There are two things on the meta level that no screenwriter can get wrong. The first is the beginning of any story, the hook; the second and more important is the ending. I’m talking about the plot ending combined with the thematic (emotional) ending.
Ending minutes or pages are the last thing your reader/viewer experiences and as such it must be appropriate, make an impact, tie everything up, but also be memorable beyond the moment. More movies are ruined by bad endings than just about anything else.
Here are some keys to assure your screenplay has a great ending:
1) THEIR TRIUMPH IS OURS
We have an empathetic response to other people’s victories or failures. TV shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent play to that concept. This is why they show you the performer’s backstory. Our characters, once established properly, bond tightly in a short time, and become as familiar to us as our own friends and families, and we celebrate or suffer with them accordingly.
Their triumph (or tragedy) is our own because if you’ve done the story right, placed the characters on the stage correctly, you’ve linked us to their fate at a level we almost can’t consciously control. This is a part of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus. Yeah, I didn’t know that either but it’s there where our empathy lies.
So place yourself in the audience’s position and look, not with your dispassionate, calculating storyteller’s eyes, but with their hearts (or supramarginal gyrus) and you should come to the appropriately (com)passionate ending.
Great movies that show that emotional connection (happy or horrific) are legion but The Natural, Se7en, Identity, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Birdman, Gook, and Whiplash are some standouts in that we have deep, emotional connections to the characters and their triumphs or shattering failures.
2) INEVITABLE, BUT NOT PREDICTABLE
One of the first things I learned about endings is that we as readers or audience are already anticipating a finish. We’re ahead of the story and characters creating our own conclusion. We can’t help it. We’ve grown up with thousands of stories from multiple sources.
But done properly, skillfully, hopefully our audiences are in the moment and not thinking too far ahead. Almost as if you’re on a physical roller coaster and know that there’s a terminus coming but you can’t focus on that too much because whoops! Here comes another loop or hard curve.
The key is to keep the audience engaged right up to the point you resolve the scenario. You want your audience to forget that the hero or heroine is probably not going to die. But you want the worry, the tension anyway.
For example, in a list of superb movie endings, films like Green Book, The Shape of Water, and The Night Comes For Us spring to mind.
In The Night Comes For Us we know the young girl is probably going to be okay but there’s the small doubt. The way it’s resolved kept me guessing right up to the end. Although bittersweet, the ending was satisfying. Based on the setups, the final moments could have gone a half-dozen ways; all would have been solid choices.
Green Book is a lovely story about an unlikely friendship, and the knock at the door at the end made me hope for the resolution we all wanted. However, the first knock was a red herring – a twist (foreshadowed properly.) It was the second knock that made everything all warm and fuzzy. Loop-de-loop.
Take me to the top of the roller coaster, let me see the track below, but twist things up a bit at the end so I can’t figure out when, or more importantly, how that ride will end.
3) SURPRISE ME – NO, ACTUALLY SHOCK ME
Avengers: Infinity War, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Old Boy, and Gone Girl come to mind as being movies that shock you I can remember thinking during The Sixth Sense that the movie was at times engaging and scary but a bit slow. Then that ending and – wham! Everything changed. It was a sudden, dramatic hurricane knocking me over.
Different but similar in shock was Avengers: Infinity War. Not having followed the Marvel Universe closely lately and determined not to know much about the film, the idea that everyone (almost everyone) dies in the end was mind blowing. I never saw it coming.
A good shocker ending is like the reveal on any murder mystery. You need to distract your audience so they don’t see it coming. However, you also must play fair with them, write so solidly that if they do go back and try to see the underpinnings of the twisty ending, those clues are there. Again, The Sixth Sense does this so amazingly well.
Of course, I also have to mention Cool Hand Luke as an incredibly gut-wrenchingly stunning ending to a classic, brilliant film. In lockstep to the theme of the novel/movie that society will always kill our messiahs, the ending is shocking, unexpected, and has resonance for both the characters and the audience far beyond the climatic moment.
4) MAKE ME THINK
Resonance, mentioned above, is always a great benefit of any story and pretty much the entire reason we write. If I close the book, shut off the TV, walk out of the theater and I’m still churning with what I just saw I know I’ve just experienced a great film.
