Monday, January 23, 2012

The problem with the third act is the first two acts

Cary left this question on the Facebook page a while ago:

"I'm writing a horror screenplay. In watching a lot of horror movies, I find that so many of them have fantastic setups, but often fall apart in the third act. Any general thoughts on how to avoid that?"

I struggle with this answer a bit because Cary didn't offer any specifics as far as his assessment of "fall[ing] apart in the third act."  Without knowing precisely what I'm responding to, it's hard to come up with an effective course of action.

There's an old joke: "The problem with the third act is the first two acts."  Essentially, the reason an ending might suck is because there's not been an effective set-up for any sort of destination.  A film might have a cool set-up and it might even have some engaging set-pieces to keep things going in the second act, but if it's all smoke and mirrors, it becomes tricky to conclude something that was lacking in depth to begin with.

This is why a lot of guys like me say you need to know your ending before you start writing.  You wouldn't jump in your car and just start driving for days on end without planning your endpoint.  If you don't have a destination, how can you develop any sort of route?  Sure, you might end up somewhere, but without knowing that at the outset, how can you stumble upon the best path to that endpoint?

The horror movies that fall apart in the end are often the movies that don't have much going for them beyond a cool hook.  I think I've complained before about The Unborn, which starts off with a clever idea about a college-aged girl being haunted by the twin she never knew about because the baby died in the womb, strangled by the girl's umbilical cord.  Eventually we learn that the twin's spirit is trying to be born into the world.  Along the way, it terrorizes the girl, killing several people around her and eventually going so far that the girl, played by Odette Yustman, submits to an exorcism.

There's some interesting use of Jewish folklore here and for a while the film holds together.  And then we get to the ending.  Remember - throughout the film, the main girl has been haunted, terrorized, threatened and attacked by this evil spirit.  We're left with the impression he's trying to kill her.  The final scenes involve Odette Yustman's character learning that she's pregnant with twins, presumably from a sexual encounter with her boyfriend shown early in the film.  It's been a while since I saw this, but I remember feeling that there was a pretty clear implication that the spirit was going to be born into one of those babies.

Wait, what?  So this spirit's been doing time in Odette's womb since early in the first act.  Presumably, all it has to do is wait out the next nine months and he can pop out alive.  Maybe - MAYBE - if Odette was considering having an abortion, the spirit might decide drastic measures are needed to sidetrack her, but she doesn't even know about the pregnancy until the film's final minutes.  Given that, why the hell is the spirit pulling all these parlor tricks that will lead Odette on a path to figuring out the truth, and why on several occasions does it all but attack her, placing her life in danger?

I want writer/director David Goyer to explain to me what his thinking was here.  Maybe I misunderstood some critical plot point, but the script leads the audience by the nose in so many other places, I doubt I'm too far off base.  I chalk this one up to Goyer being taken with the idea that the girl not only fails to banish the spirit, but that (in a Twilight Zone-type ending) she'll actually give birth to it.  In this case, the third act falls apart because the writer fell in love with a clever idea that doesn't work within the logic of the film's first two acts.

Overall, the key to not having a third act fall apart in a horror film is the same as not having any film fall apart in the third act: have a story to tell - not just a cool hook or premise.  If the third act sucks, it's often because something in it isn't meshing well with the rest of the script


  1. Maybe horror writers feel the need to have a twist in the third act, kind of like with Scream or The Sixth Sense. Perhaps they feel pressure from either their own expectations or from studios to give the audience that surprise even if it isn't warranted.

    Or perhaps Goyer was just distracted by Odette Yustman and lost his train of thought. That would be understandable.

  2. I remember a M. Night Shamalamadingdong interview in which he said something along the lines of "When I write a script, If I don't know what is going to happen at the end, then how will the audience possibly know?"... Having seen a few of his films, I understand that this logic only succeeded like twice. However, I always liked the idea of it.

  3. Funny, most of my friends who write complain their characters often take on a life of their own and don't do what they want so the ending they planned on doesn't happen.

    I freaking hate twist endings. They never work. Unless the writer didn't plan on a twist and it just happened rather than being forced.

    And I hate endings like the one for Drag Me To Hell. I liked the movie up to that part because I KNEW it was going to happen. Now if Raimi had instead make her break the curse and free all the previously dragged down souls. Only to find out they're all corrupted, looking to possess new bodies, and she's pregnant and the last scene should be the soul of the boy taking over her unborn baby.

    Better ending, not as predictable as the switch between the coin and the button, and of course leaves it open to a buttload of sequels where we get to see her and others deal with the corrupted souls she released.

    I'm sure there's others who would hate my ending too, but dang, Raimi really ruined what could've been a good horror movie.

  4. I never watch horror movies, so feel free to ignore me. But I would think that third acts in all movies are similar.. like you said, it often has to do with payoff and setup.

    We're also unsatisfied when endings suggest that the whole movie has been fake/a dream/etc. Twists and surprises are good - but you don't want the audience to feel cheated by a surprise. If I feel like the whole story within the movie has been fake and I've just wasted two hours, I'm going to be mad.

    Another thing to consider is that we're less satisfied when monsters or demons have no reason for what they're doing. "He's just evil" or "he's just crazy" can become a lazy way to avoid character development. More from John August on monsters who "wipe us out just because":

  5. Hate a "twist" ending for the sake of it.

    You know, when the filmmaker pretty much just pulls the rug out from under you to show how clever they are even though they haven't set up the twist/payoff properly.

    But a well-crafted "twist" with seeds deftly planted throughout the film - so well planted you don't even realize they're being planted until you look back after the twist is revealed and go "Ahhh" - is immensely satisfying.*

    Who doesn't love the ending to "The Usual Suspects?"

    *Then again, that's no so much a twist: it's just good storytelling.

  6. @Michael Phelan - Roger Ebert doesn't like the ending of The Usual Suspects. So, one person.

    Also, a lot of horror movies seem to be made either independent writer/directors, as a low budget entry into the film industry, so writers are often less experienced perhaps? Not an excuse Goyer can use though...

  7. I also hate The Usual Suspects ending... I'm okay with Sosa being whomhe is but the whole looking around the room at the pieces is complete BS. You can't put together that twist from what you've seen throughout the film and it's not like you're given those clues to know he's lying but why... The Sixth Sense does this masterfully as you can rewatch and everthing is right there for you. I don't know maybe I'm tough but I feel like the audience should have a fair shot at guessing the twist or else it feels forced and out in left field.