Friday, July 23, 2010

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act 3)

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

One of the perks of this being the 30th anniversary of the release of JAWS is that the doc on the filming of the movie, “The Making of Jaws”, has been running on cable. But if you missed it, you can get it on the new and some old DVD editions of the film.

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.

I just finished the thriller SKIN, by my great favorite Mo Hayder, and she pulls off an emotionally devastating - AND uplifting - ending in that one, completely out of nowhere, and it's all about a decision one of the detectives makes. You want so badly for him and another detective to find love together, and then the male detective sees something that will destroy the other detective's entire life - and by implication, his (because he will never recover from what he will have to do to her). It's a very internal and spiritual decision he has to make, and a minor (but unforgettable) character comes in like the voice of God to suggest that he have faith and wait. It completely twisted me, and I was so grateful for the redemption. Wonderful way to set up the next book in the series, as well, which is something you people who are writing series need to keep in mind. We have to want to read the next book!

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?



Online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop:

I am teaching an online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop from July 15-30. These online workshops are a fantastic deal, just $20 for two weeks, and here's where you can get one-on-one feedback on these techniques as they apply to your own story. All genres welcome!

Register here.


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Charmaine Clancy said...

The end has always been my favourite part as a reader, I like surprises but would rather have a predictable ending that aligns with the characters and story than be disappointed by a surprise ending that just doesn't gel.

Thanks for the links, I love reading your articles.

Anonymous said...

Definately Jane Austin's Sense and Sensibility. Don't you just love the irony of Willoughby's position by the novels end? His fall was so perfectly orchestrated. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables: all the characters' lives intersect unexpectedly and Jean Valjean's vindication at the hand of Tanadier of all people, is so satisfying. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: Rhett's final line is so devastating. For me personally, I think it's the emotional impact, those are the books and movies that stay with me, that I want to re-read.

Anonymous said...

John Carpenter's The Thing. Ambiguous endings anyone?

Josie Thames said...

I love the way Bridget Jones (the movie, not the book) ends. The set is perfect, what with all the snow fluttering down. But also, Bridget is typically Bridget. She has run down the street in nothing but a bathrobe and a pair of sneakers (once again, Bridget is blundering and doing something very spontaneous) to catch Mark and apologize for her behavior. But Mark does something that is both in character AND out of character. He purchases Bridget a new diary (Mark being considerate), but then he kisses Bridget with such enthusiasm that it makes old ladies on the street blush (he is normally very reserved). The best part is, though, when Bridget tells him, "Wait a minute. Nice boys don't kiss like that," and he says "Oh yes they f***ing do!"

Just a perfect ending.

Sarra Cannon said...

One of my favorite endings is Stephen King's THE STAND. I haven't seen the movie in a while, but just recently read the book. When the city of Las Vegas goes up in a Nuke explosion, it was so satisfying for me. And to know that Frannie and Stu are reunited to start a new life together back East. It's very hopeful, but also emotional and sad.

My current book is an ensemble cast novel, and I am finding it such a challenge to find a satisfying ending for all of my characters while still setting up the next book. What I have written works for now, but I know there are major rewrites in the works. Maybe I just need to let it marinate for a while.

Thanks for yet another great article!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Charmaine! I am with you on the awkward surprise ending - I recently read a thriller in which the surprise killer was so implausible that the author had to include two whole chapters of absolutely painful backstory to try to justify it. Worst ending to an up to then very good book I have probably ever read.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debbie, those are fantastic, epic examples. Those stories aren't classics for nothing! Can you imagine how much your (my) writing could improve if we studied, like, ten examples like that in-depth? Makes me think...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bruce, agreed, just love that film and ending (oft-copied...)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Beautiful breakdown, Josie, it's analysis like that that really starts to make a difference in your own writing.

I watch that movie over and over for the ending.

Well, not just the ending. Caught between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth? Where do I sign?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sarra, Stephen King's books are so great to study for ensemble casts and for that emotional wallop. Franny and Stu are a classic couple, I think - you care SO deeply about them through all that mess.

IT has a terrific ensemble cast with wonderful character resolutions, too.

RhondaL said...

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (movie) has a great ending and puts a new spin on the term "having a friend for dinner." It's chilling and clever and funny and shocking. We even get a dark little laugh after the relentless suspense. Plus, Dr. Chilton has been such a sleazeball that we feel a bit as if he's getting his just desserts.

IMO, that last bit with the audience reaction - appreciation mixed with horror - might have laid the groundwork for DEXTER.

Sarra Cannon said...

Thanks Alex! I had forgotten about IT! Under the Dome was amazing as well for ensemble, so I read that earlier this year, but I have never read IT. Just bought it for my eReader so I can read it on the plane and in the evenings in Orlando.

Now,let's just hope I don't have nightmares all through RWA conference, haha!

See you there!

RhondaL said...

I forgot to add that I'll miss the commentaries, too, when we go to movies streamed without the Special Features. I have half a notion to snap up as many of my faves as I can and then hoard DVD players like it's 12/31/99.

I know we're talking about Climaxes, but I got some great insight into Beginnings while watching the Special Features on THE INCREDIBLES disc.

The original beginning was quieter and more personal to the writer, a scene he'd adapted from real life. We could see how the one used set the tone better for the movie, but I have to admit I felt bad for the writer having to give up this "darling" because it was a bit of a valentine to his wife.

Yeah. I know. TOTALLY wrong for superhero action/adventure like THE INCREDIBLES, married suburban love story subplot or not.

What ran was the better choice.

Josie Thames said...

Thank you, Alex! That really means so much coming from you. I am learning SO MUCH from these posts and I am seeing a huge difference in my writing and plotting.

I love Bridget Jones. I have read the book and seen the movie countless times. It's definitely on my list.

And between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, I can totally understand why Bridget had such a hard time deciding!

laughingwolf said...

love your intro, alex :O lol

the rest is ab fab, too, as always

for the most part i despise the hollywood 'happy ending', but that's what 'sells'...

for me, a fine ending is in 'orca'