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Third act problems … and Solutions

Third act problems … and Solutions

FIXING A HOLE WHERE THE RAIN GETS IN:   Third act problems … and solutions

A Session with Peter Seth


When I finished the first draft of the book that became my novel WHAT IT WAS LIKE, I didn’t think I had any Third Act problems.

(For the sake of this article, when I say “Third Act problems,” I mean any problem with the end of a novel.  Some writers use a three-act structure to plan their books; some programs use a four-act structure.  Some people don’t know or care either way: they just write.  But most writers use some kind of outline to help them organize their plots, to chart a beginning, a middle, and an end.  What I’ll be addressing here are general “end of book” problems, however you label or number them.  Problems … and opportunities.)

What It Was Like by Peter SethI gave the manuscript to an editor friend of mine and waited for her ecstatic reaction, which didn’t come in quite the way that I thought it would.  But she had a lot of valuable things to say anyway.  And she had some essential answers to the list of questions I had.  (That’s a side topic, but you should always have a list of questions ready to ask your first readers when you’re road-testing your first draft.  You know, or at least suspect, what the weaknesses in your manuscript are.  Better to get them out into the open early, if you really want to fix them.)

One of the key questions I had for her was, “Did you know what was going to happen at the end?”  Her response was an automatic, neutral yep.  Not an enthusiastic, joyous YES!  You fulfilled the promise of your wonderful premise!  I was absolutely enthralled yes.   I mean she was polite and everything, but I could tell by her reaction that my ending fell flat.  Did not work.  Misfired.  Failed.

Later I came across a verse from one of my favorite poets that crystallized matters perfectly:

“The Riddle we can guess/We speedily despise — / Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday’s surprise” – Emily Dickinson

Lots of things the brilliant, brittle Belle of Amherst said are enigmatic, but this one is pretty clear.  And correct, I think.

Readers today are very smart.  “Yesterday’s surprise” is not going to cut it these days, if indeed it ever did.  And, in most cases, an effective end of a novel is key to its success.   Even if your plot sags and your narrative slows in the middle, a bang-up ending should save the day.  It’s hard to think of a great novel with a bad ending.

I thought that the ending for my first draft was “inevitable,” but it wound up being “predictable.”  The difference between predictable and inevitable is razor-thin but crucial.  “Predictable” is bad – yesterday’s surprise.  “Inevitable” is good – it’s the Fate you’ve created for your characters coming true, the whole story falling into place.  It’s the difference between satisfying your reader or not.

So in this article, let me relate some of the ways I tried to solve my Third Act problems, offer some ideas and exercises, and see if my trials can help ease yours.  I’ll try to be candid, but I don’t want to give any spoilers away.  My book does contain surprises and spoilers now.  Come to think of it, if your book doesn’t have spoilers, you might have a problem.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Along the way, I’m also going to mention two extremely popular novels – ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy and GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn – in order to illustrate some points.  (One of these books is among my favorite novels by an author I absolutely revere; the other one I liked, too.)



The first draft of WHAT IT WAS LIKE was called L.I., and it was very long. Something had to go.  In fact, a lot of things had to go.  It was all too much for what was basically a simple story of teenage-love-gone-wrong.  My editor/guru, she of good taste and honest talk, told me to return to my initial inspiration for the book and go from there.  Good advice.  (That’s how I renamed my book; my initial inspiration was to write a book that showed “what it was like” to be love with….)

I went back and started to re