Writing Philosophy: Third Act Crisis

“What do you think of my cooking?”

“Oh… uhhh… it’s delicious!”

“Great!”

(Third Act starts)

“Gasp! YOU LIED TO ME!”

“W-wait! Let me explain!”

Today’s topic:
Third Act Crisis

There are many different names for this topic; the Second-Act Break-Up, the Crisis, the Third-Act Misunderstanding, Liar Revealed, etc.

But no matter what it’s called, I think everybody recognizes it when it happens.

Three Act Structure

Just as a quick refresher, most mainstream stories can be divided in three acts:

  • Set-Up
  • Confrontation
  • Resolution

The Set-Up introduces the character and the world, which leads to the Confrontation where the main conflict is handled. The confrontation may get breaks in-between like maybe the hero is beaten by the villain first, recovers and then tries to fight again, but the point is that after the Confrontation we get the Resolution where everything is… well… resolved. Either this is where the final battle happens or the character development reaches it’s peak and whatnot.

Of course, to drive up the stakes there’s this trend to add a crisis at the end of the second act or the beginning of the third act.

Maybe there’s wedge between the main character and their love interest, which is the Second-Act Break-up.
Or the villain reveals this secret plan or power which brings hopelessness to the resolve of the heroes, which is a more classic Crisis.
Or the best friend character has a misunderstanding with the main character which suddenly causes these supposed best friends to distrust each other, which is the Third-Act Misunderstanding.
Or, usually used in combination with all the previous ones, the main character lied about something before the crisis and this is when the lie is exposed which of course creates a rift with the main character’s friends.

Basically, here’s a graph that visualizes what happens:

Why have the crisis?

Now, the reasons behind the use of this structure are simple.

It drives up the stakes. Suddenly it’s not just the world that’s in peril, but the personal stakes are in danger as well.

Sure, the world may be on the verge of ending with an earth shattering kaboom, but we as audiences have trouble empathizing with the ENTIRE WORLD as it’s too grand a scope to truly comprehend.

But we CAN (theoretically) empathize with the characters we’ve been following in the plot itself.

If done right, you will gasp about the love interest throwing her engagement ring to the floor more than the big reveal that there’s a cannon on the moon that’s about to shoot the earth.

Plus this is where the actors get to show off their acting chops as they get to show off how they can do MORE than just grimace and smile like a badass. Now they can also pull off (GASP) being sad!

I kid, but when done right this CAN be very effective.

Spider-Man 2

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Spider-Man fan.

I remember when I went to the theatre to watch Spider-Man 2, lots of people cheered during the amazing action set-pieces. But the moment that people actually GASPED at was during the scene where Peter Parker revealed to Aunt May that he was responsible for Uncle Ben’s murder.

This came during a latter portion of the second act where everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, went wrong in Peter’s life. This is a big part of why that movie is great, it’s a giant showcase of the conflict of Spider-Man, that no matter HOW bad things get, he will always get back up and do the right thing. But throughout this section of the movie where Peter is hated by his best friend, loses his love interest and loses his powers, there’s this hope throughout it that goes along the lines of;

Well, at least we know his Aunt May will always be behind him.

Naïve Teenage Me

Thus when Aunt May pulls away her hand from Peter, that is outright SHOCKING! (Random trivia, “Shock” is an actual swear word in the future featured in Spider-Man 2099. Maybe I should censor that…)

And sure, later she comes back and forgives Peter and tells him to do the right thing which brings us to the resolution. But really, THIS moment is the giant wake-up call. This is when you find out that doing the right thing is NOT easy. Aunt May needs TIME to absorb this information and it’s well within her right to be angry at Peter.

Peter DID do the right thing to finally tell her the truth, but doing the right thing doesn’t always immediately reward you. It also extends the hopeless portion of the movie a bit more before we rise back up to hope.

This gets paid off with one of the most touching speeches from Aunt May in the canon.

And of course, for you andrenaline junkies out there (myself included) you basically get rewarded for it with one of the greatest action sequences involving Spider-Man ever.

This scene WOULDN’T have been as epic if we didn’t have Peter enter the depths of hopelessness before rising back to the top. It’s a classic underdog story where we cheer for someone who goes from the lowest point all the way up to the highest.

