How many times have you watched a movie or read a screenplay that began wonderfully and full of promise, only to end up feeling unsatisfied, let down, annoyed or even downright furious by the final page? It’s often been said that people remember the first lines of books and the last lines of movies, and while a zinger parting line can certainly be the cherry on top of a movie’s third act sundae, it’s really the whole climax, paired with the denouement (the final “cool down” after the main conflict is resolved) that seals the deal when it comes to cinematic storytelling.
So how you do write a killer movie ending? Let’s begin at the end.
Write to Your Theme.
At some point during your writing process, you’re going to settle on a theme and then rewrite everything you’ve created to conform to that central question or message. Whether your theme is as simple as “Love Conquers All,” “Honesty is the Best Policy,” or “Be Yourself,” or as complex as “What makes a person human?”, “How do you measure a person’s value?” or “Can and man and a woman every just be friends?”, a good ending is going to either illustrate your central thesis or propose an answer to your thematic question. If your theme is “Love Conquers All,” then the central lovers, despite all the obstacles thrown in their path and the conflicts that have driven them apart, will eventually reunite and join in marriage (or its modern cultural equivalent). If your theme is “Honesty is the Best Policy,” then your hero, who has been lying and conniving throughout the story to achieve some selfish goal, will be forced to come clean and somehow be rewarded for his probity. If your movie is exploring the question, “How do you measure a person’s value?”, one or more of the characters will end the story with a significantly different set of priorities than they began with (e.g., friends over money, love over material possessions, etc.)
If your ending does not address your central theme, if it just comes down to a chase or fist fight that illustrates nothing more that the participants’ physical prowess, then your screenplay will likely be regarded as a failure.
With that issue out of way, let’s now focus on the types of endings we often see in movies, why they succeed and their level of impact on the reader/viewer.
What Happens in an Ending?
At a story’s climax, all of the factors that have played into the narrative thus far slam together and present the protagonist with the ultimate choice: Kill or be killed. (Or your dramatic version thereof.) Something huge has to be at stake. If not objectively huge, then at least something that the protagonist considers huge. (Love, home, family, career, etc.) Ideally, the protagonist should directly confront the antagonist, winner take all. They can confront each other as equals, or the protagonist can be in an inferior position. Never should the protagonist enter Act III holding a winning hand.
The Final Battle should present the protagonist with a crisis, ideally a moral one. The hero must make a choice, and the choice must be a difficult one. And the choice should determine the ensuing course of the character’s life.
Good endings often involve an element of sacrifice. Sometimes this means losing something personally valuable for the greater good. Or it means eschewing one’s personal happiness to promote the happiness of others. It usually means learning, growing and becoming a better human being.
Like a great melody, the story’s ending should be surprising, yet inevitable. An audience should not be able to see it coming, but when it does arrive, it should be satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. It need not be a happy ending in the traditional sense, but it should be a good ending. The hero’s choice should be the best thing that person could do under the circumstances.
Physical battles are perhaps the most popular climaxes found in action movies, thrillers, and sports dramas. They’re the bread-and-butter of all super-hero movies. These sequences involve pitting the protagonist directly against the antagonist in a contest of strength, speed, and dexterity. These contests may be as structured as a football game or boxing match, or as chaotic and lethal as having two knife-wielding assassins trying to cut each other’s throats while trapped inside the spinning fuselage of a crashing airplane. In all such cases, either the participants are evenly matched or the protagonist is the physical underdog.
While necessarily viscerally exciting, physical battles only really work dramatically if:
1. To win the battle, the protagonist must overcome a weakness/insecurity that has been plaguing him/her over the course of the story. In the best of these battles, the protagonist is forced into a situation that represents the worst place he/she can possibly be (e.g., Someone who can’t swim has to fight for his life while cast adrift at sea.)
2. Conversely, the climax is staged in such a way that the protagonist’s handicap suddenly becomes a strength. (e.g. A blind character lures her tormentor into the basement so she can fight him in the dark.)
3. To win the battle, the protagonist uses a “secret weapon” or technique learned earlier in the story, but never used in this particular context. (e.g. The crane position in The Karate Kid or The Force in Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope.)
4. To win the battle, the protagonist exploits a weakness in the antagonist, again something that everyone knows but has never been used in this particular context. (e.g., The antagonist is super-sensitive to bright light.)
5. To win the battle, the protagonist has a fundamental change of heart regarding something he/she previously believed was valuable/important, but now does not. (e.g. The hero spends the entire movie protecting a priceless Ming vase, only finally choosing to smash the antagonist over the head with it.)
Again, a good physical climax cannot be about who is physically stronger or who is the better fighter. Each character should represent opposing sides of your dramatic theme, and the fight’s conclusion should then provide a satisfying answer to your thematic question. The fight is merely the physical manifestation of your thematic battle.
Since the dawn of talking pictures, courtrooms have served as one of the most popular locations for staging both dramatic and comedic climaxes. Films with courtroom climaxes — or their structural equivalent — include To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), My Cousin Vinny (1992), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Fountainhead (1949), A Few Good Men (1992), Bananas (1971), Mr. Deeds (2002), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Philadelphia (1993), Legally Blonde (2001), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) …. The list is endless.
