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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.)

I 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-think the whole novel.  Which brings me to my first bit of wisdom from one of my idols Billy Wilder.  Among the many smart things he said is –

“If you have a problem with the Third Act, the real problem is in the First Act.”

(I know he’s not a novelist, but he was a great filmmaker, screenwriter, wit, and popular entertainer across a wide range of genres.  I think he knew a lot about making stories work for audiences.  Next thing you know, I’ll be talking about Mozart.)

Wilder makes an important point.  If things are well planned, by the time you get to the Third Act, your writing should flow.  If things are not flowing, something is wrong.

Your characters’ Fate might be happy (if you are writing a comedy) or sad (tragedy) or something in-between, but it’s the product of the universe you’ve created.  And you, as God, should make the events of the Third Act be the rightful outcome, the fulfillment of what your characters truly were all along.

So if you think something is wrong with your Third Act or you’re looking for ways to strengthen it, here are a few exercises to use as you reconsider your draft.  Even if you’re conceiving a new project, these are good tools for planning.  I wish I would have done some of these, instead of inductively plowing through two revisions, to arrive at what I wanted, or as close as I could get to it


First thing, I had to deal with the predictability of my ending.  What to do?  (One thing I did was sit around too long in a funk over my misfired ending.)  Here’s what I should have considered – or better, done before I started writing the first draft:


EXERCISE #1 -- COME UP WITH THREE “WRONG” ENDINGS FOR YOUR BOOK – AND THE REASONS WHY THEY ARE WRONG. I am a great believer in “Negative Learning.”  Sometimes you need to learn what’s wrong on the way to finding out what’s right.  Before you find your right ending, come up with three wrong endings. (Don’t make the mistake of actually writing out entire drafts of wrong endings, please!)

Ask yourself what would be the wrong action for your hero or heroine to take? What would violate the parameters you set up for your characters in the First Act? What would disappoint or confuse the reader?  What would make the reader say, “Oh no!  Not that old ending!”  When you know what’s a wrong ending – and why it’s wrong – it can point you to what’s a right ending.

I did three major drafts of WHAT IT WAS LIKE.  In the first draft, my two main characters weren’t present together at the crucial Third Act event.  (Sorry to be so oblique, but I’m avoiding spoilers.)  In the second draft, my hero came late to the crucial event and was too passive.

When I look back on my first draft for WHAT IT WAS LIKE, I realize now that I probably could have saved myself a lot of thrown-away writing if I had followed this exercise.  If I had imagined another wrong ending, it might have flipped on a “they have to be together at the end” warning light in my writer’s brain.  Another attempt might have warned me “he has to be there the whole time.”  When you bring yourself face-to-face with ideas that are obviously wrong, it will force you – almost by default – to enter areas of “rightness.”

This exercise will force you to ask yourself: what MUST my ending lead to?  What am I trying to prove with my ending?  And, just as important, what would invalidate or diminish my characters’ premises?

Finally, on my third draft, I think I got the right balance.  But it took me a lot of wasted effort.   So try imagining three wrong endings; they just might lead you to the “rightest” ending you could find.


I had to deal the problem of excessive length.  The book was just too damned long for its subject.  So, as I cut and re-structured the novel, I re-shaped it to make it hit harder in the Third Act.


EXERCISE #2 – RE-EXAMINE YOUR STRUCTURE “Form follows function” is a central tenet of modernist architecture and design, and I think it applies to book writing, too.

So this next exercise is: re-examine the structure of your story.  Is everything – the build-up and pace of the plot, the introduction of characters, the complicating events, etc. – in the proper proportion and in the proper place, to get the maximum effect in the Third Act?

In my case with WHAT IT WAS LIKE, my first draft was in four big sections – Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring. My second draft was in two sections: Summer, What Happened Then. But my final draft, the final book, is in three sections: Summer, Fall, What Happened Then.

