To this day, I think this may be the sequence that writers struggle with the most. The Plot Push to Third Act Decision is similar to the sequence in the first act (Plot Push to First Act Decision) in that it sets a new goal for the protagonist. Why do writers struggle with it so much? Because they want to rush through it and just get to the big moment AND because they think that the decision here is the same as the decision made at the beginning.
Think of it this way… in any film, the end Act One announces the goal and the overall plan of attack of how the protagonist is going to get it. In an action film, the goal is to save the day, and the goal in act three is still to save the day. The difference? How they’re going to do it and why. In most action films, they’re trying to either survive or take down a clear bad guy. In Act Three, that’s still true, but there’s more at stake and the protagonist has learned some lessons. They’re not completely changed YET, but there’s more at stake now and the way they”re going to handle it is different. In all of the “Avengers” movies in the MCU, the format is the same. At the end of Act One, they decide to take down the bad guy but they split up to do it (either because they need to collect some items, like in “Infinity War” and “End Game”, or because they don’t agree with each other and don’t want to work together, as in the first one). In Act Three, they’re still trying to take down the bad guy(s) but now they’re all united and doing it together in a big epic battle.
In a romantic comedy, the goals are clearly different. At the end of Act One, the two leads are doing something with zero intention of trying to get together. In “Why Harry Met Sally”, they’re proving that they can be friends even though they’re different genders. In Act Three, Harry is chasing down Sally to say he wants to be with her the rest of his life. In “The Proposal”, the leads are pretending to be together as a ploy. In the final act, they’re fighting to be together because they fallen in love. To different goals, but the second comes out of emotional change where as the first one came out of a tangible want.
The mistake that a lot of writers make (and even many produced films make) is that they rush this sequence. It can often just be a montage of the protagonist doing things the right way and proving they’ve changed. And then showing again how they’ve completed the change in a bigger sequence for the climax. When you’re working on this sequence, try to avoid this montage. Or if you are going to show it, show that they struggle with it. In “Groundhog Day”, Phil didn’t break the curse by winning over Rita, so he works hard to be a better guy and help the people in the town. He’s not perfect at it. He’s still Phil, as we see him catch a kid out of a tree and then, when the kid doesn’t say ‘thank you’, Phil shit talks him. We’re understand, may even agree with Phil’s reaction, but it shows that he hasn’t fully changed yet.
Today, we’ll look at one of my favorite, underrated, popcorn action movies: “The Man from UNCLE”, based on the show from the 1960’s and adapted into a movie by Guy Ritchie. This sequence picks up right in the midst of Solo (Henry Cavill) being tortured by badguy henchman, Rudi. Solo and his partner (Army Hammer), can’t stand one another through the whole film, but now they are shit out of luck, since their third cohort, Gaby (Alicia Vikander) has betrayed them to the villian, Elena (Elizabeth Debicki) and her brother.
– As Rudi tortures Solo via a finicky electric chair, Ilya arrives. Solo is, for the first time ever, relieved to see Ilya.
– Ilya and Solo put Rudi in the electric chair. RudI instantly starts giving them all the information leading to Gaby’s betrayal and what Elena is cooking up with Gaby’s father (a bomb). He does this as Ilya plays with the switch for the electric chair.
– Ilya and Solo step away to go over notes and debate what to do with Rudi. As they do, the chair starts working and goes up in flames with Rudi trapped in it. The guys are surprised by not compelled to help.
– Gaby is taken to meet her father. She sees that their conversation is being watched, so she slaps her father to play into the situation.
– Ilya and Solo are met by Waverly (Hugh Grant) and taken in a chopper where they each have individual phone calls with their respective employers. They’re told to stop the bomb and get the computer disk, making absolutely sure it doesn’t end up in their partner’s hands. The two, who had just been starting to get along as they work together, are reminded they’re still on opposite sides.
– Gaby tells her father to play along. Her father is resistant but agrees as they hug.
– Elena arrives on the island. Gabi tells her that she and her father will finish the bomb. Elena appears distrusting as she expresses she pleased.
– Waverly tells Ilya and Solo that Gaby is actually working for him and that their operation botched his own plans. So now, Waverly needs Ilya and Solo to go in and get Gaby out. They agree but it’s clear that Ilya is overall a bit flummoxed by the situation.
– Gaby works with her father on the bomb and they switch the coupler. Elena comes and says she was not fooled by Gaby, that Gaby is only there as a threat for Gaby’s father to do his job.
Now, I didn’t highlight any beats because this is such a short sequence. It would also be very easy to think that this whole sequence includes getting Gaby back, with the Climax being them bringing the bomb down. The thing is, the mission is clearly stated here. There are two things they have to do and they know them. They go after both at the same time. It’s also important to remember that, with action movies in particular, there’s always a final twist. One last little set back within the sequence that can sometimes feel like it’s own sequence.
The arcs of the pair of protagonists are also not completed here. Even though Ilya and Solo have learned out to work together, they’re both still very mistrustful of another and, ultimately know that they’re fighting on opposite sides even when they’re together.
With every sequence, you should be looking at as many examples as possible. With this one it is extra, extra important. The more third acts you watch and figure out how to break them up in your head, the more you’ll understand your own writing style and what kind of inspiration to take for your own script.
We’re almost there! Hang in there!