(Come on, admit it, one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.)
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 the villain's 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?
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!
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Previous articles on Story Structure:
What's Your Premise?
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Elements of Act Two, Part Two:
Visual Storytelling Part 1
Visual Storytelling Part 2