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Specs & The City: Downbeat Film Endings and 'The Road'

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The ending of your script is of vital importance. It’s the final impression you leave on your readers (if you’re lucky enough to have had them read the whole script), and if you leave a bad taste in their mouth, you run the risk of losing all of the good will you just spent 90-120 pages generating. So what’s the right tone to strike with your ending? Hollywood studios might tell you that audiences want need a happy ending, and that going for the downbeat ending is a death knell for a film’s box office. But that’s not entirely accurate.

Happy endings make me feel like this!

Happy endings make me feel like this!

Sure, everyone loves a happy ending, but not every story can wrap up with a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, that light’s a freight train barreling down on your characters. And right now, we aren’t talking about box office, or Q-ratings, or marketing strategies. Those are talks for another day. Right now we’re talking about story. And there’s really only one rule you need to follow when you’re at the end of your story -- make it satisfying.

This means that your ending needs to feel real; it needs to feel earned based on the story that has come before it.

Now, this is true of any ending, but I’ve always thought it was even more important when you’re dealing with downbeat endings. Since you don’t have that fuzzy glow that comes with a happy ending, it becomes even more important that the culmination of your story feels organic. It should, in retrospect, be the only option there really was for your script to end.

For a deeper look at how this can be accomplished, let’s take a look at…

Downbeat Endings and ‘The Road’


Viggo Mortensen in 'The Road'

Let’s be clear about one thing right up front. Joe Penhall’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is not for everyone. It’s bleak -- like, puppies with cancer losing their last chew toy kind of bleak. Set in post-apocalyptic America, The Man and The Boy (they don’t even get names) fight hunger, dodge cannibals, and generally have a miserable time of it as they trek across what’s left of the world. Oh, and…


… their journey ends with The Man’s death just as they reach their destination.

While the plot may or may not be for you, the reason I chose this film is because while the ending is downbeat, it does a great job of serving the purpose of the story being told. While The Man tells The Boy they’re going to the coast in order to find safety, it’s really just a way to keep them both moving, or a way for a father to give his son the only thing left that he can: a glimmer of hope (false though it may be). And that’s the true message of The Road. The never fully identified disaster, the trials they must overcome, all of it is really just window dressing on a story about a man in a world where civilized society has disappeared, doing everything in his power to protect his son both physically and psychologically.

It’s heartrending, but The Man’s death is justified because, it is established early on in the story that there was no real hope on the coast. He gives the last thing he has to give, his life, in the hope that The Boy might find something better.

As the story ends, The Boy is discovered by a traveling family; a man, his wife, and their children, who invite him to join their group. They offer him a new family that might be better able to nurture and protect him. Therefore The Man’s death served the story and the themes being explored, and ultimately, led to the success (at least perceived success as the film ends) of his goal to keep his son safe. Although tragic, it’s a satisfying conclusion to the story.

What's in the box?

What's in the box?

It’s also worth noting that once The Man dies, the story is allowed to continue, however briefly, by another character. This kind of pairing of main characters is present in a significant number of films with downbeat endings – think of Detective Somerset in Se7en, or Michael Sullivan Jr. in Road To Perdition. The presence of another person who can reflect on the events that have transpired can (though it's not required) play a significant role in the ending being satisfying to an audience as well.

With these points in mind, take a look at your downbeat ending and decide if it’s justified.

Now, drink that last can of Coca Cola (watch the movie) and keep writing.

Get more advice on film endings in Steven Arvanties webinar
The End: How to Write an Amazing Finish to Your Screenplay Webinar