ACT III—THE END
Everything comes together in Act III. This is the climax of the story. The hero continues on, with new resolve and a new outlook. Sometimes this means that there is a final showdown, a last battle, and the hero doubles down to reach that external goal one last time. Sometimes the external goal is modified. What he thought he wanted comes together with what he didn’t know he needed—and the hero achieves some peace with both goals. The most important thing with ACT III is that it needs to provide some kind of emotional resolution. Somehow, as a result of all this, the hero is changed. And in children’s literature, that means changed, with a hopeful future ahead of him.
Act III in Nate is rather subdued by third act standards. There is no final showdown or glorious attempt to double down on the goal and go after it one last time. He doesn’t storm the Ripley-Grier studios and demand a do-over. The character, overall, is relatively passive in the final act, with most of the action happening to him, not because of what he does.
But there is emotional payoff in spades. If you agree that the emotional crux of the book is about Nate figuring out how he fits into the world and his family, this is where things all come together.
Nate bunks at Heidi’s and her roommate’s apartment—finally he’s among actors, where he belongs. But in the middle of the night, Nate’s mom shows up, demanding that Nate come home.
Before I can go on, I have to talk mirror characters. Heidi is a mentor, but she’s also Nate’s mirror. She is what he aspires to be (a real actor who ran way to NYC to follow her dream), and what he fears he will become (in the end, she’s failed at her dream). Much of the emotional payoff in Act III comes through her—and the resolution of her (side) storyline. It turns out Mom and Heidi have been feuding since high school (much like Nate and his sportstar brother feud)—and have barely spoken since. When Mom shows up in Heidi’s apartment, the feud roars back to life. But in the end, they resolve their longstanding fight; Mom accepts Heidi even though she’s different and Heidi forgives Mom for not understanding her. And in the process Nate comes to feel that acceptance as well.
External Goal Resolved
Remember how we talked about special skills in Act II? Well, just as predicted, Nate’s special knee crawl skill turned out to be the key to the resolution of his external goal in Act III.
The way this is communicated in the story is really unique. The scene hops forward, without explanation, and we’re back in the Ripley-Grier studios where Nate is apparently wrapping up yet another audition. The producers were impressed by his energy and his ability to walk on his knees and could see him giving life to the title alien character, E.T., so they asked him to return to read for that part. In between every sentence of action at the audition, we get parenthetical info about the resolution of the Mom/Heidi feud and the (now back) story that led up to this final audition.
I liked the idea of literally interweaving the internal and external goal resolution. Somehow it felt very cinematic. I also think it had a cool effect of emphasizing the emotional storyline over the external storyline. And in the end, that emphasis is what makes this Act III work.
Emotional Storyline Pays Off
The author could have made much more of Nate’s theatrical redemption in Act III—with a suspenseful callback, a more literal audition scene, and a triumphant acceptance of the part—but that would have felt really formulaic, I think. Instead the focus of the third act rests on what’s going on in Nate’s head and in his family dynamics. Mom’s dramatic appearance makes Nate feel his mother’s love, feel accepted. His dad says he’s proud of him. Heidi and her friend casually refer to him as an “actor” which in a way is the emotional climax of this section—finally he feels like he really belongs in this world he aspires to be a part of. And because of what he learns about what went down between Heidi and Mom in the past, Nate modifies his attitude toward his brother (so “history will not repeat itself”). The sexual identity portion of the emotional storyline isn’t resolved, but purposefully and authentically so, since it’s not resolved in Nate’s mind either. Maybe that leaves us hanging, but personally I felt like the way Federle handled it was spot-on perfect for a middle-grade audience. (Sadly, predictably, this element of the storyline has brought out the bigots, as Federle recently wrote about in Huffington Post. Great article, but I’m sad he had to write it.)
It’s strongly hinted that Nate lands the part of E.T. but the author leaves us hanging with an unanswered phone call, because in the end, it isn’t the audition or the part that really matters. Nate’s big audition is just an exercise that leads him to better understand himself.
Some people deride the 3-act structure as a methodology for churning out soul-less formulaic crap. If you approach it like a Mad Libs homework assignment, it can be. But if you remember that all important point of making sure Act III offers a strong emotional payoff and craft a convincing internal storyline for your character, as Tim Federle did for Nate, the heart and soul of your character will turn the structure into something living, breathing, and wholly unique.
ACT III—The End
Resolve the External Goal
In the process, tie off the Internal Goal
Offer Emotional Payoff
If you like this kind of analysis, I highly recommend two other websites which go way more into depth on all these points, and offer some alternative outlooks. Both authors come from a screenwriting perspective and both focus more on films meant for adults, but the lessons they provide are invaluable for any kind of fiction writing. Check them out!
Alexandra Solokoff’s Screenwriting Tricks
Matt Bird’s Cockeyed Caravan
PPS: An adorbs interview with the author.