By the time we get to Act III, every screenwriter is ready for a little ACTION. If the hero’s journey through the end of Act II has been an ordeal—then chances are the WRITER’S journey up until this point has been just as stressful. You’ve been through Act I, weaving your story through the first ten pages, page 17, and the point of no return—then jumped off into the no-man’s-land of Act II, and found a way to keep your story lithe and interesting by turning your lead character ACTIVE at the midpoint. Then, after some smooth sailing, your hero seemed to have it all figured out, when WHAM—you took it all away from him and sent him CRASHING DOWN into the all-is-lost moment. What a strange, strange trip it’s been...
So what’s next? At the start of Act III, your hero will have discovered some new information that will allow him to pick himself up, dust off his knees, and keep marching forward—and this means the first ten pages of Act III are gonna move pretty quickly! Armed with a new point-of-view, your hero should be connecting dots and RACING towards a MOMENT OF TRUTH in which everything will finally come to a head. After the disaster at the end of Act II, the rules of the game may have changed for your hero—but that doesn’t mean that the ultimate confrontation he’s headed into 15-20 pages into Act III should not address the ORIGINAL conflict your character faced—just that he might have to address this conflict in a different fashion than he once intended.
Indeed, this final CLIMAX should be a thing of beauty. A stressful, anxious, awful—but totally fulfilling moment in which your PROTAGONIST finally faces off with your ANTAGONIST, and will ultimately WIN or LOSE. Whether your climax is a larger than life experience—such as when James McAvoy backs a garbage truck full of bomb-toting rats through the front gates of Morgan Freeman’s “Fraternity” and faces off with Angelina Jolie in Wanted—or a more grounded moment, such as Sophie and Stingo’s double-suicide at the end of Sophie’s Choice—ALL climaxes must accomplish TWO THINGS: They must RESOLVE the conflict between your hero and your bad-guy, and they must give CLOSURE to the hero’s emotional journey established on page 17.
Climaxes can be long or short. They can be FULL SEQUENCES, such as when Elliott springs E.T. from the back of a government van, meets his friends in the park, flies over San Fernando Valley on a BMX, and returns E.T. to his spaceship—or they can be simple scenes, like the dual-marriage at the end of Guys & Dolls. There is a lot of flexibility in how you choose to build to your climax and how you plan to pay-off your hero’s adventure—but above all else, the climax should not be ill-defined or VAGUE. This is not the time for innuendo or hints—even if you choose to pull the rug out from beneath your audience in the final moment, such as in The Usual Suspects, your audience needs to BELIEVE the story has ended in the climax, and needs to KNOW how your main characters have fared. The climax is not about raising questions—it is about answering them.