Sunday, December 14, 2008

Elements of Act Three (cont.): Elevate Your Ending

Think about the endings of films and books that stay with you. What is that extra something they have that makes them stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of stories out there? That’s your mission, today, Jim, should you decide to accept it: Figure it out.

As a storyteller the best thing you can do for your own writing technique is to make that list and analyze why the endings that have the greatest impact on you have that impact. What is/are the storyteller/s doing to create that effect?

When you start to analyze stories you love, you will find that there are very specific techniques that filmmakers and novelists are using to create the effect that that story is having on you. That’s why it’s called “art”.

Now, you’re not going to be able to pull a meaningful ending out of a hat if the whole rest of your story has one-dimensional characters and no thematic relevance. But there are concrete ways you can broaden and deepen your own ending to have lasting impact or even lasting relevance. Today I’d like to look at some endings that have made that kind of impact on me, and I hope you’ll take the cue and analyze some of your favorite endings right back at me.

And I must say up front that this whole post is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the endings before you see or read some of these stories, you’ve been warned.

For me I think the number one technique to create a great ending is:


Easy to say, you say! Yeah, I know.

My favorite movie of this year so far, maybe of the last five years, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, does a beautiful and very simple thing in the third act that makes the movie much bigger in scope.

The story has set up that the “slumdog” (boy from the Mumbai slums) hero, Jamal, is on a quiz show that is the most popular show in all of India: “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. In several scenes the characters talk about the show briefly – that it represents the dream of every Indian: escape. As the story moves into the third act, Jamal has advanced on the show to a half-million rupee pot – larger than anyone has ever won on the show, and the film shows shots of crowds of people watching the show in the streets – the whole country has become involved in Jamal’s story. More than that – Jamal’s story has become the story of every Indian – of India herself. This is made very poignantly clear when Jamal and his handlers are fighting through the crowd to get to the studio for the final round and an old Indian woman grabs his arm and says “Do it for all of us. Win it all.”

This is one of those archetypal moments that has amazing impact because it is played perfectly. In this moment the woman is like a fairy godmother, or a deva spirit: in every culture elderly women and men are magically capable of bestowing blessings (and curses!). That’s a bit of luck that we trust, in that moment. The gods are on Jamal’s side. It also blatantly tells us that Jamal is doing this for all of India, for all the Indian people. You know how I keep saying that you should not be afraid to SPELL THINGS OUT? This is a terrific example of how spelling things out can make your theme universal.

So really very simply, the author, screenwriter and director have used some crowd shots, a few lines of dialogue about the popularity of the quiz show, and one very very short scene in the middle of a crowd to bring enormous thematic meaning to the third act. It would certainly not have the impact it does if the whole rest of the film weren’t as stellar as it is (have you seen it yet? Why not????) – but still, these are very calculated manipulative moments to create an effect – that works brilliantly.

There are many, many techniques at work here in that film’s ending:

--making your main character Everyman.
-- giving your main character a blessing from the gods in the form of a fairy tale figure
-- expanding the stage of the story – those crowd shots, seeing that people are watching the show all over the country.
-- spelling out the thematic point you are trying to make! (and this usually comes from a minor character, if you start to notice this.)

This film is also a particularly good example of using stakes and suspense in the third act. (At this point it would be good to reread the post on Creating Suspense, since all of those techniques are doubly applicable to third acts).

The stakes have become excruciating by this point in the story – not only is Jamal in an all-or nothing situation as far as the quiz show money is concerned, but he feels appearing on the quiz show is the only way to find his true love again. (But I still think the biggest stake is the need to win this one for the Indian people). And there’s the suspense of will he win or will he lose, and will his love escape her Mafioso sugardaddy (sorry, I was not a fan of this subplot). And the suspense of “Will she get to the phone in time…”

This movie is also a good example of bringing all the subplots to a climax at the same time to create an explosive ending: the quiz show, the brother deciding to be a good guy in the end, the escape of the lover…

The ending also uses a technique to create a real high of exhilaration: it ends with a musical number that lets you float out of the theater in sheer joy. I can’t exactly describe an equivalent to a rousing musical number that you can put on the page in a novel, but the point is, a good story will throw every trick in the book at the reader or audience to create an EMOTIONAL effect.


