Where to Put the Monkeys, or, Third Act Action SequencesComplications Ensue
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Saturday, February 04, 2017

Lisa's rebreaking the story for a script she's rewriting. She's been wracking her brain on the third act action sequences. The monkeys never seem to be in the right place.

Last night I suggested she think about "what is your hero's greatest fear? The action sequence is where she confronts and surmounts it."

She sort of lit up and disappeared into her writer's brain, and this morning told me, "I've got the whole thing."

It's not about the monkeys. It's never about the monkeys.

A great third act action sequence is, of course, your biggest spectacle. In a great script, it is also where the hero completes his or her dramatic journey. Luke Skywalker's run at the Death Star is not really about where the X-wings go. It is about Luke surrendering to the Force and taking the path to becoming a Jedi like his father.

There are plenty of movies where the third act action sequence is not about the hero achieving his or her destiny, or completing his or her journey. The action is about the hero accomplishing his external goal. However, they are less satisfying, I find, than movies in which the action sequence is not only the physical resolution, but the dramatic resolution.

What does your hero have to do in order to complete his or her journey?

Actually, this is true of all action sequences, in the broadest sense. A sex scene should never be about the sex (unless you're writing a porno, obviously). A sex scene should be a dialog scene without words, where the characters are using sex to express their feelings about each other. They each want something, there's tension, will they get it? Yes, they do. Or no, they don't.

(It's critical to any scene, including a sex scene, or any other kind of action scene, that they won't get what they want.)

Ideally, a gun battle in a John Woo movie, a duet in an opera, a pas de deux in a ballet, can and should have a dramatic question at its heart.

Or, for that matter, a boss battle in a video game, though it may be some time before we realize this.

The reason I have this particular tool in my writer's toolkit is that John Rogers wrote about this in some detail a dozen years ago. He phrases it like this:
Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.

That is excellent advice any time, but particularly excellent advice for your finale.


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