I forget other people on the crew have to find them as well. These table reads and perfect moments for people to put their own spin on the voices within the story and begin to find the movement and diction that suits each role.
It’s one thing to read the words you’ve written aloud and a whole different experience to hear others read them.
When you hear others read your scene description and your dialogue, it’s the closest thing to seeing the script come alive on the screen. And you can then work as an editor before a single frame has been filmed.
You’ll discover plot holes, characterization inconsistencies, on-the-nose dialogue, terrible exposition dialogue, etc.
But remember, you have to be able to observe the table. If possible, you shouldn’t be the one reading scene description and location headings. And you certainly shouldn’t be reading any of the characters.
Delegate those reading duties to others so that you can sit in front of your laptop or (preferably) have a hard copy of the script within your hands as you take notes throughout the whole table read.
During this process, you’ll discover so many things about your screenplay, characters, and story that you would have never experienced reading it by yourself.
You’ll see which lines of dialogue work, and which don’t. You’ll be able to gauge the reaction of the people reading the script. You’ll find moments that work brilliantly, and others that fall short.
And all of this information will inform your next draft.
These 12 steps in the screenwriting process will change your life as a screenwriter. You’ll be able to craft better final drafts. You’ll learn lessons that you can apply to your next screenplays. You’ll become a better writer.
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