In this series on the construction of the novel, we have discussed creating a strong opening act, and a powerful, electrifying middle. So, let’s talk about the all-important fourth quarter of the story arc—the final act.
At this point, the enemy’s plans are in place. Our protagonists have met the enemy and survived the encounter, but now they know they may not prevail.
If your work is not speculative fiction or fantasy, perhaps they’ve suffered a terrible personal setback.
Regardless of the genre, at the outset of the fourth quarter, the protagonists are at their lowest point both physically and emotionally. From the midpoint crisis forward through the third quarter, major events have funneled the players down the path to the final conflict. Now, they are scrambling, working against time and perhaps, with fewer resources than the antagonist.
In these chapters leading up to the conclusion, the protagonists have been pressed to the breaking point. Now they are at the end of their journey. They must rediscover their courage, find a reason to continue the fight, resolve the loose ends, and appear at the final showdown ready to do battle.
If you were not careful in the setting up the events that form the middle of the narrative, the story could fall apart here. Listen to your beta readers’ comments: even in your third draft, you may have to insert new scenes into the existing narrative to drive the action to the final conflict.
- At the outset of the 4th quarter, all subplots are resolved, and the final focus is on the enemy’s move.
- The enemy’s plans and their true nature must be shown.
- Someone who was previously safe may be in peril. Perhaps their fate hangs on a thread, and the outcome is unclear.
- The protagonists must face the fact that their efforts have forced the enemy’s hand in a way they never expected.
- Your protagonist may achieve their goal, but they will pay a heavy price for it, and return home changed for good or for ill.
If your editor asks you to write new scenes to get a flat story arc back on track, and you agree it’s needed, your task is to blend the new material into the existing story.
- You must go back and insert foreshadowing in earlier passages, and some otherwise great passages that now go nowhere will be cut.
This is most important: any event that does not drive the plot to the end is a distraction. All side quests are being wrapped up at this point so don’t introduce any new plot threads. Emotions are key–of course for the characters, but also for the reader.
- The higher the emotional stakes when the protagonist meets the antagonist for the final showdown, the more emotionally satisfying the final resolution will be for the reader.
The resolution should be final, with no loose threads. Cliffhanger endings aggravate readers who don’t want to wait a year for the rest of the story, so even if your book is the middle volume of a series, give the reader some reward for their faithfulness, and resolve most of the subplots.