Monday, November 17, 2008

What makes a great climax?

(Come on, admit it, one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.)

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I was watching “The Making of Jaws” the other night. I swear, DVD bonus features are the best thing that EVER happened for writers and film students. No one needs film school anymore – just watch the commentaries on DVDs. (That’s something you’re not going to be able to experience the same way when everything goes to Internet downloads– could be a big problem, there…)

Peter Benchley, the author and co-screenwriter, was talking about the ending of the film. He said that from the beginning of production Spielberg had been ragging on him about the ending – he said it was too much of a downer. For one thing, the visual wasn’t right – if you’ll recall the book, once Sheriff Brody has killed the shark (NOT by blowing it up), the creature spirals slowly down to the bottom of the sea.

Spielberg found that emotionally unsatisfying. He wanted something bigger, something exciting, something that would have audiences on their feet and cheering. He proposed the oxygen tank – that Brody would first shove a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth, and then fire at it until he hit the tank and the shark went up in a gigantic explosion. Benchley argued that it was completely absurd – no one would ever believe that could happen. Spielberg countered that he had taken the audience on the journey all this time – we were with the characters every step of the way. The audience would trust him if he did it right.

And it is a wildly implausible scene, but you go with it. That shark has just eaten Quint, whom we have implausibly come to love (through the male bonding and then that incredible revelation of his experience being one of the crew of the wrecked submarine that were eaten one by one by sharks). And when Brody, clinging to the mast of the almost entirely submerged boat – aims one last time and hits that shark, and it explodes in water, flesh and blood – it is an AMAZING catharsis.

Topped only by the sudden surfacing of the beloved Richard Dreyfuss character, who has, after all, survived. (in the book he died – but was far less of a good guy.) The effect is pure elation.

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

This is a good lesson, I think: above all, in an ending, the reader/audience has to CARE. A good ending has an emotional payoff, and it has to be proportionate to what the character AND the reader/audience has experienced.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is another terrific example of emotional exhilaration in the end. Once George Bailey has seen what would have happened to his little town if he had never been born, and he decides he wants to live and realizes he IS alive again, the pleasures just keep coming and coming and coming. It is as much a relief for us as for George, to see him running through town, seeing all his old friends and familiar places restored. And then to see the whole town gathering at his house to help him, one character after another appearing to lend money, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. They feel, as George does, that the little things you do every day DO count.

So underneath everything you’re struggling to pull together in an ending, remember to step back and identify what you want your reader or audience to FEEL.

Another important component in an ending is a sense of inevitability – that it was always going to come down to this. Sheriff Brody does everything he can possibly do to avoid being on the water with that shark. He’s afraid of the water, he’s a city-bred cop, he’s an outsider in the town – he’s the least likely person to be able to deal with this gigantic creature of the sea. He enlists not one but two vastly different “experts from afar”, the oceanographer Hooper and the crusty sea captain Quint, to handle it for him. But deep down we know from the start, almost BECAUSE of his fear and his unsuitability for the task, that in the final battle it will be Sheriff Brody, alone, mano a mano with that shark. And he kills it with his own particular skill set – he’s a cop, and one thing he knows is guns. It’s unlikely as hell, but we buy it, because in crisis we all resort to what we know.

And it’s always a huge emotional payoff when a reluctant hero steps up to the plate.

It may seem completely obvious to say so, but no matter how many allies accompany the hero/ine into the final battle, the ultimate confrontation is almost always between the hero/ine and the main antagonist, alone. By all means let the allies have their own personal battles and resolutions within battle – that can really build the suspense and excitement of a climactic sequence. But don’t take that final victory out of the hands of your hero/ine or the story will fall flat.

Also, there is very often a moment when the hero/ine will realize that s/he and the antagonist are mirror images of each other. And/or the antagonist may provide a revelation at the moment of confrontation that nearly destroys the hero/ine… yet ultimately makes him or her stronger. (Think “I am your father” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)

The battle is also a chance to pay off all your setups and plants. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the battle he hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested.

PLACE is a hugely important element of an ending. Great stories usually, if not almost always, end in a location that has thematic and symbolic meaning. Here, once again, creating a visual and thematic image system for your story will serve you well, as will thinking in terms of SETPIECES (as we’ve talked about before) Obviously the climax should be the biggest setpiece sequence of all. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice must go down into the labyrinth to battle the monster and save the captured princess. In JAWS, the Sheriff must confront the shark on his own and at sea (and on a sinking boat!). In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy confronts the witch in her own castle. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indy must infiltrate the Nazi bunker. In PSYCHO, the hero confronts Tony Perkins in his basement – with the corpse of “Mother” looking on. (Basements are a very popular setting for thriller climaxes… that labyrinth effect, and the fact that “basement issues” are our worst fears and weaknesses).

And yes, there’s a pattern, here - the hero/ine very often has to battle the villain/opponent on his/her own turf.

