Monday, 9 May 2011

How To Write An Ending

As an aspiring novelist and screenwriter, I'm considering putting up some articles that focus on the technical side of the craft and some of the issues that rear their head when working on a long-term project. It's also a good excuse to analyse examples of how professional writers have overcome or fallen prey to the same problems. This is an article I wrote about a month ago for Flixist's Film School feature, focusing on the age old difficulty of how to write a satisfying ending.

There's the old saying, 'first impressions count'. That's true for scriptwriting, because a lousy start can really drain a viewer's excitement for a movie, but what's even more true is that last impressions count a whole lot more. A movie can recover from a bad start. A terrible ending, on the other hand, drags an otherwise enjoyable experience into the muck, leaving the audience irritated and more than a little angry. Anyone seen The Adjustment Bureau or Source Code recently? Cases in point. Read on for analyses of what makes good endings work and bad endings fail, and learn how to avoid making those mistakes yourself.
Let's start off with the basics. As an aspiring writer, sitting in front of your laptop with sweaty palms and no friends (I empathise), you should be familiar with the Three Act Structure which dates back to Aristotle's Poetics and is considered the template that supports most well-written drama. Here's a reminder:

I'm not going to go through what each part means, partly because it would take too long and partly because it's fairly self-explanatory, but having the structure laid out in a graph like the one above does illustrate an important point about endings.

That point is that they are just as important when developing your plot as the beginning and the middle. It's easy to fall into the trap of concentrating on the set-up aspects of your plot - aka what will happen in acts one and two - but neglect to consider that these fabulously ingenious threads have to be tied up at the end somehow. Writers are encouraged to be able to sell their plot in a pithy sentence: 'A bad father discovers the worth of family when fighting to keep his children alive during an alien invasion!'  While this approach is an excellent way of understanding your work in its most focused form, it can lead to the endings of those plots being forgotten until the last minute and rushed because the weight of the writer's concentration has gone on making the set-up as punchy as possible, without considering what happens after that punch has landed. In other words, you end up developing a concept rather than a plot, a particularly big risk for those writing short films (where a lot of budding filmmakers start out) where everything has to be as streamlined as possible.

The way to avoid this is as simple as could be: don't rush. Yes, you want to have a plot that can be summed up in an engaging soundbite, but that's an end result of a process that requires time and attention. Remember that you will be redrafting many times before your screenplay finds anything approaching its optimal form. Avoid cutting corners on your first run to save time: as someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time writing novels and screenplays, as well as attending countless classes (and getting a degree) on how to get better at writing novels and screenplays, the best advice I've taken away from it all is that instead of taking shortcuts to quickly reach the goal of getting your work produced, instead find the most efficient technique to let your work find its own feet. After all, even if you can pitch your script with a spectacular one-liner, eventually someone's going to want to read the whole thing and you don't want it to let you down after getting so close.

If you're anything like me, knowing your ending is a vital part in discovering that technique. Chances are that the first time you think of a plot, it won't come with an ending attached. At best it'll be a mad jumble of ideas and ambitions that is all directionless concept. That's fine - keep everything on ice and remember all the redrafts you can do later. Before you start trying to organize and streamline those ideas, think about what you want to say through your work. Get an idea of the type of conflict your protagonist(s) will face and what you want your audience to take away from watching the drama unfold. Once you have broadly defined your themes and the nature of the conflict, go straight to the end and work out how you want them to climax. (Stop sniggering, Thompson, or you'll get a spanking). As the point the rest of your screenplay is working towards, the ending should offer your audience the story's themes at their apotheosis, when all the conflict you've been building up in the first two acts finally explodes. As an aside, if you can't think of a good plot, it's often not a bad idea to skip ahead to thinking about a theme which inspires you and developing that, allowing a story to grow out of it organically.

The point of considering the apex of your themes before the beginning is that it's easier to retrospectively work out how that point is reached, rather than trying to tie things up on the fly. Starting from the top, it can be tempting to keep adding new layers and developments without the restriction of an end point. By having that finishing line in mind, you can bulk up the rest of your story and plot with the knowledge of where it all has to end up, preventing you from letting it all spiral out of control. Another major benefit to developing your script from the ending is that the resolution immediately fulfils its brief of being the focal point of the rest of the drama (unless you somehow completely lose track of yourself whilst working back) and thus won't feel like a cop-out, even if everything else sucks.

A common piece of advice for any kind of writing is to read or watch the best and worst examples of material similar to whatever it is you're working on. Being able to analyse why something succeeded or failed instinctively helps you avoid making the same mistakes, so I'm going to look at two endings, one good and one bad, that provide textbook examples of what really a good conclusion should look do, and the mistakes that bad ones make. Although both examples are drawn from high-budget productions for the sake of familiarity, the rules hold true no matter what kind of film you're making, short included. If you have any sort of conflict in your film, which you hopefully will (even if it's internal, à la Lost In Translation), these are the things you'll want to be thinking about.