It took work to find this correct structure. In the first draft, the action was too attenuated.  My plot dragged.  I let things grow out of proportion to the story I was telling.  I had originally envisioned a lean, direct, tragic love story – a cry of pain – a simple curve of good-love-gone-wrong, like my original inspiration The Sorrows of Young Werther.  My four-part structure was too unwieldy for the story I wanted to tell. When I cut down my first draft in a major revision, I went too far: I cut the story into just two parts.  That wasn’t right for the slow curve I wanted for my book’s shape as the plot morphs from innocent love story to desperate attachment to a violent end.  “The whole Romeo-and-Juliet-Leopold-and-Loeb-Bonnie-and-Clyde thing that all the newspapers and TV stations made such a big deal over.”

It was the third draft – and the three-part construction – that gave me the shape I wanted for my story.  I finally got my form to follow my function – from Romeo and Juliet to Leopold and Loeb to Bonnie and Clyde.  And it set up the ending I wanted – or as close as I could make it.  Call it a “Goldilocks” solution.

So re-examine the shape of your story: are you building up to the Third Act properly – in the right proportion, at the right “speed?”  Is your form following your function, setting up the impact you want at the end?

WHAT IT WAS LIKE explores obsessive love and its consequences for two teenagers in 1968. Everything is presented carefully, rolled out consecutively as the testimony that my narrator never gave on the stand. And then, in the Third Act, there’s a big jump –


I woke up in a blank, white room I don’t know how many days or weeks later. It took me a very long time to wake up and focus my eyes, and even longer to realize that I was in a hospital. Nurses came and went, but I couldn’t speak and nobody would tell me anything.

At first I could not move. Everything—my mind, my senses, my memory—was frozen. My body felt sunken into the mattress. I thought that I was paralyzed, but then realized that I could move my head and my upper body a little.

I think I had some casts or something on my legs, but when I tried to move and look, I felt that my left leg was attached to something at the foot of the bed. Painfully, I raised myself, little by little, onto my elbows and saw that my left ankle was handcuffed to the post of the footboard of the hospital bed. I fell back against the mattress, exhausted and defeated and disgusted with myself beyond measure as I remembered everything.


Don’t be afraid to jar your reader, even in the Third Act, as long as you’re in control of your narrative.

Remember the only rule of Art is Billy Wilder’s Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not bore.


It is essential to fight obviousness and – “yesterday’s surprise.”  Try to freshen up your Third Act, so that you can surprise your reader – and maybe even yourself – with something different and unusual.


EXERCISE #3 – RE-EXAMINE YOUR CHARACTERS – MAJOR AND MINOR CHARACTERS. Reverses and shadings can add depth to your Third Act.

Here’s a very hopeful thing for all writers: Tolstoy’s early drafts of ANNA KARENINA featured a love triangle of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin, where the husband rather than Anna was the tragic figure.  Anna was a fleshy temptress, whose desires Tolstoy viewed as “terribly repulsive and disgusting.”  It was only after further work that Anna’s “will” as a character forced a change on Tolstoy, and she, the “sinner” became the sympathetic, spontaneous, tragic figure we know now, while ultra-moral Karenin, the “saint” turned more and more hypocritical.

If Tolstoy, arguably the greatest of us all, can be “wrong” on a early draft and have to re-calibrate one of his major characters – certainly one of the greatest characters in all literature — all of us must be willing re-examine our major characters and their arcs for the sake of the novel as it develops.

It applies to minor characters, too.  (Maybe even more so.)  In the case of my book, I brought back a previously unsympathetic character for one last encounter with my “hero” that called much of his past action into question.  Or is he just being self-serving?  Or both?  Again, I don’t want to give spoilers, but unexpected character twists and shadings in the Third Act can add real depth to the world you’ve created.

So look again at your manuscript.  Can you “turn” a character or shade it in a way that surprises your reader?  The human race is unpredictable.  Unpredictability can actually add “reality” to your book.  Experiment with your characters.  You could surprise yourself.


Readers are very smart these days, especially mystery readers.  They love to smell out an obvious plot point.  (I don’t envy mystery writers, always having to try to “outthink” their readers.)


EXERCISE # 4 -- LOOK FOR TWISTS – LARGE AND SMALL The best-selling novel of the past few years has been GONE GIRL, and I expect it to sell even more copies when the movie comes out.  It is a symphony of twists.  Or rather, it’s a call-and-response duet of dueling monologues.  The structure of the book – with alternating “Amy” and “Nick” chapters – almost guarantees twists with a “he said/she said” rhythm giving way to an all-out “take that!/no, you take that!” war of the sexes.