This is something you must set up from the beginning, as we discussed in Elements of Act One

And I will say up front – a huge character arc is NOT necessary for a great story. In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Salim’s character doesn’t really change. He is innocent, joyful, irrepressible, relentless, and pure of heart in the beginning of the story, as a little boy, and he is essentially the same lovely person as a man. That’s why we love him. He is constant and true.

But most stories show a character who is in deep emotional trouble at the beginning of the story, and the entire story is about the hero/ine recognizing that s/he’s in trouble and having the courage to change: from coward to hero, from unloving to generous.

If you start to watch for this, you’ll see that generally the big character change hinges on the difference between the hero/ine’s INNER and OUTER DESIRE, as we talked about in Elements of Act One. Very, very often the hero/ine’s big character change is realizing her outer desire is not important at all, and might even be the thing that has been holding her back in life, and she gives that up to pursue her inner desire, or true need.

For me personally it’s a very satisfying thing to see a selfish character change throughout the course of the story until at the climax s/he performs a heroic and unselfish act. The great example of all time, of course, is CASABLANCA, in which Rick who “sticks his neck out for no one” takes a huge risk and gives up his own true love for the greater cause of winning the war. Same effect when mercenary loner Han Solo comes back to help Luke Skywalker in the final battle of STAR WARS.

Scrooge is another classic example – the events of the story take him believably from miser to great benefactor – who “kept Christmas in his heart every day.”

I’ve said it before, but I also thought it was a beautiful and believable character change when Zack Mayo in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – gives up his chance at being first in his class to help his classmate complete the obstacle course, thus turning into a real officer before our eyes.

This sense of big contrast and big change makes for a dramatic and emotionally satisfying ending.

Of course, you may not be writing a happy ending, and the dramatic change may be for the worse. That can be just as powerful. In the end of THE GODFATHER Michael Corleone ends up powerful, but damned – he has become his father – which even his own father didn’t want to happen. Michael goes from the least likely of the family to take over the business - to the anointed heir to his father’s kingdom. It’s a terrible tragedy from a moral point of view - and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about all of it that makes it perversely satisfying - because Michael is the smartest son, the fairy tale archetype of the youngest and weakest third brother, the one whom we identify with and want to succeed… it’s just that this particular success is doomed.

Another dark example: PAN’S LABYRINTH had one of the most powerful endings I’ve experienced in a long time. It is very dark – very true to the reality of this anti-war story. The heroine wins – she completes her tasks and saves her baby brother with an heroic act – but she sacrifices her own life to do it. In the last moments we see her in her fantasy world, being welcomed back as a princess by her dead mother and father, as king and queen, and see the underworld kingdom restored to glory by the spilling of her blood (rather than the spilling of her brother’s blood). But then we cut back to reality – and she’s dead, killed by her evil stepfather. The film delivers its anti-war message effectively precisely because the girl dies, which is realistic in context, but we also feel that the death did tip the balance of good and evil toward the good, in that moment. It’s a satisfying ending in its truth and beauty – much more so than a happy ending would be.


can be used very effectively to deepen the effect of your ending.

As I’ve said before, in great stories like THE WIZARD OF OZ, and PHILADELPHIA STORY, every subplot character has his or her own resolution, which gives those endings broader scope.

Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – one of the very few thrillers out there that creates a victim we truly care for and don’t want to die. In a very few strokes, Harris in the book, and Demme and Tally and actress Brooke Smith in the film, create a ballsy, feisty fighter who is engineering her own escape even at the bottom of a killing pit. In a two-second shot, a few sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up before she is kidnapped. Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus driving the killer into a bigger frenzy). It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a character in its own right. (Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you can cram into it). And of course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

And of course I’ve already gone into this, but the intricacy of detail about the killer’s lair, and the fairy tale resonance of this evil troll keeping a girl in a pit, give that third act a lot of its primal power.

I know, I know, a lot of dark examples. Okay, here’s a lighter one, one of the happiest and most satisfying endings in an adventure/comedy: BACK TO THE FUTURE. This is a great example of how careful PLANTS can pay off big when you pay them off in the end. In the beginning we see high school student Marty McFly in a life that, well, sucks. His family lives in a run-down house, his sweet but cowering father won’t stand up to the bully he works for, the parents’ marriage is faltering. Marty is transported back to the past by mistake, and is confronted with a fantastic twist on the classic time-travel dilemma: he is influencing his future (present) with every move he makes in the past – and not for the better. In fact, since his high-school age mother has fallen in love with him, he’s in danger of never existing at all, and must get his mother together with his father. Brilliant.

All Marty wants to do is get his parents back together and then get back to the future before he does too much damage. Mission accomplished, he returns… to find that every move he made in the past DID influence his future – and much for the better. The house he returns to is huge and gorgeous, his parents are hip and happy, and the bully works for his father. It’s a wonderfully exhilarating ending, surprising and delightful – and it works because every single moment was set up in the beginning.

This ending owes a lot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GROUNDHOG DAY (which itself owes a lot to IAWL). All three are terrific examples of how you can use the external environment of the main character to illustrate character change and make your theme resonate in the third act and for years to come.

To give a completely different example – suppose you’re writing a farce. I would never dare, myself, but if I did, I would go straight to FAWLTY TOWERS to figure out how to do it (and if you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat you’re in for). Every story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from rigid control to total breakdown of order. It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of what his life should be and the reality that he creates for himself over and over again that will have you screaming with laughter.

Another very technical lesson to take from FAWLTY TOWERS – and from any screwball comedy – is speed in climax. Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to create that exhilaration of being out of control – which is the sensation I most love about a great comedy.

The TICKING CLOCK is often used to speed up the action, especially in thrillers – in ALIEN there’s a literal countdown over the intercom as Ripley races to get to the shuttle before the whole ship explodes. But I’ll warn again that the ticking clock is also dangerous to use because it has been done so badly so many times, especially in romantic comedies where the storytellers far too often impose an artificial clock (“I have to get to the airport before she leaves! Oh no….TRAFFIC! I must get out of the taxi and run!”). SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE unfortunately succumbed to that cliché and I swear it nearly ruined that otherwise perfect film for me.

So just like with all of these techniques I’m talking about – the first step is just to notice when an ending of a book or film really works for you. Enjoy it without thinking the first time… but then go back and figure out how and why it worked. Take things apart… and the act of analyzing will help you build a toolbox that you’ll start to use to powerful effect in your own writing.

Any examples for me today? Or is everyone caught up in holiday traffic? I mean, shopping?


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Bobby Mangahas said...

I can't believe I didn't think about this ending earlier, but I really loved The Princess Bride. Inigo finally gets his revenge on Count Rogan, Westly rescues his true love and Fezzik "does something right."

Plus it contains many of the elements that you mentioned in your Fairy Tale Structure post.

That and I just thought the sword fight between Westly and Inigo was awesome :)

BT said...

The ending from the film the Mist blew me away but because it was so different and unexpected. I haven't pulled it apart, but I think it becomes so big because of the struggle all the way through that the father endues to save his son and then has to... well if you haven't seen the flick - you should.

The ending for Somewhere in Time is another that sticks with me for similar reasons. Reeves goes to great lengths to learn about, and implement, time travel, so he can go back and do something that he's already done, only to outwitted by a missed coin. He ends up dying only to go to heaven and be reunited with his love as they were way back when so he didn't actually have to go to all the trouble in the first place but because the old version of his love begged him to at the beginning, he did. What's that saying about round-a-bouts???

Still loving these posts Alex and putting them to good use on my current WIP. The amount of plotting and cards and grids and all the other stuff I've put in has become mind boggling.

Would you include a chapter on over doing it? I could see a point in the planning becoming all too consuming and interfering with the writing. I don't think that will be my issue - I'm still researching a couple of things I need for imagery, but I could see it becoming an issue for some.

Gayle Carline said...

Believe it or not, my favorite is Cinderella - yes, the Disney cartoon. After the glass slipper is broken and Cinderella reaches into her pocket to pull out its mate, there is a frame of the Stepmother... the animators make her eyes very bright and her face very dark and give the whole closeup a super-focused quality that drives the "Aha" moment into me.

But what about those movies/books where the hero/ine remains the same and the world changes around them? Harvey is one example. Elwood Dowd remains a loveable drunk with an invisible rabbit, but everyone he comes in contact with finds love, or comfort, or something that they need. The final scene has madcap comedic brouhahas, but Elwood is not driving the action (actually, Harvey seems to be).