Courtrooms are great settings because they are contained, highly formalized and they force the opposing forces to confront each other directly in a battle of wits and ideas rather that fisticuffs. The best of these scenes begin with the protagonist in a highly disadvantageous position, with all the evidence stacked against him/her. Just when all seems lost, a “surprise” witness, a new piece of evidence or, best of all, an impassioned speech from either the defense attorney or the defendant him/herself is able to turn the tables. Even if the final ruling goes against the protagonist, the movie succeeds if we emerge with a sense of a moral victory.
The Plan Comes Together.
Otherwise known as “clockwork” climaxes, these are often found in heist films, prison break movies or any story that involves a seemingly impossible escape. In such stories, we spend the better part of the film laying out and preparing a complex plan, and now, in Act Three, it’s finally time to pull it off. Naturally, Murphy’s Laws is imposed, and things begin to go horribly wrong, thus ratcheting up the suspense. But ultimately, the bank is robbed, the diamonds are stolen or the heroes have escaped from their supermax prison.
The trick to pulling these endings off is to avoid cheating. Whatever the plan is, it has to be reasonable within the universe you have created and within the capabilities of your characters, and all of the tools necessary to pull off the job have to be revealed before the climax. (You may choose to use the tools differently than originally described, but they still have to be present.)
The Race Against Time.
“Beat the Clock” is perhaps the most popular game in all of cinema. Nothing ratchets up suspense better than a character’s need to accomplish something critically important within the narrowest possible timeframe. Whether it’s racing to the airport to stop an estranged lover from getting on that flight to London, trying to disarm an atomic bomb even as the digital clock rapidly clicks down to zero or just running across town to arrive in time to see your kid’s ballet recital, the “ticking clock” is the perfect fallback device when it comes to creating a thrilling climax.
Just one caveat here: Play the game honestly. Don’t rely on the magic of movie editing to get your character from Point A to Point B when such a feat could never be reasonably accomplished in real time. The TV show “24” was constantly guilty of this — getting hero Jack Baur from Santa Monica to Redlands in 15 minutes during rush hour — to the point it almost became a running joke.
The Grand Confession.
This type of climax became so popular in the 1990s and 2000s that it became a trope. In the Grand Confession, the protagonist uses some manner of public forum — a restaurant, an airport waiting area, a corporate board meeting, the Academy Awards — to spill his/her guts, whether it’s a declaration of love, an admission of guilt or simply a discourse on the lesson he/she has learned over the course of the narrative. The speeches need to be honest, heartfelt and extremely well thought-out while appearing to be spontaneous, and articulate the movie’s theme as closely as possible without being totally didactic. Such scenes also must be emotionally awkward for everyone involved — embarrassment is a key ingredient — but ultimately draw the accidental audience over to the protagonist’s side. (Slow-clap, anyone?)
The Twist Ending.
This is a popular favorite, and one of the most difficult to pull off. Traditionally, the twist ending occurs not in the climax, but in the denouement. It occurs in the last one or two minutes of the film, the place usually reserved for the awards ceremony, the final goodbyes, the hero’s Final Thoughts, or the lovers’ kiss.
The Twist Ending is a reveal, discovery, or surprise appearance that throws everything we were supposed to think about the story on its ear. The hero is really dead. The bad guy was really the good guy. It isn’t an alien planet at all…it’s Earth!
Twist endings are great…but you can’t cheat. As with all the other endings we discussed, all the pieces have to have been clearly visible throughout. All you’ve done is rearrange those pieces just a bit so it creates a new picture. To make sure your Twist Ending works, read the script from Page 1 with the ending in mind. Does everything still make sense? Is the story still logical? If so, you’ve got yourself a winner.
One final technique you can use to “seal” your ending is the application of bookends. With bookends, you end your movie in virtually the same way you started it. In the old western classic The Ox Bow Incident (1943), the movie opens with two cowboys riding into a western town. As they do, an old bloodhound crosses from the top of the screen to the bottom. At the end of the movie, these same two cowboys ride out of town the same way they came in…and the same dog now crosses from the bottom of the screen back to the top. Perfect bookend. In the Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump (1994), the film begins with the camera following a single white feather as it floats through the air, finally landing at the feet of the film’s titular hero. At the end of the film, the camera follows this same feather as it is blown off the pavement and back into the air, presumably to continue its adventures. Perhaps the most famous use of bookends can be found in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). The film begins with a close-up on a sign reading “No Trespassing.” Through a series of quick dissolves, we move through the empty gardens, the abandoned zoo and finally up to the looming hilltop mansion. At the end of the film, we retrace these same steps: the mansion to the zoo to the gardens and finally back to the sign reading “No Trespassing,” its message now imbued with the film’s thematic message, “A man’s life will forever remain a mystery.”
There are, of course, many other types of endings. In some, like “Back to the Future” (1985), we end with a new beginning, the promise of more to come. James Bond films always give us a “false ending,” in which 007 has killed the main villain but — surprise! — still needs to deal with a vengeful henchman. (This same false ending was used in 1986’s Die Hard.) And some movie endings are intentionally ambiguous. We don’t know what the hell happens. Except on the rarest of occasions, ambiguous endings are rarely successful, and never recommended for anyone but the most seasoned and respected screenwriters.
Oh, and that final line? Make it a good one.
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“There’s no place like home.”
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need…roads.”
“This is my gift. My curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-Man.”