A great, emotionally effective technique within battle is to have the hero/ine lose the battle to win the war. AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN did this beautifully in the final obstacle course scene, where the arrogant trainee Zack Mayo, who has always been out only for himself, sacrifices his own chance to graduate first in his class to help a classmate over the wall and complete the course, thus overcoming his own flaw of selfishness and demonstrating himself to be true officer material.

Another technique to build a bigger, more satisfying climax is is to have the allies get THEIR desires, too – as in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

And a particularly effective emotional technique is to have the antagonist ma have a character change in the end of the story. KRAMER VS. KRAMER did this exceptionally well, with the mother seeing that her husband has become a great father and deciding to allow him custody of their son, even though the courts have granted custody to her. It’s a far greater win than if the father had simply beaten her. Everyone has changed for the better.

Because CHANGE may just be the most effective and emotionally satisfying ending of all. Nothing beats having both Rick and Captain Renault rise above their cynical and selfish instincts and go off together to fight for a greater good. So bringing it back to the beginning – one of the most important things you can design in setting up your protagonist is where s/he starts in the beginning, and how much s/he has changed in the end.

I bet you all can guess the question for today! What are your favorite endings of screen and page, and what makes them great?


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Jeremy James said...

Alex, you are kickin' butt on these structure essays! I am very impressed, and I hope these pieces are headed for a "how-to-write" book in the near future.

You have such a gift for explaining familiar concepts in new and compelling ways--ways that add an entirely new dimension to my understanding of craft. Thanks!

Gayle Carline said...

Okay, here's where I confess... I've never truly enjoyed the end of any book I've ever read. Really. If I'm enjoying the characters, I don't want it to end, so I'm sad. If I don't enjoy the book but I'm reading it because there's nothing else available, then the end leaves me as bleh as the beginning and the middle. Sorry, but there it is.

As far as movies, endings are good, mostly because by the time the credits roll, my bladder needs the restroom. Let's just say that the Titanic needed to sink a lot faster in that movie. But of the movies I enjoy, the best climaxes were (in no particular order):
1. Silence of the Lambs. The agents are bursting into the killer's house - no, wait, wrong house. Clarice is shooting in the dark. My heart is jumping like a barking chihuahua. And, of course, all's well that end's well, especially for Dr. Lector.
2. Both Manhunter and Red Dragon - love the twist at the end with the killer faking his death and hunting the agent and his family. Exciting to be so surprised.
3. The Big Sleep. My fave movie. Marlowe traps Eddie Mars in his lies, gets Lauren Bacall as a reward. Yay!
4. Casablanca. We'll always have Paris...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I'm so glad it's working for you.

Yeah, I think I've gone too far NOT to make it a book by now. At a certain point the OCD kicks in. ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, you make me laugh. We are frighteningly similar on all points, except that if I'm bleh on a book I just heartlessly skip to the end and see what happens.

Gotta agree with all those movie endings, but I thought the actual writing of the climax of Silence of the Lambs was better in the book. Didn't like the tag of Silence in the book, though, with the scientist - who cares?

Other great book climaxes/endings: A WRINKLE IN TIME, recently THE TREATMENT - just wrenching.

BT said...

I've been thinking a lot about my list for favourite books and movies recently (gee, I wonder why...) and lots of the candadites are due to the endings. My favourites:

Somewhere in Time: After making the impossible become reality and then being ripped apart by a stupid coin, we begin to feel very cheated by Reeves death, but then the musical score ramps up and the scene shifts to Reeves and Seymour coming back together for love and life eternal in that great big honeymoon suite in the sky. And I write horror stories - go figure.

The Stand: Who wasn't barracking for the Trashcan man to blow Randell to kindom come? And then have hope renewed with the birth of a new baby?

The Mist: I know lots of people didn't like the ending in the movie but it blew me away. To gather enough courage to kill not only your new friends, but your own child, and then step into the outside world, knowing it meant a painful and horrible death, only to have it all stripped away - it was like someone had stripped all my nerve endings bare - brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy James--

I agree--there's a book in here. Think we can get signed copies when it comes out? :)

And bt--

I have to chime in with you on this one. THE MIST was one of those movies I sat and watched in total disbelief--disbelief that I was wasting my time watching it. But when the ending rolled around, I was stunned. Those last few minutes completely justified the train wreck that the rest of the movie had been.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post.

I'm also not a big fan of most endings. For me, an ending has to have a knock-my-socks off twist or else it doesn't work for me. I think that's why I have such a difficult time writing my own endings. I'm much more interested in the set-up than the wrap-up, and I have very high expectations.

As for a climax that works, I have to refer to MYSTIC RIVER again--book and movie. (That book is what made me want to write crime fiction.) The shooting scene at the river is a turning point for the entire story and the characters. It still haunts me.

Sign me up for buying the book of these essays.

Jake Nantz said...

My biggest trouble with endings these days are that the twists have to be so numerous to keep the agents and editors wrapped up (it seems) that the ending is just one more twist, not a bigger one. My personal favorite was GARDEN OF BEASTS, just because you find yourself rooting for the Mark, despite him being a Nazi, then realize what he's REALLY up to. And it's that much more satisfying.