And as cheesy as the civilians’ acting can be, you feel SUCH a sigh of relief when you see people being THANKFUL for Spider-Man’s actions again.

The problems

Buuut… let’s be honest here. Most of the time people don’t remember the Third Act Crisis being a GOOD thing.

No, this particular story telling technique has been done badly SO many times that people equate it to BAD writing more often than equating it to GOOD writing.

I wanted to START by talking about the good about the story telling technique to dispell that basic belief; that a Third Act Crisis is automatically bad.

This pretty much goes hand in hand with people recognizing a trope and immediately point to it being bad without thinking about HOW the trope is being incorporated in the story itself.

In my experience there’s VERY few things in fiction that are AUTOMATICALLY bad. There’s always SOME way to do it right, with Spider-Man 2 being used here as an example of such.

But here are the main problems of the Third Act Crisis.

It’s predictable

Stories have used this story telling technique SO much that, unless you do it REALLY well, it just feels like it’s a mandatory thing for Hollywood stories to HAVE in the plot without any true benefit. Thus the audience doesn’t get the feeling of tension and instead get a feeling of:

Ugh, time to have THIS plotpoint again…

Snarky Audience (Myself included)

I’ve already pointed out the most common ways this has been done; the break-up, the misunderstanding, the liar revealed, etc.

Instead of being invested in the romance or the relationship with the best friend in a natural fashion, you instead feel like it’s INEVITABLE that we’re gonna have something happen between the second and third act only for them to quickly resolve it before we enter the climax.

When done badly, the Third Act Crisis could be removed from the story and you would ACTUALLY have a better flowing story as a result.

Speaking of the flow…

It breaks the pace

If you look back at the graph I made, the flow of how well things are going for the hero pretty much takes a nosedive during that Third Act Crisis.

That IS kind of the point of the Third Act Crisis, it breaks the flow of the hero’s rise to glory to amp up the stakes. You WANT to establish how threatening the villain or conflict is so that you’re invested in the climax.

But when done badly it won’t be JUST the hero’s rise that gets halted, it’s the flow of the story itself that gets halted as well.

How many stories have there been where the driving plot is put to a grinding halt JUST so the characters can resolve their personal problems and pick everything back up like nothing happened?

WAY too many times, I’ll tell you that.

Mind you, a lot of these movies I absolutely LOVE. The Emperor’s New Groove in particular is one of my most favourite Disney Comedies. But it’s pretty dang obvious that they’re just quickly checking “Add Friendship Failure” off the to-do list before returning back to the parts that we actually LIKE, which is the funny hijinks.

There’s MANY other ways they could have developed the same plot without quickly contriving a break-up between Kuzco and Pacha. Pacha could have broken the news to Kuzco and have them hide and listen in on Yzma and Kronk, giving Kuzco that eye-opener and have him reflect on his past actions. Kuzco could have found this out himself and run away in a confused state, to which Pacha could follow him to try to comfort him.

But yeah, that pretty much demonstrates the next problem.

It’s contrived

When done badly, the Third Act Crisis does NOT feel like it’s actually part of the natural flow of the story. It feels forced, like the story shoved in a conflict that the story REALLY doesn’t need in the grand scheme of things.

Suddenly these characters that have been best friends since childhood gain this unnecessary insecurity about their bestie. They won’t listen to reason, despite YEARS of experience with each other telling them that they SHOULD hear out the reasoning behind the action of someone they’ve basically known their entire lives.

The couple just arbitrarily decide that their years of marriage can be flushed down the toilet because one of them DARES to keep a secret that they’re a Super Hero.

And you know what, even if it WAS justified for the crisis to create a rift between the hero and love interest/best friend, this might instead lead to a different problem; the VERY casual forgiveness that brings them back together.

Looking back at the graph, most of the time once the Crisis is resolved, we IMMEDIATELY jump back to the Climax. Everything is good between the hero and their love interest/best friend so we can have an epic finale to the entire story.

But if the guilty party in the crisis has caused the other to lose their house, lose a loved one to death, become ostracized from all of their friends and outright get their LIFE ruined by it… then yeah, it’s kind of unbelievable that they’d actually FORGIVE the guilty party.

