Chapter 10: The Third Act
You have written a novel which draws the reader through the first and second acts with an intriguing plot and enough suspense to keep them engaged. People stay hooked, wanting to know what happens because they are invested in the character's dilemma. When you reach the Second Plot Point (SPP) the narrative changes direction again. The SPP, where your principal character receives a last piece of information or an event occurs, is an alert signal that the climax is approaching.
A general rule is don’t introduce any important players after the SPP. The storyline has a forward momentum, and you shouldn’t be throwing curve balls at the audience and distracting them from the main event that’s about to happen. The SPP occurs around 75-80% into the story, after which the protagonist prepares a strategy for the final encounter.
You may be eager to get on with writing the defining dramatic scenes that are playing out in your head, but allow time and space for the climax to unfold, to develop and expand—don’t rush this section. Take a deep breath and pause. The critical highpoint should take at least one, if not two, chapters. Picture the ultimate confrontation as a slow-motion sequence and explore it fully. The climax in action & adventure/fantasy will frequently be a battle of opposing forces; in crime and mystery, the injustice is corrected; and in romance, the misunderstandings are resolved. This is where the pieces of the puzzle you’ve been laying out slot together. You do not want to zip through this, and leave people feeling cheated.
The denouement comes after the climax when your protagonist has overcome the challenges they faced. For example, the film High Noon doesn’t end when the bad guy hits the ground after the shootout on Main Street. The tale concludes when Marshall Will Kane climbs aboard a wagon, and he and his wife depart. But after the principal conflict is settled, you have to tie up minor subplots and any loose ends quickly because, if your audience is anything like me, they know it’s over and are already thinking about the next read. A satisfactory denouement should let the reader breathe out in relief and deliver that extra bit of fulfillment—like coffee and mints following dessert.
Open or Closed Endings
One of a novelist’s many tasks is to provide closure to a series of events which, in theory, began before a book started and continues after it finishes. In a closed ending, there is no confusion about what happens subsequently. Cinderella marries the prince and they will live happily ever after. This type of conclusion fulfils expectations, and readers can put down the book, satisfied that all is well—and this is what they enjoy.
An open ending is one which confers a sense of satisfaction, yet still leaves some aspects unresolved. Leaving questions unanswered—where does the hero go afterward?—can result in a story that lingers in the imagination for longer. People may speculate about the ramifications of the closing moments you’ve given them, besides wondering what happens next.
Today’s audiences are also accustomed to true-to-life outcomes with the possibility of a more emotionally complicated finale. At the end of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s future isn’t clear. Has he recovered from his breakdown? Has he come to terms with his brother’s death? What is his attitude toward his new school? We aren’t presented with these answers, and it's left up to readers to hope he has a better future. (As a side note: this tale starts and terminates in the same location—the sanitorium where Holden went after his collapse—creating an interesting cycle.)
Novels have the potential to influence people and, whether the ending is open or closed, the real test is the life the story takes on in readers’ imaginations after they close your book. These posts are meant to be a map showing you how to get to a destintion and, like any journey, the type of transport you use, the passengers you take with you, the stops you make along the way are your decision alone. Even if there are many others making the same journey, as each individual is unique, so are the stories waiting inside you to be written.
1. Think about the last few books (or the last book) you read and analyze the endings. Were they open or closed? Did you like the way the story ended? Did you have any questions afterward?
2. Define which kind of ending you envision for your story and outline an alternative ending. If you prefer a closed ending then think about the effects on the characters (and readers) if you wrote an open ending. If you prefer an open ending, then see how that changes with a closed ending.
This chapter brings us to the end of Part One, and you now have an understanding of the basic techniques used in creating stories. However, there is plenty more to come in Part Two, where you can increase and put into practice your knowledge of the craft of writing fiction.
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