Being There also has that quality. It's been a long time since I've seen the film, but I don't think Chance the gardener changes, at least not as much as the people he meets.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

RJ, Princess Bride is a fantastic example of an exhilarating ending! Definitely a film I should break down.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I agree about THE MIST, BT. That was a bold thematic choice and I think it worked to devastating effect.

And thanks - you're right - I should definitely talk about overdoing it. I might do that next, actually.

Samantha said...

I personally liked the end of Silence of the Lambs where Clarice is going after Buffalo Bill and we can see her through Bill's night vision goggles. Creepy!

Anonymous said...

Great post again, Alex. Because of your posts, I've added some movies to my "to-watch" list.

I think the reason I love Jodi Picoult's books so much is because she mixes all of these elements in her endings. They are thematic, universal yet always unexpected. A perfect example is NINETEEN MINUTES.

By the way, I finished reading THE HARROWING over the weekend and absolutely loved it. It gave me more than a few chills as I read it late at night.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's interesting, Sam. I know a lot of people liked that night-vision trick in the end of SILENCE but I wasn't crazy about it - the only thing about the movie I didn't like, really. It didn't completely pull me out of the movie, as the caught-in-traffic scene did with SLUMDOG, but it seemed sort of out of context to suddenly have such a high tech effect, compared to the rest of the film.

It worked better for me in the book when I didn't have to see the special effect of it.

Goes to show you can never please everyone!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gay;e, HARVEY and BEING THERE are two really good examples of a story type that's kind of like the "mysterious stranger" story pattern, but not exactly. In the "mysterious stranger" story, like MARY POPPINS, SHANE, Mark Twain's THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER - the Stranger isn't the protagonist at all, even though they're the central and often titular figure.

The examples you gave have really innocent strangers - they're not manipulating the action to force a change, as Mary Poppins does, for example. But the structure of the story is the same - the main character or characters are really the people affected by the innocence of the Stranger: the young couple and the family and the town in HARVEY, the politicians in BEING THERE, the family and particularly the father in MARY POPPINS, the family in SHANE.

The Stranger is a catalyst for the OTHER characters' change.

Sometimes a Stranger does have a strong desire line of their own, though

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sorry, posted before finishing! I was going to say, NANNY MCPHEE is a recent example of a Mysterious Stranger story in which the Stranger changes, too.

I talked more about this type of story in Element of Act Two, Part Two.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, I'm so glad you liked THE HARROWING!! Thanks for telling me - I needed a little motivation to get back to writing, today.

Funny, I loved NINETEEN MINUTES but didn't like the end - I thought it ended too soon and I didn't care at all about what happened with the mother - I wanted to know what happened with the kids. I thought it was an odd and very unsatisfying focus to end with, in an otherwise stellar book.

But that's one of those arenas that is very personal to me and I wanted it MY way.

Jake Nantz said...

Brilliant and insightful and helpful as always. As far as thematic endings, I'm going to go back to DEAD POETS' SOCIETY and the standing on the desks, and "O Captain, my captain."

IN THE LINE OF FIRE is another one, where Frank finally gets to save the president he was unable to the first time in his career.

And, of course, the wrap up in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Agent Koujan figures out who Keyser Soze really is, but just a fraction of a minute too late..."and like that, he's gone." We'd gotten so many clues to that point, but because Koujan had his mind made up, we saw him convince Verbal and we went right along. Then we realized just as he did that it was really the other way around. Probably one of my all-time favorite reveals (sorry if I spoiled it for anyone, but really, how have you not seen this film yet??)

Karen from Mentor said...

RJ and Jake took both of mine. I love the Princess Bride and Dead Poet Society...

When I first started thinking about what endings in movies "got" me, the odd thing is the first movie that sprang to mind has an ending that I HATE. It's The African Queen. Love the movie, love the interplay between Hepburn and Bogart, but hated the contrived ending.
Great post as always!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Omg, Karen, I LOVE the end of THE AFRICAN QUEEN! I think it's the same as in JAWS - the two of them went through so much and so deserved a happy ending that I didn't care if it was implausible - it was right.

But there you go - it's all about taste.

This is why I can't say enough - you need to study the stories that work for YOU.