They make it seem like all it takes to be forgiven is to just say sorry in as over-the-top manner as possible.

Which… yeah, life is NOT that simple.

True forgiveness comes from understanding the problem and actually making a true effort to fix the problem. You can’t just acknowledge you’re sorry and expect the forgiveness to come automatically.

If your story REALLY wants to cover this subject, then you need TIME to develop it, time you DON’T have if the conflict starts at the tail end of the second act and the beginning of the third act.

Because if you DO dive into this subject THAT late into the story, then that pretty much leads directly to the final problem with this story telling technique, which is…

It distracts from the main conflict

Depending on the kind of story you’re telling, there’s a certain amount of focus you’re supposed to give to the main conflict.

You ARE allowed to deviate from it from time to time to develop the characters. Let the characters breathe and be themselves instead of constantly have them exposit about the plot. But the main conflict gives the audience an end goal to look towards.

For a story to keep the momentum, you NEED to drive the characters towards that end goal. You don’t want the audience to feel like they’re endlessly meandering in the middle of the story with no end in sight.

And that is EXACTLY what it feels like if you do the Third Act Crisis badly.

You’re not on the edge of your seat wondering if the situation will improve between the heroes.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

You’re just waiting for the heroes to get this stuff over with so we can get back to the stuff that we actually want to see.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

This is not to say that simply integrating the Third Act Crisis’ conflict INTO the main conflict will immediately fix things. That may instead give the opposite effect where it feels even MORE forced due to how it tonally bumps against the main conflict and can actually ruin the main conflict as a result.

How to do it right

So yeah, we’ve covered the inherent problems of the Third Act Crisis, how can we do them right?

Well, first ask yourself if the story genuinely NEEDS a Third Act Crisis. Sometimes the main conflict itself already holds enough stakes that the ending is not only satisfactory, but also most effective when it’s uninterrupted.

You can have your characters go through the emotions of anger, sadness or sorrow through other means.

Grrrr! I have a permanent scowl on my face. That makes me MANLY! That’s a good subsitute for personality, right?!

Nobody ever said that your character is only ALLOWED to feel those emotions during THIS particular time stamp in the story, in fact your characters NEED to have a range of emotions throughout the entire story if you want us to be invested in them.

But say you think the story REALLY hangs on the fact that there needs to be a Third Act Crisis to add stakes to the story.

Well, then you’ve gotta combat all of those problems.

Let’s go through them one by one.

The predictability
Just try to think of a new way to drive up the stakes besides the ones that have already been done to death. A couple breaking up is tired and cliché because it undermines the actual relationship itself if it can be resolved immediately after another sad pop song.

A misunderstanding between best friends makes people’s eyes roll because it makes those friends look like insecure children that can’t handle a difference in opinions and don’t want to give the other the chance to explain.

When you think about it, Spider-Man 2 basically did a “liar revealed” story in the Aunt May scene as well. But the main difference is that Peter HIMSELF revealed the “lie” or “secret” on his own accord. His decision is actually one of the most adult decisions he’s ever made in the trilogy. Yet Aunt May was NOT in the wrong at all for needing time to take it in. Whether Peter did the right thing or not, Aunt May is WELL within her right to be angry at Peter for causing the DEATH OF HER HUSBAND!

The main question you should ask is this; does the hope you receive from the resolve outweigh the sorrow you feel from the crisis?

Considering Spider-Man 2’s Third Act Crisis led to one of the most beloved Spider-Man action sequences ever… yes, it did.

The pacebreaking nature of it
This one is actually pretty simple. Keep the plot going. Turn it into a Hitchcock-esque thrill ride where the heroes are stuck, yet the villains are still moving in full throttle.

Don’t have the villains just stop in their tracks of world domination while the hero is sulking. In fact, from a logical standpoint this is the PERFECT time for them to move forward with their plans since now they KNOW the hero is out of their way for the time being!

The pressure of the villain would basically add tension to both the hero and the love interest/best friend as they both KNOW the best way to deal with the villain is to work together again, but emotionally it’s VERY difficult to do so.

The contrivance
“Oh, just get over it” you might say to them. There’s a villain to stop!

Well, make it something they CAN’T just “get over it”. If the hero and best friend are having a falling out because they both flirted with the same person, then yeah this feels extremely petty and you want to slap their faces and get their minds back on what’s REALLY important.

But say the best friend did something like… I don’t know, caused the hero to lose a friggin limb.

Yyyyeah, that’s a bit more difficult to forgive just like that. Humans aren’t emotionless machines like that.

“Well, then how could the two POSSIBLY resolve their differences for the climax?”

To that I say… do they HAVE to resolve their differences?

One of the most hyped up moments in Action Game history is when in Devil May Cry 3 Dante got to team up with his twin brother Vergil to fight the semi-final boss.

Vergil is the guy that Dante’s been fighting the entire game. Dante has YET to actually defeat his older twin at this moment in time. At best he was able to fight him to a draw.

But this ONE moment in the game their goals happened to align and it is SO awesome to see Vergil fight by Dante’s side!

But you know what happened RIGHT after they killed that giant blob?

You suddenly get a harsh reminder that they no longer have a common goal. The REAL conflict was between Dante and Vergil throughout the entire story.

And that neatly leads to how to solve…

The distraction from the main conflict
The way Devil May Cry 3 did it’s story worked because the final fight doesn’t come out of nowhere. Dante and Vergil’s differences are what STARTED the story to begin with!

This is a pretty good way of solving this problem. Basically, the personal problem IS the main conflict!

There may be ANOTHER villain that SEEMS to be the big bad at the start or middle of the story, but the focus has ALWAYS been the personal problem from beginning to end.

This gives you the benefit of both giving the audience an endgoal to look forward to while at the same time actually care about the personal problems because they were the POINT of the story to begin with!

But say you REALLY want the main conflict to be the earth shattering kaboom while the personal conflict is a B-plot.

In that case, make sure the personal conflict feels like an EXTENSION of the main conflict.

The hero and love interest/best friend having problems while the villain is being a totally unrelated danger looming over them? Not interesting.

The hero and love interest/best friend having problems BECAUSE of the villain being a looming danger over them? THAT has merit.

No, don’t make things TOO obvious, like the love interest/best friend is the off-spring of the villain or something and the hero found out and makes a whole “Liar Revealed” plot out of it.

HERO: “Wait, you’re [insert villain]’s DAUGHTER?!”

LOVE INTEREST: “Yes, but I disagree with the goal of world domination, which is why I joined up with you in the first pla-…!”

HERO: “HOW CAN I POSSIBLY TRUST YOU!”

Typical Hollywood Third act

No, try to think thematically.

What is driving the hero? What is driving the villain? And how does the conflict with the love interest/best friend factor into that?

Say the main character flaw of the hero is that he always wants do things alone and thus is unable to accept the help of others.

Make the villain the shadow archetype of that. He’s a paranoid egomaniac who doesn’t trust ANYONE but himself.

Throughout the story we could have the love interest and/or best friend try their best to be by the hero’s side, but he just CAN’T overcome his inability to accept the help of others. That’s the Third Act Crisis.

But once he sees how much of a wreck the villain is and realizes he can end up the exact same way, he finally learns to accept the help and thanks to that they were able to beat the villain through the super power of teamwork.

Mind you, this story isn’t original by ANY MEANS (just watch 90% of anime out there that turn friendship into the most terrifying super power), but it at least makes the conflict feel like it’s genuinely part of the main conflict rather than be some kind of unrelated extra conflict for no reason.

Conclusion

Like all tropes, the Third Act Crisis under it’s many names is a tool. It’s not inherently bad. It’s just been DONE badly so many times that people automatically associate it as a predictable, contrived, pace breaking distraction from the main plot.

But done RIGHT and it can lead to a very emotional scene that not only ups the stake, but also adds more meaning to the story as a whole.

Of course, know when to actually use them. Not ALL stories need to HAVE this writing technique. But if you DO use it in your story, then make sure it’s done WELL.

It’s easy to look at a hated trope and immediately wish to throw it away, but doing so locks you off from the ability to write amazing story developments. There’s always a way to do something RIGHT, you just have to understand it well enough and apply to it’s strengths.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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