You may need to grab a reader's attention on page one, but don't underestimate the importance of your story ending. Ray Morton shares insights on how to create a stellar film ending.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.
The ending is the most important part of a dramatic narrative:
- The ending is the part of a drama in which the conflict between the story’s protagonist and whatever antagonistic force is standing in the way of the protagonist achieving his primary motivating goal comes to a head and is finally resolved.
- The ending of a dramatic narrative is important because that is the part of the story in which the plot – which is set-up in the story’s first act and developed in its second – is finally concluded; in which all the piece’s dramatic questions are answered; in which the protagonist completes the arc he has been making throughout the story; and in which the dramatic potential of the premise is paid off (this is the point at which a comedy should be at its funniest; a horror film at its scariest; a love story at its most romantic; etc.).
- The ending is what makes a dramatic story a story – without it, all you have is a series of events and incidents that might be entertaining, but that ultimately don’t go anywhere or mean anything. (One of the problems I have with modern TV is that most series today are serialized and so just go on and on and on without ever resolving anything. I end up feeling like I’m watching endless second acts and eventually I just lose interest).
- The ending is most important, however, because it is the section of the story that gives the piece its meaning – in which the theme of the overall narrative crystalizes into dramatic action. As an example, consider Casablanca. Up until its final moments, the 1943 classic (written by Howard Koch and Julius & Phillip Epstein, from a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) is simply the story of a bitter, disillusioned expatriate saloon owner trying to win back the now-married woman he once loved. However, at the end of the film’s third act, when Humphrey Bogart’s Rick reveals his true colors – shows that he’s not a neutral bystander in the fight between the Nazis and the free French, but a dedicated soldier in the fight against fascism and holds off the Germans while nobly sending his lady love off to safety with her Resistance-leader husband– the movie becomes much more than that. In these final moments, Casablanca ceases to be a soap opera and instead becomes a stirring and inspiring tribute to the worldwide fight for freedom, the need for personal sacrifice in the service of great causes, the triumph of idealism over cynicism, and the nobility inherent in us all. The story’s themes become its action and the result is a timeless classic.
The same holds true for other classic films: when Michael becomes the new head of both the Corleone nuclear and criminal families at the end of The Godfather, this grand gangster saga becomes a devastating statement about the cruel inevitability of destiny. When the Italian Stallion holds on way past anyone’s expectations – including his own – and goes the distance at the end of Rocky, this simple boxing story becomes a stirring tribute to endurance and the human spirit; and when Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to blow up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars, this entertaining space romp is transformed into a glorious paean to the awesome power of belief.
Despite this pretty indisputable fact, many modern movies don’t have endings. Most of the big studio blockbusters made these days are part of ongoing franchises – the individual films are not meant to be complete entities on their own but are rather segments in a much longer whole. Therefore, many of their narratives don’t come to a proper conclusion but instead stop on a cliffhanger – in the middle of a situation that will not be resolved until a future installment. This was a big problem in the Harry Potter series and is becoming one in the ongoing Marvel and DC sagas, which are increasingly starting to feel like filler to take up space while we wait for a payoff that never seems to come. Indie films are also having ending issues. Too many recent independent features – especially but not exclusively the Mumblecore movies – come to a stop without actually resolving their storylines. The reasons most often given by indie filmmakers for failing to conclude their narratives is that A). they are trying to be realistic and real life doesn’t come with resolutions and B). they didn’t want to be predictable and give viewers what they are expecting.
Spec screenplays are following suit – more and more scripts I am reading these days do not have proper endings, for the same reasons that movies don’t:
- No matter how many times they are told not to, there are many spec script writers out there determined to create their own original franchises (thus missing the entire point about why studios are attracted to franchise films – because they are based on preexisting material that already has a proven commercial track record. In studio terms, an “original franchise” is a complete non-starter). Therefore, many of the sci-fi, fantasy, and/or action specs I read are “Part 1”s of what are clearly meant to be ongoing sagas. The better ones end with cliffhangers (“To be continued…”). The lesser ones just sort of stop (you come to the end of a regular, unremarkable scene that doesn’t leave you hanging or anticipating in any significant way and then – that’s it. No more scenes; no more pages; no more nothing).
- Other spec writers go the indie route and omit their endings because they desire “ambiguity” or because they fear being predictable.
A story without an ending isn’t satisfying – after investing ourselves in a narrative for two or so hours, we want to know if the lovers get together; we want to find out who committed the murder; we want to see villains defeated, obstacles overcome; and demons (inside and out) quelled and if they’re not we want to have a clear understanding of why. To not tell us isn’t being creative or unpredictable, it’s just being disappointing. If you want to be surprise your viewers, the trick to give them what they expect (a satisfying wrap-up to the tale they have been loyally following) in a way they don’t expect rather than give them nothing at all.
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Powerful Endings to Hook Your Reader
A screenplay without an ending isn’t satisfying either, so if you’re thinking of concluding your spec with a cliffhanger, don’t. Aside from the aforementioned fact that it’s a complete waste of time for a spec writer to try to create an original franchise, crafting your script as a Part 1 is ultimately self-defeating because if a reader or a studio exec or a producer isn’t satisfied by the script in hand (and they won’t be, because – as already stated – a script without an ending isn’t satisfying), they’re not going to have any interest in reading a follow-up.
If your goal is something more artistic, remember that while real life may not come with resolution, drama always does – that’s why audiences seek it out and why they will be dissatisfied if you leave it out. If you want to end your story on an ambiguous or an open note, that’s fine – just remember to conclude the actual plot before you do. A good example of this is the recent Blade Runner 2049: the film concludes with Rick Deckard facing an uncertain legal and emotional future as he is reunited with his long lost child, but only after Blade Runner K’s journey – which is the main story the film has been telling – has been resolved. This ending allows the audience to enjoy a satisfying conclusion to the tale it has invested itself in while still being able to ponder the great unknown.
The ending is where your story comes into its own and if you craft a conclusion that is satisfying – that wraps up the narrative in a clear and logical manner, that completes your protagonist’s arc, that is highly entertaining, and that brings the point of your story to the fore – then it will stick with the audience – continuing to delight them, move them, and inspire them – long after the movie itself is over. Don’t shortchange your audience or yourself by not giving your tale the very best conclusion that you can. If you do, then your professional ending will be a very happy one.
THE (Actual) END
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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