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Improvising Screenplays: The “All is Lost” Exercise - How to Sharpen Your Film Endings by Revealing Defeat

Writer and theatrical improviser Brett Wean reveals how to craft satisfying film endings by showing what your character's defeat could look like.

In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script. Follow Brett on Twitter @brettwean.

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I was reminded the other day, watching Breaking the Waves by Lars Von Trier, of the oft-existent Third Act moment of ‘All is Lost.’ Blake Snyder called special attention to this trope in his screenwriting book Save the Cat: that section of the script, usually about three quarters of the way in, where everything just goes to shit.

film endings

Often happening right after it looks like our heroes have discovered a chance to triumph, we find ourselves in an extended moment of anti-reverie: they fail, and we get to see what their world looks like in the midst of defeat. The roller skating rink has been successfully bought by the giant corporation, and they’re going to be tearing it down to make way for a factory that manufactures defective auto parts. This development often touches off a cascade of equally nasty after-effects: the protagonist’s father is consequently losing his job at the skating rink, destroying his sense of self worth...all the other fired workers (the skating rink employs hundreds of townspeople, and the defective auto parts company will now be outsourcing all their workers by phone from India) are losing their homes...and the hero’s love life is affected adversely, his girlfriend now leaving him because he doesn’t handle defeat well, spiraling into a well of self-destructive soda drinking. (He’d sworn off sugar at the mid-point of the film.)

In Breaking the Waves -- watch out, I’m about to reveal a bunch of spoilers, and it’s a beautiful movie -- stuff just piles on in a particularly brutal way about two hours in. (The movie is about two and a half hours long.) Emily Watson’s paralyzed husband Stellan Skarsgård is being sent away and she will probably never see him again. She is then thrown out of her church, and is now cut off from all sense of community. The neighborhood children terrorize and taunt her, cruelly following her on her bike and calling her a slut as she tearfully, slowly tries to bike away along the literally rocky road. Then, things get bad. Her best friend and doctor gang up on her to have her thrown into a mental institution.

But this type of ‘All is Lost’ sequence also happens in serious dramas.

One exercise I sometimes like to have improv groups do is for one person to get up on stage, by himself, and create a character. Once that person’s character is established, I have the other members of the group pop up, one by one, to create two-person scenes they initiate in which terrible things happen to that primary character.

In order for this to happen successfully, that primary person needs to have established clearly enough what their hopes and dreams are; what their greatest fears are; what environments make them least and most comfortable; and what kind of people they like, and don’t like, spending time with.

It is often by witnessing a character at her lowest point that we fully and deeply understand what makes her tick. By seeing our main character’s darkest fears come to fruition, her own personal hell realized, we appreciate her ultimate (hopeful) triumph even more. We are reminded how great the stakes are. And we helpfully calibrate for the audience where things stand in terms of the protagonist’s inner struggle, as well. In the best movies, the key to overcoming what seems to be ultimate, undefeatable despair lies within. Only by unlocking something within themselves as to how they handle this dark moment are they able to pull out a last-minute win.

Here’s your exercise:

Brainstorm a tidal wave of destruction for your main character. Go all Bill Paxton in Aliens on it: “Game over, man!” Start off with the most obvious, grand defeat in terms of the main conflict/mission in your script. Think of this not just as a glum, temporary setback sequence. Instead, genuinely write an alternate universe-style, tragic ending for your film. (The “darkest timeline,” as our friends on Community would put it.) The good Rebels are defeated. The love interest dies. The town is swallowed up into Hell.

But don’t stop there. What are the effects of this ultimate defeat? How does it change your main character’s relationships with people? What does it do to her personality? Have fun exploring your main character at her worst: in Superman terms, who is her Bizarro self?

Here’s the secret to writing a great ‘All is Lost’ section: go for broke. Pretend that you really are writing the end of your film, as if it were a tragedy.

The secret? You can then go back in and sneakily insert an escape hatch. Maybe it’s a weapon (or plot detail) that got briefly mentioned in the first five minutes, but was brushed aside. Maybe it’s a hidden strength the character had within her the whole time, but was buried by her one main character flaw...that of course she can only overcome by experiencing this seeming defeat. Hopefully it’s a mix of the internal and external.

By showing your character at her absolutely most vulnerable, you will allow them to win in the most cosmic sense.

Watch a couple of your favorite movies to see examples of how they handle their ‘All is Lost’ sequences. (Groundhog Day is a great one to get you started.)

Ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?

Then enable your character to win anyway.

Have any questions about improv, and how it relates to writing for the screen? Feel free to post comments below or send questions via Twitter @brettwean. They’ll be considered for a future installment.

Get help with the third act from Drew Yanno
The Third Act: Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay