The Third Act Solution . . . or the Most Important Moment in your story
The Third Act Solution.
Not every story has one, but every great story does.
So what is the Third Act Solution and why is it so darned special?
It’s the “the power is in you and always has been” moment.
It’s the pathological liar finally applying their hard-learned lesson of “the truth shall set you free” as the changed character they’ve become.
Or the poster of Rita Hayworth revealed as an escape tunnel’s cover through which Andy Dufrense finally achieves his freedom from Shawshank prison along with the little worn nub of the rock hammer he bought from Red and left behind in his cell just to stick it to the evil warden.
Or the loyal General betrayed and turned slave then gladiator finally confronting and killing their betrayer in front of all of Rome as did Maximus Decimus Meridius the usurping Emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus in Gladiator.
Or terrified Peter Parker, trapped under tons of rubble moments from crushing him to death, remembering Tony Stark’s words, “If you’re nothing without this suit then you shouldn’t have it” then summoning his full Spidey courage and shoving free from the rubble then chasing after the Vulture with his full Spider-Man potential realized and without the unnecessary aid of his Stark-tech suit.
The Third Act Solution is the writer’s promise to the audience paid in full near story’s end, because everything before it leads up to this one defining moment that makes the rest of your story worth reading.
Star Wars: A New Hope is probably the most famous example. Its Third Act Solution is the “Use the Force” moment quoted by millions of fans. All of Luke’s Jedi training and all of Obi Wan’s sage advice during Act 2 finally meld together during Act 3 when Luke, piloting his X-Wing and moments from being shot to smithereens, let’s go of his inhibitions, trusts in the mysterious Force to guide his impossible shot, and blows up the evil Empire’s Death Star. And we the audience get that satisfying butterfly-flutter in our happy guts as the Death Star goes BOOM! because we reflect on Luke’s Act 2 training with an insightful smile.
The Third Act Solution is put into active motion during Act 3 when the protagonist faces the antagonist one-on-one as only the protagonist can and either achieves victory or dies trying. We catch a glimpse of its powerful potential sometime during the beginning of Act 2 when the protagonist undergoes their training for change, and we are reminded of its necessity sometime during the end of Act 2 when the protagonist experiences their spiritual epiphany of inspiration after their All is Lost depression and they decide on one last try against the antagonist regardless the impossible odds. Though an introductory hint of its untapped potential is provided earlier in the story sometime during the beginning of Act 1, but at this point the protagonist has zero idea of its true value otherwise they would have used it to resolve the Inciting Incident. At the time, the specialness of it doesn’t catch our ignorant eye, and that’s the entire magician’s trick of its point. It seems like nothing more than ordinary advice or a particular protagonist idiosyncrasy overlooked or an ordinary gift bestowed . . . then later its true importance is revealed through a surprising though logical display of protagonist potential finally realized and applied as the changed character they’ve become through all the adversity they’ve endured and thus grown wiser because of.
The Third Act Solution is the most important element to your entire story because it is what completes the protagonist’s character growth arc. Everything before its implementation is the imminent set-up to its spectacular pay-off.
And it’s best summed up in three words: protagonist potential realized.
You see, up till the Third Act Solution actually happens, all the story before it is a promise, and when it’s finally implemented the Third Act Solution is that promise paid in full. It’s the reason your story exists. And introducing it early in the story makes its later implementation a surprising though logical reveal instead of an irritating and illogical deus ex machina. If it’s introduced too late (any time after the Midpoint) then it feels forced and contrived. Introducing it earlier allows the subtle memory of it to linger in our minds as just another part of the whole story.
And the protagonist accomplishes their Third Act Solution in one of five ways:
1. By means of courage: the protagonist uses their courage to solve their problem and achieve their purpose.
2. By means of ingenuity: the protagonist uses their brains and creativity to solve their problem.
3. By means of a special ability: the protagonist has a special ability or acquires a new skill.
4. By means of a special weapon: the protagonist has a special weapon to bring about the antagonist’s defeat.
5. By means of self-sacrifice: the protagonist endures anything in order to achieve their goal, even at the cost of themselves, for the betterment of others.
There are four and only four essential parts to a Third Act Solution for good reason. The first is the subtle Hint of its dormant potential inside the protagonist during Act 1, so disguised as unimportant we take no notice of it; we’ll call this ignoring the seed. The second is the fleeting Glimpse of its potential sometime during the beginning of Act 2; we’ll call this planting the seed. The third is the overt Reminder of its potential to both protagonist and the audience later on at the end of Act 2; we’ll call this watering the seed. And the fourth is the brazen Proof of its potential through implementation by the protagonist after realizing its true importance during Act 3; we’ll call this sprouting the seed.
Beating your reader over their head with the Obvious Stick because you’re afraid they won’t remember its earlier introduction when the Third Act Solution pays off later is why you apply the Rule of Four. Mention it too much throughout the story and the payoff will lack its satisfying surprise. Mention it too little and it’ll seem like it came out of nowhere. Mention it four and only four times (Act 1 subtle hint of potential, beginning of Act 2 fleeting glimpse of potential, end of Act 2 overt reminder of potential, and Act 3 brazen proof of potential) and your Third Act Solution will be like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge: just right, and yummy in our tummies.