How Should Your Story End?

Posted on August 15, 2013

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Barri Evans discusses the importance of an appropriately crafted ending to your story.

The last scene of a movie should stay in your mind. The final moment, the final exchange, should be thought of as the last note of a song. Some of the great scripts/movies actually build to a final scene that takes your breath away, at the conclusion.

A recent poll determined that filmgoers’ favorite villain is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs. Who could not help but chuckle malevolently at the voice-over line from him “… having an old friend for dinner,” when he is following a final and unlikeable victim of his cannibalistic tendencies?

In fact, director Jonathan Demme so wanted the viewer to sit with this final moment from the writers that the credits run for a while over the image of Lecter casually following his unsuspecting “dinner companion” in a pleasant, tropical island scene.

Let’s take one of the most structurally innovative screenplays ever written: Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Guy Pearce’s Leonard has to rely upon tattoos and notes because of a stunted, short-term memory. The final scene reveals not only who killed his wife but makes the entire work cohere.

The conceit of the story both moving forward and progressively backward at the same time is paid off big time at the end, and it’s a shocker, as well as the perfect final explanation.

Make the end count for something. Don’t just have a wry observation from a lead character. Don’t just have the lovers drive off into the sunset, as less imaginative screenwriters are still prone to do. Work hard to summarize the lead character or strengthen the theme of the work, in those seconds before the final crawl of credits.

What is a bad ending? An ending that is ho-hum, with no sense of a major change in the protagonist. An ending that is abrupt and seems discordant. An ending that is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the story. An ending that seems tangential to the main story being told. And an ending that seems vague, indecisive, as if the writer was not sure what seemed inevitable for the characters and situation.

A bland or vague ending is not the same thing as an ambiguous ending. I will admit that most people do not care for ambiguity, in their lives or in the films they see. But sometimes, the right ending lets you fill in some blanks.

Consider Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. He ditches his girlfriend (Karen Black) in a gas station and hitches a ride toward Canada with a trucker and winds up in an oil rig. He has no money, no ID, no plans. He is destined to be a lone wolf, trying to fit in. Normally, this kind of ending would be totally unsatisfying to the average viewer of films, the average executive or agent in the industry. But it is absolutely right for what Five Easy Pieces is about, a man never comfortable in his own skin. An allegorical ending about Jack running off, directionless, might be highly unique to us now.

It’s not a cop-out, an abdication of responsibility on the part of the screenwriter, to suggest what might happen after the last scene. It’s done all the time in dramas, where there is a tentative truce between two characters who have been at war with each other: the separated married couple, the intolerant parent and the wounded adult child, the star-crossed lovers, the community and the outsider they rejected at first. If we have been given a clear sense of the likely continuity of the story, we don’t need the neatly buttoned-up version. And of course, don’t forget the divisive end the The Sopranos which redefined understatement.

Of course, genre dictates the kind of ending you have, doesn’t it?

How can you write a romantic comedy without the lovers winding up together? If one of them gets hit by a train, it’s not so much of a comedy any more, despite how romantic it was previously. But good writers also grapple with the predictability of endings, regardless of the dictates of genre. This writer, for one, is just a bit sick and tired of romantic comedies that too often think marriage is the only ending.

Life is complex and people are contradictory. Remember that some of the greatest scripts did not have test audiences to determine how to finish things up.

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