There’s an older film called City Of Hope written by genius filmmaker John Sayles. Sayles also wrote a great film with a twisty ending called Lone Star staring the brilliant actor Chris Cooper. But that’s not for this discussion.
In City Of Hope the ending moment is so powerful, so tragic, so memorable that even after 20+ years I can still see (and feel) it vividly. The corruption and despair that the film speaks to is encapsulated in that ending so perfectly, with David Strathairn parroting Tony Lo Bianco’s desperate cry for help, that it pins you to your seat, and afterward drives your thoughts for days (years) after the movie ends.
Sayles is able to dig into our hearts and souls and destroy them. Exactly what you want in any film that has a higher level of consciousness.
Likewise, Birdman with its tragic, then unexpectedly uplifting ending is mounted perfectly to a framework of insightful characterization. Emma Stone’s head lift, smile, and laughter is one of the ten best single moments in film.
5) ONE ENDING NOT THREE
Know when your movie ends and take us there. I can remember seeing The Dark Knight and thinking what I thought was the ending was great and appropriate. Then we have this second ending with Two-Face and the ending that I wanted, anticipated, the Joker being brought to justice, was attenuated and diluted.
I’m not talking about codas or epilogues. Those can be very satisfying and bring you down nicely from an emotional high, solidify the story’s theme. But the Dent character (Two-Face) wasn’t the villain I wanted to see brought to final justice – or at least not at the final ending. He’s a lesser villain in the Marvel DC Universe, and established late in the movie (as Two-Face) so we aren’t polarized against him like we are with The Joker. Perhaps if they had flipped the “bring-to-justice” parts and made Two-Face the first bad guy Batman takes down instead of the last then I would have accepted it more. As is, it felt tacked on, and most of the emotional impact, for me, was lost.
To their credit, the filmmakers of 10 Cloverfield Lane had a different (second) ending to the film that was ultimately cut after they realized it was too much.
However, most Bond films have at least one, maybe two extra endings. These are part of the franchise; expected, anticipated and great fun when a minor villain pops up after the main bad guy is dispatched and continues to try to kill Bond. This is contextually appropriate.
Endings can get dicey from a writing standpoint if you’re working with a studio or production company with an agenda. Get Out and Fatal Attraction are prime examples (more on those endings next.) In that case you do what’s necessary and hope for the best.
Laser focus your ending on the inevitable confrontation between protagonist and antagonist and you’re good to go.
6) HAPPY ENDINGS OR NOT
Movies, stories can be broken down into two broad categories: happy endings and not.
No Country For Old Men (NCFOM) doggedly refuses to be a neat package in that sense (and also defies the “rule” of one solid ending) but the Coen Brothers have always been outliers, understanding “the rules” before bending or breaking them to suit their unique visions.
The endings in NCFOM (all three) are thematic interpretations of the character’s actions and beliefs. As such, they are not happy endings, nor twisty, nor sad, but have a higher purpose than the “good vs evil” or “you will be rewarded or punished” endings do.
The overwhelming majority of us – will choose a happy(ish) ending, and box office returns bear out this choice especially here in the U.S. American audiences tend not to like ambiguous or sad endings. In European and Asian films you see a lot more challenging endings (“Ringu” or “Audition” for example.)
For the American market, You choose an ending other than a happy one at your own risk. While thematically satisfying, those endings that don’t tie everything up in a neat bow can be emotionally unsatisfying and cause people to give the storyline a so-so rating.
This is born out in the movie Get Out which had the main character played by Daniel Kaluuya originally arrested and charged with murder for killing the crazed Allison Williams character. Similar is the older Fatal Attraction which had an original ending with the Michael Douglas character being set up to be charged with Glenn Close’s character’s murder. It was changed after a negative test screening which is what also what happened to Get Out. The studio altered the Kaluuya character’s fate to a more positive one.
Endings like Scarface or The Departed are more accepted even though our central (focal) characters are thrashed because evil is punished. We expect bad guys to get fried even if we like them.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feels good even though they are killed because the movie built in all along that Butch and Sundance’s time was over – they had had their run, their moment, were now anachronistic, and had to go – in a glorious blaze of old time glory. Revisit Thelma and Louise for a similar thematic reason that they ride that convertible off the cliff.
It should be said that a happy ending, done properly, is wondrous. Flashdance, romantic comedies like Notting Hill or Enchanted, films like Star Wars, Slumdog Millionaire, or Avatar make our hearts soar and have a place, perhaps an outsized place, in film. Want to satisfy an audience? Make us happy, happy.
7) TEACH NOT PREACH
Endings are so vitally important because they carry the moral weight of our thematic arguments and the reasons we created this story. As in past times, we screenwriters are the shaman, the truthsayers of the tribe. We tell the tales, teach the life lessons.
But monologuing (unless you’re the brilliant Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet) can be tedious and unwanted. Show me why bad guys can’t win – don’t talk me to death about it. Show me why acting properly, even if I don’t win, can mean success and generate powerful emotions – like in Rocky.
The old “show don’t tell” is never more important than at the end of any story.
Taylor Sheridan writes deceptively simple, powerful tales with masterfully flawed characters.
Sheridan is definitely of the two-ending motif but in a really great way that adds to, not distracts from, the film’s goals and impact. He seems to write both a plot ending and an emotional (thematic) ending into all his tales.
In Wind River starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, after the sudden, violent shootout where nearly everyone is killed and the bad guy is set adrift in a snow field to punish him (great stuff and thematically existentially spot on) the Jeremy Renner character sits down with a grieving father to tell him how his daughter’s killer was brought to justice. This quiet moment of catharsis between these two fathers, both who have lost children to unthinkable violence, just make you mush inside; you almost forget to breathe as you watch.
This coda is the true ending – the thematic one – and its so perfectly conceived contextually, and delivered so well that I can easily see it being taught to film students for the next fifty years.
This brings us to pacing and appropriate conclusions. Without a doubt this is the hardest thing to teach and to learn. Act IIIs are basically little movies in and of themselves. It’s almost as if you’re starting the movie over – similar to overtime in a football game. Even though we’ve played sixty minutes of hard scrabble ball we now reset and basically start over.
Climax is a term defined as: “The highest or most intense point in the development or resolution of something; culmination.” The key is the word culmination. It’s the place you’re going to create the most intense, most satisfying moments based on your plot and theme. As was apocryphally attributed to legendary filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn, “He wants a story beginning with an earthquake and working up to a climax.”
It’s that buildup part, paced properly, that creates the most satisfying resolutions in any film.
10) PROMISE EVERYTHING, DELIVER MORE
Perhaps the most important key to your ending.
It’s stupidly simple to write a story that creates a hundred cool moments. Video games are rife with this, and movies at times seem to be emulating this vacuous preoccupation. It is maddeningly difficult to create an ending that then delivers on all those cool moments, also taking into account every key we’ve discussed here.
No, I won’t be listing movies that disappointed me. You know them yourself. You mourn them because they started out soooo great and then…whah, whah, whah – a soft-boiled ending weaker than a soggy firecracker.
Thankfully, we have great examples of brilliant, promise-everything deliver-more movies.
The Godfather easily springs to mind as one of the greatest. The opera music, the christening, the fiery deaths of all the Corleone enemies…a breathtaking, plot-driven ending. Stunning.
But it’s that last sequence where Diane Keaton (Kay) is lied to by Al Pacino (Michael) and then quietly ushered out of the room.
As she looks back through the doorway to the den, she sees her husband, Michael Corleone, the one person who desperately fought to be normal, who rejected his murderous family’s destiny, being anointed and given the crown of the violent crime family by reprising the opening where supplicants are kissing his father’s, The Godfather’s, ring – literally what you do with the pope, the Catholic Church’s heavenly representative on Earth. Michael is evil incarnate by this time. Hopelessly lost, his hands figuratively covered in the blood of dozens of others. He’s become what he most resisted: a man whose life is now tied inextricably to the violence of the crime family.
I don’t think any movie I’ve seen before or since The Godfather that promises as much and delivers an ending that is more complete, terrifying, and diabolically satisfying than The Godfather.
Even Chinatown with it’s amazing slap in the face, powerhouse moments at the end doesn’t impact as much – although on any scale I’d put it as very, very close.
Movies, TV, novels, articles – all need great endings. Hopefully, you can use some of these techniques to help create yours.