Dramatic Momentum and Third Acts

Happy, TexasI’ve been thinking about two comedies recently that have what I normally consider problematic third acts. The first film is kind of a classic of this kind of problem, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The third act is a total muddle. Lothos tries to woo Buffy, she rejects him, he attacks her and is killed in an action sequence so brief that you need to watch it over just to figure out what happened. (Not much.) Now, I’m all for quick third act resolutions, and overly long third acts are now the fashion. But the third act needs to pay off the other two and Buffy provides nothing other than showing Kristy Swanson in a very pretty dress.

The second film is Happy, Texas. It too has a very short third act with one of the most forgettable car chases in movie history. Yet, it works perfectly. There are a number of reasons for this. Fundamentally, it is about characters. Happy has lots of interesting characters with their own story arcs. By the end of the second act all the characters have become new people. All the third act needs to do is some clean up. The two romances must face the reality of who the men really are, the beauty pageant must be held and the bank robbery stopped, and of course, we have to provide a happy ending for Sheriff Dent’s sexual awakening. And all of that (And more!) is done in just a couple of minutes of screen time.

Comparing the two movies, what matters is not the length of acts. Famously, North by Northwest cleans up all of its many loose ends inside a minute. What really matters is the dramatic momentum going into the third act. Happy, Texas has great momentum with lots of different plot lines colliding. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a number of different plot lines, none of them interesting and they certainly aren’t colliding. Will Buffy’s friends stay with her as she takes off with Pike? They’ve already abandoned her and there is no reconciliation. I’m not sure what the vampires want except that Lothos wants a date. The only compelling relationship in the film is Buffy’s with Merrick. And after his death, the film just muddles on. (It does, however, pretend to set up the third act, but totally fails in the effort.)

When it comes to theater or film, dramatic momentum is all. Sadly, it seems more and more a thing of the past. I watch far too many movies with almost random plots. I have a very hard time predicting where these plots are going. This isn’t because they are clever. It is just that where they’re going is random. It’s film making by the numbers: a car chase, then a sex scene, then a fight. Or perhaps: a fight, a sex scene, then a car chase. But I don’t think that I’m just some old guy who can’t get behind the new trend. The truth is that 500 years ago, theater was much like this. The history of drama has been mostly about the refinement of dramatic momentum. I don’t think it is going away. I just think there are a lot of really bad films made.


Yesterday, I wrote about weak acting performances and how it is often the director’s fault. That is certainly the case with Rutger Hauer in Buffy. I know he is a talented actor from other films. But in this one? He seems like an amateur.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Dramatic Momentum and Third Acts

  1. One of the problems with modern scripts is how they get written and re-written by (usually) uncredited sources. Joss Whedon’s listed as the screenwriter for "Buffy" but he claims it was pretty mangled.

    The TV show is charming and worth a look. Incidentally, it suffers from the same flaw eventually — the last season is just a wreck — but that’s a flaw inherent to American TV, where successful shows go on and on past the point of good ideas. (A good BBC show might only have two seasons!) "Buffy" is about monsters and vampires and such as a metaphor for the idea that adolescence is hell. If it had ended after the characters went off to college (where one could say adolescence ends), it would have been a near-perfect four-year run.

    I think one of the problems is that in America, having a track record making a successful show doesn’t guarantee you’ll get to do another. In England you see some of the same talented people popping up again and again. You can decide to end a series, or step away as head writer (in the case of something that’ll never end, like "Doctor Who") and begin work on your next project. That’s not as common here.

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