The opening scenes of your screenplay are the first impressions a reader will get of your story. They are critical because they invite the reader into your story and encourage them to stay for the duration of your film or TV script. They will likely make their decisions on whether to invest in your screenplay or not.
What about the ending? A reader has already invested in your story and made it through to the words “Fade Out.” A reader can’t unread your screenplay. No, they can’t. The ending is equally critical because it forms lasting impressions that last beyond your screenplay. It informs how a reader will discuss your screenplay with others, decide if they want to read any more of your work, or recommend you for writing assignments or industry introductions.
Screenwriters should always put as much effort into their closing scenes as their opening scenes.
Let’s explore some common ways that could end your screenplay:
Circular endings rely on the story or the main character does a full circle and ends up in the same place as they started. Although it may ostensibly appear that the character has not progressed, this is not true. These endings are more about the character’s journey than the final outcome. How has your character grown as a person? Why was this experience essential to your character’s development if they end up in the same circumstance.
Circular endings are deceptive in their nature because they may also indicate that a character needs to have multiple experiences and end up in the same place before they break away and achieve the desired goal.
Similar to the circular ending, a bookend indicates that your main character ends up in the same physical space as the opening scene with a change in circumstances. It is different than a circular ending because it relies on the central question or message, being posed at the start of your screenplay and answered at the end. It represents a profound transformation in your main character such as emotional, spiritual, perceptional, attitudinal, or cognitive that relates back to the goal or theme.
A moral ending is a common feature of cause-based films because it relies on a principle. Morality shines a light on the difference between right and wrong with the sole purpose of influencing audiences. A common use of the moral ending is in superhero films where good always wins out over evil. Justice is served most of the time.
A surprise ending is always plausible, but unexpected. These types of endings are often seen in thrillers and detective movies which end with a twist, such as when the perceived perpetrator turns out to be the hero instead. Surprise endings must be earned and organic to the story.
These types of endings are refreshing to audiences because they subvert their expectations to make them memorable. Screenwriters should set up these endings and leave a few subtle clues to appease audiences. Surprises can’t be so left-field that they destabilize your reader into confusion.
These endings are meant to elevate your audience into a heightened, intense emotional state. If it’s a comedy, your reader should still be laughing after they’ve read “fade out” or crying after finishing your heart-wrenching drama. They can also activate other emotions such as anger, fear, and joy. Some screenwriters rely on taking their readers through a rollercoaster of emotions so they experience a spectrum of feelings in the one story.
This is a philosophical, internalized ending that lingers on the final scene. They typically occur when the main character looks back and takes stock of their journey throughout the story and consider how much they’ve evolved and how it will impact their lives. Reflection endings or are frequently depicted through voiceovers so that audiences can directly tap into the character’s innermost thoughts.
Cliffhanger endings generate anticipation and excitement to see what happens next. They should provide enough momentum for audiences to guess several potential outcomes that might be realized after the scene’s conclusion. Screenwriters should not be fooled into this is an incomplete story just because the final ending hasn’t been told.
A notable point of discussion is the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos on HBO in which the series ended abruptly mid-sentence in the final scene. It takes a great deal of finesse to successfully write these endings so you don’t irritate your reader.
Humor is an uplifting ending that adds to the entertainment value of your story. It could be a joke or an amusing situation that reinforces the central theme and genre of your screenplay. If your screenplay has been heavy-duty drama, a moment of levity in the closing scene of your story suggests your character will be fine in the post-screenplay world.
Banter is a witty, quick-fire back and forth dialogue between two or more characters. It could be a continuation of an argument, discussing grand plans for the future, or waxing lyrical about everything and nothing.
Since film is comprised of a moving image, the final words of your screenplay should evoke some kind of imagery to guide the reader into your characters’ world beyond the story. It could be a moving image, a still, or even a black screen.