In 2009, Aaron Sorkin almost made it to the top of the Black List, with The Social Network. You know who beat him? Christopher Weekes, an Australian 20 years Sorkin’s junior, who had penned a script titled The Muppet Man. It had an amazing ending.
The only reason Chris topped every other promising screenwriter that year – and he knows it – was his gut-wrenching finale. Those last few pages of The Muppet Man even beat the image of Zuckerberg endlessly refreshing Erica’s profile.
One of the web’s most ruthless script reviewers called it “the most emotional finale since a certain giant ship sank ten years ago.”
But what’s the big deal about endings?
Why Wow Them In The End
The first great Hollywood movie I saw as a kid was Star Wars (IV: A New Hope). I’ll never forget how I felt, coming out of the cinema: I desperately wanted to stay in the universe of Luke Skywalker, and relive the entire experience. Its finale was just perfect.
A great ending can save an otherwise problematic or difficult script – like The Muppet Man. Have you seen Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood? Industry pros know that to go into profit, you need word of mouth – and repeat business. Great endings deliver just that.
Think about your favourite movies. Most will have an extraordinary ending.
In this article I won’t give you the secret to writing a Muppet Man ending, but you may learn a few tricks to make yours more memorable.
Which Ending Suits Your Story?
I’m often asked how to end a particular story. How the hell should I know? If I did, it would have been my story. No-one will dictate how to end your script – until you sell…
Still unsure? Look at films you like, and figure out how their ending relates to the beginning.
A strong ending refers back to the start, and shows us a change to the main character, or to the world they live in. This can be incredibly gratifying. To underscore the change, some great films deliver a book-end finale, literally going back to the point of departure.
This full-circle is only one of many techniques to amp up your ending. It doesn’t say what should happen, rather how to execute it.
Amazing Endings: Structure
To deliver on the element of surprise and create an amazing ending, a number of structural techniques may help wow the reader.
In crime or supernatural stories, a twist in the tail may secure your spot in the hall of fame like it did for Se7en, The Usual Suspects, The Invitation or The Sixth Sense.
Alternatively, trick your audience with a false ending, only to give them the mother of all jump scares when the villain comes back one final time.
Here’s an overview of some techniques you may consider:
- Book End
- Twist in the tail
- False Ending
- Narrator Ending
- Frame Story
- Crystal Ball (Mental Construct/Epilogue)
- It Was All A Dream
- Cliffhanger / Anticipation
Be aware that these will enhance the final emotion rather than change it. In a minute, we’ll look at more fundamental ways to impact your reader/audience’s response.
The Insanely Great Ending
I believe Michael Arndt wrote 10 different endings to Little Miss Sunshine, and the one you may have seen was not among them. In the course of writing that fabulous script, he started a rigorous study of movie endings.
He talks about it here.
One of the things Arndt learnt, was that people like endings that are positive, surprising and meaningful.
These three qualities have little to do with the structural options above. In order to deliver a genuinely satisfying emotion to a reader and audience, we need a whole different set of categories.
The list below is not meant to offer binary options, but rather a sliding scale for each. I have bolded what typically applies when people speak of a Hollywood ending.
The reality is that most successful films, even in independent and international cinema, follow the popular choices.
- Emotion: Up / Down
- Change / No Change
- Goal: Victory / Failure
- Morality: Noble / Dubious (Dishonourable)
- Plot question: Resolved / Unresolved
- Clarity: Clear / Ambiguous (Confused)
- Reliability: Reliable / Unreliable
- Expected / Unexpected
The last category applies purely to how the ending is delivered. All bolded options are ‘expected’. You must deliver each in a way that is surprising.
Theoretically, your options are unlimited, and your freedom is complete. In the real world, however, only a limited subset of those infinite variations usually works for a mainstream audience.
Four Key Factors
From my own observations, the following 4 are the categories – in order – that will have the greatest impact on the success of your ending, and this is consistent with Michael Arndt’s findings:
- Clarity: most audiences prefer clarity over ambiguity.
- Victory: an up ending – that is earned – trumps the down or bittersweet ending.
- Change: we want to see positive change in the character or the world.
- Expectation: we prefer an expected outcome, delivered in unexpected ways.
But How? drawkcaB etirW!
Because the ending is the most important part of your story, you cannot write your opening until you know what your final image is going to be. An amazing ending needs to be set up from the very first shot.
McKee recommends to write your story backwards from the final image. The alternative is that for each draft that alters the final act, you will need to go back to set it up – again.
Practically speaking, you will probably write the first draft sequentially from the start. Then, refine your amazing ending until you’re happy. Finally, go back and start the complete rewrite.
(Of course, a whole lot of pain can be avoided by using use a step outline.)
More About Amazing Endings
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Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.