Wednesday, May 05, 2010

In search of the perfect ending

I read a screenplay today that was a really smooth read and a terrific story right up until the last ten pages where it kind of fell apart. I felt the same way about The Losers. It was big steaming gobs of terrific fun until it kind of fell apart at the end by embracing every cliche in the book and losing all sense of character, then sacrificed a satisfactory ending for the sake of a possible sequel.

When I finished my first draft of Burnside everybody hated my ending where I killed my protagonist. But people are just too attached to the rules! I said. Damn the rules! You know what, sometimes no matter how much you want to damn the rules, if the story can't sustain it you shouldn't do it. I kept trying to figure out how to kill her, but in the end I had to let her live. So I let her live really sad.

I went through about four other endings before I finally found one that didn't get boos all around, and I'm still not sure it's a hit. A perfect ending is tough to come by.

What do you think is the best ending ever? After thinking carefully I've decided it's The Terminator. Sarah Connor stares out at the gathering storm in the desert, contemplating her bleak future with her future hero of a son growing in her womb. And as the little Latino kid snaps her picture she thinks of how much she loved Kyle Reese, and that's the very picture he carries in his wallet, wondering what she's thinking every time he looks at it. It's ominous and beautiful and romantic and sweet all at the same time and it moves me every time I think about it. Nobody expects an evil robot time travel movie to be that damn good. And that ending is perfect. I've never thought of an ending so perfect. I hope I will soon.


  1. I love the ones that make you leave thinking about the movie. An ending that makes you recall the whole movie -- the whole ride. And even that has stuff outside the movie, so the story keeps growing.

    One of my favorites was Donnie Darko. Mulholland Drive was a great 'wtf did I just watch' movie. Memento was a good reveal. Irreversible was a 'that's f'd up but artistic' ending.

  2. Anonymous11:28 PM

    Gotta go old school with "Patton." That final scene with George C. Scott walking alone with his dog towards that windmill still sends chills up my spine.

  3. I don't start writing a story until I know exactly what the final scene is.

    I need that light at the end of the tunnel already on before I head in.

    Did you have one then it changed as you were building the story?

    I am a sucker for "The Bad Guys Win" endings. The original Saw ending was perfect for me.


  4. I was gonna say Donnie Darko!! For the same reason Peter mentioned... it makes you go back and think about the entire film again. And you think about it for days, weeks, maybe months after.

    Any sort of well done surprise/twist ending is good, a la The Sixth Sense.

    I used to think I wanted to see the bad guy win more often. I was sick of happy endings. Then I saw Arlington Road and I never thought that again.

  5. Jim, I had an ending and everybody - and I do mean EVERYBODY - hated it. So then I had to make a new one and that's when I got lost.

  6. Having your main character die at the end is a very difficult thing for the audience to swallow because in a way, the audience dies with her (after having the story told more or less from her POV for two hours).

    The only way I ever feel it really works is when the character sacrifices herself (or is sacrificed by the writer) for what lives on after the movies over, this is, when the audience has something (usually someONE) else they care about whose story goes on after the end credits. With Twelve Monkeys, for instance, the "someone else" is mankind in the future.

    The three other categories of killing your protagonist have their problems:

    (1) The Page One Death (either literal, as in Carlito's Way, or implied, as in American Beauty) feels just like a way to make the ending palatable and while I still like American Beauty, I feel it could work without Lester Burnham's death.

    (2) Punishing your main character for something evil they did before the completion of their arc always feels like pandering to the audience's conscience, thinking they still want punishment even though the person the character has become at the end of the movie would never, ever do such a thing again.

    (3) Killing your main character because they can't win against the evil corporation/the government conspiracy can actually work as a punch to the gut but only if the message of your movie supports it.

    Of course, the antagonistic forces must be so insurmountable that they cannot be stopped by lesser means.

    Since I totally agree with Jim (as do you apparently), maybe your ending was fine but it was the story that needed tweaking to support it.

  7. While writing the above comment, I realized something about endings and I can think of no other outlet right now, so if I may:

    Whether an ending feels satisfactory is not so much about what happens, but what is implied to happen next. That is also why epilogues so often suck and in some cases ruin the whole movie.

    This is the same principle as with jokes. What makes them funny is the very next sentence, the one that would ruin everything. A horse walks into a bar. Says the bartender, Why the long face? Replies the horse, Because horses have very long skulls.

    This is true even for default endings in the least-respected of movie genres, the romantic comedy. Yes, they kiss and get married, but what creates the warm fuzzy feeling is the thought of sixty-odd years of happily ever after.

    To adapt and old screenwriting tip, Get out of the movie as early as possible.

    (In your case, maybe before your main character dies? This is of course incredibly hard to pull off, but if the circumstances of your showdown support it, it would be one hell of an ending. I reserve the right to use it myself someday. ;) )

  8. Very good analysis, OJ.

    I ended up opting to let my protagonist live, but with a catch. It's the only ending anyone will tolerate, I think.


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