Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: Elements of Act Three - Elevate Your Ending

Eek, October 31. And Halloween, too.

Well, I know everything starts tomorrow and I haven't covered half of what I wanted to, but I'll just keep going anyway.

Today we finish off Act Three.

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, Jamal’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?

Alternatively, what is everyone wearing tonight?

Have a fantastic Halloween and may the Force be with you tomorrow.


The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)


Previous articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

1 comment:

Gayle Carline said...

One of the things I used to love about Seinfeld was the (seemingly) random storylines that would converge to make one big joke at the end. If you haven't watched Leverage (TNT), it's a Mission Impossible-style of story, where you're set up to go one direction, then at the end they show you the path they really took. Great fun.

For Halloween, I have a witch's hat, but I'm feeling like I need a tiara instead. By the time I get thru running my errands and carving a pumpkin, I may have to dress up as a wife/mom/writer - a really tired one.