It makes for exciting reading as Flynn skillfully pulls off several major reversals.  A couple come close to cheats.  (The book would be a lot different if Nick admitted, “I have a mistress” on Page 1, not Page 142.)  Finally, Flynn twists Amy and Nick’s plottings so thoroughly that the character of Tanner Bolt, the super-lawyer who is “the guy guilty people call in,” is forced to say to Amy and Nick, “You two are the most fucked-up people I have ever met, and I specialize in fucked-up people.”

Great line.  But you have to ask yourself, when you’re writing your novel and not Ms. Flynn’s, do you want to twist your characters’ actions until they’re completely “fucked-up?”  There are limits to twists; sometimes just a little is right.  You don’t have to flip-flop your main characters.  You can achieve a lot with subtle shading. So look for twists – large and small – to give your Third Act some extra spice.


You just have to keep working.


EXERCISE #5 – MINE YOUR DEPTHS FOR REPETITIONS AND GRACE NOTES Go back over the beginning of your book – your set-up, your development — ask yourself: what can I repeat in the Third Act?  What themes/incidents/details/chunks of dialogue can I bring back – to emphasize character, the inevitability of what happens, Fate – to add to the impact of Act III?

Can you re-seed your First Act with things that will pay-off in the Third Act? The Third Act is the final target.  Go back as often as you have to in order to “re-calibrate” the path of your rocket (main character.)  Of course, there is always the constant “reweaving” of the fabric of your novel so that everything flows; but late in the game you can plant goodies in the First Act that you can harvest in the Third Act – to great advantage.  The early information that you give a reader at the beginning of your novel gains interest, like money in an account.  You can draw on that interest in the Third Act, when you bring things back.

Just as Mozart brings back five major themes at the end of the Fourth Movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony, bring back your goodies.  Re-sound your major themes … or minor touches.  Hit some of the same notes but perhaps in a slightly different way – and then you strike a “chord” in the reader’s mind.  You exploit the reader’s “memory” of the early parts of your book, and when you bring things back, you can achieve maximum effect. Repetition will resound within the reader, giving your Third Act more emotional impact. These paragraphs from the last chapter of my book contain at least eight repetitions – I lay in my hard prison bed at night, trying to see what I’m writing, believing and not believing where I am. I can’t really breathe in here; you know that I like to breathe. And I am reaching new levels of Negative Learning every day, beyond what I ever thought possible.

I listen to my heart—b’thump . . . b’thump . . . b’thump. I relive all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, the mistakes I made with Rachel, the mistakes made at the trial, the mistakes made that night when all of our lives ended. I replay every episode, pick at every wound, pick at every word, and I am still not satisfied. But when I finally close my eyes at night, I still see her face, those blue-blue eyes, that Mona Lisa smile . . . and it makes me happy inside. I never got a chance to say goodbye to Rachel, so I say goodbye to her every night. I can’t help it: after everything that happened, I still love the girl who ruined my life.

I close my eyes, and just like that, I’m back in The Zone. I hear her final, passionate, desperate “I love youuuuu!” right before the crash, echoing in my brain—or did I just make that up? I stay very still, withdraw into my purest self, and try to recreate something real, something basic: what it was like to be in love with Rachel Prince. I even get my title line in, right at the end.


So try a few of these exercises.

One last note: never stop working on your book.  I got some of the best riffs in my book after it was sold, after it was already in composed pages.  I was zooming down Ventura Freeway and I almost went through my ragtop’s roof.  “Of course! …They call her Hell-eanor!”


About the Author…

“If indeed you’ve ever wondered what kind of parents J.D. Salinger and Patricia Highsmith would have made if they had gotten together, then look no further than Peter Seth, their literary progeny,” says Kevin Sessums, editor in chief of FourTwoNine magazine. Peter possesses the rare ability to thrill and move at the same time, and his debut novel, What It Was Like is an extraordinary combination of romantic drama and emotionally charged suspense.

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