BTW Alex, wanted to point out the monster you've created over here...saw Quantum of Solace with my wife the other night, and it had the whole Visual theme done right in front of your face, but subtle. ***SPOILER ALERT***

Open on an ocean, zooming up to a cliff-road where a car chase is going on, complete with dust and grit and sand all over the cars and drivers by the time it's over with. And what does the big secret turn out to involve? The stealing/redirecting of water supplies in a desert full of dirt, grit, and sand. That was just really cool that I recognized that thanks to your teachings.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Add me to the list of fans of the film ending of THE MIST. I've heard people pick it apart for believability issues but the emotional punch was stupefying. That's a thematic choice, whether anyone likes ir or not.

But also a good example of what Jake is saying about editors and agents looking for bigger and bigger twists.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, I agree about MYSTIC RIVER - devastating. I am working my way through that one again right now because you've brought it up before and I think there's something I really want to say about it to illustrate the emotional importance of theme, but I have to get the details right.

I suspect you can't have a truly satisfying climax in a book OR movie without the climax being thematic, and all the twists in the world are going to ring hollow if there isn't a thematic underpinning to them.

Think of THE SIXTH SENSE and THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Those are huge, classic, blockbuster twist endings - and yet they work because every single scene and line of those movies from start to finish has been ABOUT that twist. Actually those aren't so much twists at all, but rather are just about a shift in perception - because the clues have been there all along.

Hmm, this might have to be my next post. Or soon...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jake, I am carefully NOT reading all of your posts because we haven't gotten out to see QUANTUM yet.

I don't give a - well, I couldn't care less about blond Bond - but Marc Forster is always up to something interesting.

I'll have to check out GARDEN OF BEASTS - sounds interesting!

Ace Antonio Hall said...

For me the two movies that come to mind that had a great climax were Citizen Kane and The Usual Suspects...both which delightfully proves YOU CAN NEVER KNOW THE TRUTH ABOUT SOME PEOPLE...especially when all the clues are there (for the viewer/reader). Those were two of my favorite and amazing ending moments in cinematography and storytelling. Except for "The Sixth Sense", M. Night Shyamalan usually leaves me feeling cheated at the ending. However, is the climax technically the end or where everything comes together in the story, before the conclusion? If that is the case, as I have been enthusiastically teaching my non-reading 8th graders, I would choose Star Wars as having one of the greatest climatic moments (when Luke was faced with his father, Darth Vader) or in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston screamed GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME..or something to that matter.

just my two cents...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ace, I'm talking about the climax as the final battle between the protagonist and antagonist, however that may take place.

And I agree completely - that saber battle between Vader and Luke shot to the top of filmic battle history precisely because of that stunning revelation. (just the fact that anyone could keep fighting after learning something like that...) That's what I'm trying to say about twists - the real impact of a twist comes when it is simply a reveal of the basic underlying structure you have set up.

I have a twist in my new (upcoming) book, THE UNSEEN, that everyone who's read it comments on. When I was writing the first draft I had literally forgotten that that twist was coming, because I was writing from one character's POV and that character didn't know about this fact - at least consciously. And yet I had dutifully built in all the clues to what was coming, not remembering myself what that was.

Writing is weird.

Anonymous said...

I'm really disappointed with climaxes these days in books and movies. They seem to be set up for failure. Absolute crash and burn.

I suppose you're right about the comment you made on the ultimate confrontation being between the antagonist and the hero/ine. I just thought of Corpse Bride by Tim Burton, which I was watching earlier today with friends, and how everyone was right behind her when she was faced with her old lover, but it was her that set things straight with him,, not anyone else. You just brought that to my attention now, thanks!

You have a new book coming?Well, I'll be first in line then!
On an off note, I received your books! Thankyou so very much! I thought that teh Harrowing was one of the most fantastic stories I've read in a long time, definitely on my favourites list! And I'm halfwya through the Price, still hooked on it. Once again, thanks!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Nadia, I'm so glad you got the books - sorry for the delay.

And thanks for your great example of THE CORPSE BRIDE. That's a pretty classic climactic confrontation, when the hero/ine has a whole mob of friends and supporters surrounding her or him.

Really what that visual is about is that the hero/ine has the strength of millions (or dozens) because s/he understands the value of friends and community. It's very powerful to see a mob facing down a lone villain.

Pretty much the same effect in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - George has a whole army of supporters that he didn't know about.

As do we all, when it comes down to it.

What's that saying - "S/he who dies with the most friends, wins."

Strongboy said...

Personally I love Hollywood endings. As a published mystery/thriller writer I crave getting to the ending so I can deliver the goods. I find nothing more unsatisfying than 'literary style' endings be it in film or novel format. I am so sick of climaxes that either leave me hanging in space or else witnessing the central characters just sort of wandering off. I'll take Jodi Foster's gut wrenching finish in The Brave One over several recent academy award winning pictures whose endings followed the literary mode.