Act Three is the Ninth Inning


How should your novel or screenplay finish?

It should end with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth and the base runner representing the winning run tearing about third base and highballing for home.

Rounding third and heading for home

Rounding third and heading for home

Deep in right field, the outfielder with a rifle for an arm has just fielded the line drive that has sent our runner racing flat out. The outfielder slings the ball like a bullet toward home plate, where the catcher is waiting, eye on the throw, braced to receive the shock of the runner as he hurtles toward home.

At third base, the coach is waving frantically to the runner rounding the corner. Go! Go!

Every fan in the stadium is on his or her feet. Kids are going crazy. In the broadcast booth, the play-by-play announcer is losing his shit. The whole stadium is going insane.

Okay, maybe that’s not the WHOLE third act. We can screw the drama tight in the eighth inning with a couple of relievers coming in and getting knocked out of the box, a clutch homer or two, a drag bunt that gets beat out, maybe a wild pitch, a passed ball.

And we can ratchet the tension up even higher in the top of the ninth and then the bottom.

But at crunch time, if we want our game/novel/screenplay to have the fans screaming in their seats, EVERYTHING that went before has to build to that final moment of tension and suspense, and then we have to play that moment for all it’s worth.

Act Three of The Godfather has Michael Corleone “settling all family business” in one concentrated violent burst, i.e. murdering all the heads of the competing Five Families. But first his guys take out the traitor in their midst.



Can you help me, Tom? For old time’s sake?



Can’t do it, Sally.


And the second betrayer, Connie’s husband Carlo Rizzi.



Don’t tell you’re innocent, Carlo. Because it insults

my intelligence.


Pick any great play, novel, or movie from Hamlet to Breaking Bad, and Act Three is a rising crescendo, drawing upon every stitch of drama and conflict that has been set up through Act One and Act Two and paying it all off in one thunderous, do-or-die climax.

This is the architectural shape not only of a story but of a joke, a bar fight, a litigation, an election, and an act of love.

The ninth inning is not about nuance.

It’s about speed.

It’s about momentum.

The ninth inning is that runner hurtling around third, tearing down the line, and diving flat-out to beat the catcher’s tag at home.

[More in the next few weeks about Act Three and what makes it work or not work.]


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  1. Mia Sherwood Landau on October 25, 2017 at 6:32 am

    Love this post on day 2 of the World Series… It’s such a perfect picture now, hitting home base in a blaze of glory. Louis L’Amour said, describing his early stories in pulp magazines, written before WWII, “The essentials demanded by our editors were action and color, but, above all, one had to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the story had to MOVE.” Emphasis is his, not mine. Same as your emphasis today!

  2. Mary Doyle on October 25, 2017 at 7:09 am

    I’m afraid the baseball analogy is wasted on me, but I do appreciate the gist of this post – thanks!

  3. Brian Nelson on October 25, 2017 at 7:38 am

    I’m so impressionable. No joke. I wear a FitBit, and my HR increased as I read this. As a has-been jock, sports analogies are how I make sense of the world. I had the clearest picture of the guy rounding third, the catcher awaiting the throw…

    Closely related–but do you consider it a cop-out when the writer/director/artist creates all this great drama only to have the credits roll before either the ball or runner reach home plate?

    I don’t mean for a series, but leaves the outcome up to the reader?

  4. Julie Murphy on October 25, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Starting with the end in mind creates both a better beginning and ending. Good reminder, Steve. Thanks.

  5. Ruth on October 31, 2017 at 2:39 am

    Please will you advise on internal struggle reaching enlightenment without being ‘on-the-nose’.

  6. Ruth on October 31, 2017 at 2:58 am

    Sorry for the amateur and cliched question. I know I must find that answer alone. For a deluded moment there I thought there might be a universal truth one could apply, maybe something like a Story Grid spread sheet. . .

  7. Norma B. Billings on July 7, 2021 at 3:22 am

    Baseball is the only sport that I follow interesting and watch every day. The passion of players during the game amuses me a lot. I feel so much pleasure whenever a player does something extraordinary on the field. I have been thinking to read full edubirdie review here so that I can make a decision to hire a writer to write me an essay about this topic.

  8. James Jordan on July 27, 2023 at 3:10 am

    I appreciate your advice on how to craft a satisfying and effective ending for a novel or screenplay. I agree that act three is ninth inning, and that it should deliver the payoff of the story, resolve the main conflict, and reveal the theme.
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