As you probably guessed from the photo, the first ending to go under the microscope is one of the most iconic of all time, the epic cliffhanger that closes The Empire Strikes Back. A cliffhanger is a very specific type of ending (intimately related to the twist ending, with the rules below essentially applying to both) but it has to do a lot of the same work that a standard conclusion does, just sending that work in a different direction. I'm sure many of you will have seen or played (*cough*Halo2*cough*) an ending that is supposed to be a cliffhanger, but actually feels like the writers just failed to finish the story. A cliffhanger is a challenging ending to get right, because you have to provide some sense of closure for your film's self-contained story, while also setting the stage and building excitement for a brand new story to unfold in its wake.

The mistake that a lot of writers make with their 'open' endings is to assume they can just leave one or more of their characters in peril and hope the audience will return to see what happens. A strong cliffhanger needs to be a game-changer, a logical expansion of everything you'd seen up until that point and something the audience would never have imagined happening, even though it was laid out for them all along.

This is what Empire nails in its final scenes: we get the conclusion to the storyline about the rebels trying to find a way of reversing the Imperial advance and Luke's training with Yoda, but it pulls the rug out from under our feet by happening in the opposite way to what audiences were trained to expect. The rebels are roundly defeated, and the protagonists only survive by the skin of their teeth. This isn't a set-piece that can be resolved in one scene in Return of the Jedi, but something which will have long-lasting consequences over the type of story the sequel can tell. Watching Empire back, you see how inevitable its conclusion was: in their bid to regain lost ground, the rebels and Luke were impetuous and naïve, jumping at every quick solution without considering the potential consequences. They must come back from this defeat wiser and more disciplined to stand any chance of prevailing. The cliffhanger thus serves as both thematic and narrative conclusion.

Speaking of game-changers, there's a reason that Vader's revelation has gone down as one of the most quoted lines in pop culture. In a single sentence, Luke's world is turned upside-down. He may actually be fighting the man whose death he thought he was avenging. The mentors he had put his trust in may actually have been the ones lying to him. That is, if Vader is telling the truth. Again, these are things which impact on Luke's entire existence, changing the face of the conflict he faces and that which will be at the heart of Return of the Jedi. It is what makes Empire's ending so powerful.

Once again, the photo will have given away the second ending I'm going to be looking at as an example of a truly terrible conclusion: Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (it's not a good sign when even your title is a mess).

To set the scene, Jones and his gang have followed a crystal skull, supposedly extraterrestrial in origin, to the lost city of Akator, to prevent an ancient power from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. I've stated a few times throughout this article than an ending should be the logical culmination of everything that has led up to that point. Crystal Skull makes the major mistake of completely shifting its tone from that of an historical adventure with sci-fi trappings to that of fully blown science fiction. While we are made aware that the eponymous Crystal Skull is most likely an alien artefact, the film's setting has revolved entirely around the past: ancient ruins, primitive tribes and such like, all decidedly Earth-based. Suddenly, in the climactic scene, the characters are from nowhere thrown into an inter-dimensional room filled with alien beings, portals to other worlds and (eventually) a spaceship flying off into the sky. It's a jarring shift that feels like it has been brought in from a completely different movie, thus failing to provide a conclusion to the one we had been enduring for the preceding two hours.

Worse still is how it makes the protagonist into a spectator in his own adventure. Jones and his cohorts spend the scene standing around, watching as the aliens who only appear in this instance defeat their enemies for them. The most basic rule of thumb is that your central character should be an active component in the plot, even if not the only one. Just as every other aspect of your story should be in its ultimate form for the conclusion, so too should your protagonist be at his most active. By making Jones a bystander in this pivotal scene and leaving everything in the hands of a previously unseen third party, it makes the audience feel like they've wasted their time following an inessential character, neutering the ending's emotional stakes and thus the dramatic impact as well.

I should point out in the interests of fairness that this is an accusation also levelled at one of my favourite films, Goldfinger. The key difference, apart from the quality of every aspect of the filmmaking compared to the Crystal Skull debacle, is that Bond's lack of impact on the plot's advancement is disguised by the fact that he is a very active character and often takes the initiative. He might rely on the CIA to defuse the 'atomic device' at the end and Pussy Galore to alert them, but he's been keenly pursuing Goldfinger, getting in car chases, fighting Oddjob (which, if you'd like to know how big a fan of the Bond series I am, is also the name of my wonderful dog), de-lesbianising the villain's partner in crime - which is where I'd argue that Bond is instrumental to the plot - and generally putting in a whole lot of effort where Indiana Jones is reduced to just standing around. Bond may not often be the instrumental factor in moving the plot along, but he's active and exciting enough to watch that most people probably don't even notice his lack of genuine impact.

So class, what have learned from today's lesson? That a good ending should be the narrative and thematic culmination of everything built up in the first two acts of your story. That it can be productive to consider how you want your story to end before you start writing. That cliffhangers should represent more than an unresolved moment of peril and need to significantly change the emotional and dramatic stakes of the story it is foreshadowing, while also providing a satisfying conclusion to the one it is concluding. That it must be an event in which your protagonist plays an active role. That sudden shifts in tone or setting should be avoided at all costs. That James Bond is awesome, even when he's not getting much done.

Remember that writing is an art which, like all disciplines, takes time to get a handle on and is very personal to the writer. You may not find that everything I've said suits your style, but hopefully in knowing that much at least, you will have a point of reference through which that style can grow into something magnificent in its own right. Here's wishing you all the very best of endings.


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