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.
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
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.]