This post contains spoilers. Don’t let that scare you off. You’ve likely seen all these movies, but even if you haven’t, knowing how a movie ends shouldn’t detract from the pleasure of watching a movie. Think about it: how many people skip out on Star Wars because they know Darth Vader is Luke’s father? Or decline to watch The Shawshank Redemption because the poster shows Andy Dufresne in a rain storm, arms outstretched?
The value of the ending isn’t just in the details that make their way into the synopsis, but rather the execution of those crucial moments.
Endings derive their value from the investment the audience has in the characters and the story. When they reach their climatic moment of action, we’re feeling it with them.
The pained realization on Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s face as he discovers the truth: He’s one of the ghosts that his young patient can see.
The smile on Mr. Miyagi’s face as he watches his pupil, Daniel, triumph over the last of the bullies that harassed him. Cruelty and bigotry denied him the chance to raise a family in the past, but in this moment he feels a father’s pride.
The endings of these stories matter to us because of everything that came before them — and everything that came before them is clarified for us by the ending.
The ending is the philosophical payload of your story, the punchline to the joke. It only delivers if you’ve set it up right, and that starts at page one.
If it’s not at stake, it’s a distraction
Coming up with an ending seems simple: Just have your heroes triumph over impossible odds. If they battled a few aliens/robots/ghost sharks in the middle of the movie, just have them fight FIVE THOUSAND aliens/robots/ghost sharks in the third act.
Done deal, right?
Hundreds of expensive, exhausting, and unloved films prove that more is rarely better.
A good climax doesn’t need explosions and cannon fodder to be exciting. Often, these seemingly thrilling elements can confuse and distract, putting your story on autopilot. Ask yourself how much each enemy, each asteroid, each diabolical trap feels like a real threat to the mission of the hero or heroes. Are you creating suspense, or clutter?
What you’re looking for are ways to bring out the signal and cancel out the noise. How can each action your hero takes matter to what’s at stake?
Think about Rick’s line near the end of Casablanca about how a few people’s lives don’t amount to “a hill of beans.” He’s telling Ilsa, and us, that this moment isn’t about what these people mean to the war, but about what the war means to these people. Rick is saving Ilsa and Victor because he wants to believe in a cause again. Getting them on the plane and killing Major Strasser won’t even change much about the balance of power in Casablanca, let alone in occupied France. But his choice concludes the love story between Rick and Ilsa that started in Paris. Now they can both completely move on.
There’s no need for Rick to shoot it out with a battalion of Nazis. The tension comes from answering the question of how far Rick is willing to stick his neck out for the Lazlos now that he’s decided they’re worth fighting for.
The answer isn’t more sharks
The shark in Jaws was set up through horrifying attacks on swimmers and a crowded beach. A whole town and its visiting tourists’ lives are in danger. That’s what’s at stake. However, when it’s time for the big fight between man and beast, it takes place out in open water. Miles from shore, only the men on the Orca are in danger. Everything is stripped down in the climax of the movie to Brody vs. Shark. Brody wants to kill the shark and protect Amity. That’s been the driving force of the movie. Now, at the end, he gets his (literal) shot.
John McClane in Die Hard has spent the entire movie reducing the number of obstacles in his path one or two at a time. By picking off Hans Gruber’s henchmen, he forces the final confrontation to be intimate and personal. The movie has gone from one man versus a gang of criminals to a duel between two men with John’s wife’s life in the balance. As the scale of the battle is reduced, the intensity of the struggle has increased.
Think about it like a cinematographer. If your climax and resolution are in wide shot, full of calamity and carnage, you keep the audience at a distance from your characters. The audience needs those close up moments to make that emotional connection and fully appreciate not just what has happened, but how the characters feel about it.
Weigh every character’s potential to change the direction of the story. The less impact they have, the less you need them for the finale. Sub-plots and supporting characters can be cleared away as you reach the final minutes of the story to focus on who has the most control over the final outcome.
Even a movie whose climax is loaded with bombast and special effects can hone in on what counts. Captain America: The Winter Soldier ends in a battle across multiple flying gunships, but the core of its finale is a fight between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Cap and Bucky’s fight not only decides whether or not our team of heroes can stop Hydra’s plot, but whether or not Steve can stop Bucky in a way that still allows him a chance to save his friend from being a brainwashed pawn. That intimate, one-on-one fight, is the deciding factor in a much larger, explosion and debris-heavy finale.
This ending is a challenge for Steve not just physically and tactically, but emotionally. It involves the protagonist completely: body, heart, and soul.
Pass or Fail
Beating the odds isn’t enough. Great endings act as a final examination on all the previous challenges your hero has faced. It’s time to see what they’ve learned.
In The Third Man, the hardest task for Holly Martins is to help the police track down and apprehend his friend, Harry Lime. At the beginning of the film, this would be an unthinkable decision, since their friendship was strong enough to convince Holly to come to Europe for a job at Harry’s request.
But when he arrives and is told that not only is Harry dead, but he’s suspected of being a black market war profiteer, Holly decides to make it his quest to clear his late friend’s good name and uncover the mystery of how he died. As he pursues his investigation, he unearths more and more information suggesting that Harry was a criminal, culminating in the discovery that he’s not even dead.
It’s this process of gradually chipping away at the truth that makes the final test possible. When Holly first met Major Calloway, Holly defended Harry’s reputation against what he thought was an officer of the law trying to smear his friend. But Holly comes around to seeing Calloway as an ally, and leads him directly to Harry. This is an action that tests whether Harry’s friendship or the depths of his amoral criminal enterprise carry more weight with Holly.
Having that final test of beliefs requires a strong starting point. Sometimes it’s a friendship. Sometimes it’s a moral code. In Hot Fuzz, PC Nicholas Angel continually makes two points:
- Police work is mostly about attentive recording of information, and not “proper action.”
- The law must be objective if it is to be righteous, so the law must be enforced the same in a small town like Sanford as it is in a big city like London.
PC Angel is constantly confronted with choices where he must decide whether to do things his preferred way (The London Way) and follow the letter of the law, or if he should change his priorities (The Sanford Way) and consider the softer and more conditional “Greater Good” as more important than an objective rule of law.
Should he continue to pursue the shoplifter (the London path), or should he change course and pursue the missing swan he was called about earlier (the Sanford path)? Should he kick out the underage drinkers from the pub, or let them have a few pints for “The Greater Good” of keeping them off the streets? Should he focus on the strange set of deaths in the town that he’s certain are a connected series of murders, or should he pay more attention to the scourge of street performers like jugglers and the potentially adverse effect they have on the town’s reputation?
It’s only after he’s run out of town by the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, the personification of The Sanford Way, that he’s confronted with his most difficult test of his beliefs: Does he attempt to take the official route, wait for backup, and prepare to file the paperwork necessary to create a case against the elders of Sanford, or does he decide to consider The Greater Good of the town and head back like a proper action hero, determined to clean up the town on his own?
In choosing to go back on his own, he discards his strict adherence to his previous beliefs without sacrificing their intent. All of his previous tests lead him to the conclusion that his adherence to his code of behavior won’t help the people he has sworn to protect, and that he has a Greater Good he needs to serve.
That’s part of the key to constructing a compelling final test: It needs to repeat the theme of tests the hero has already faced, but to a more acute degree than what they’ve previously endured.
All the tests up to this point have been different, but should have a running theme: Can the hero succeed by adhering to their old ways, or do they need to adapt? The final test of this theme should confront them with a situation where they must show they can change or risk total failure.
Great endings are both expected and surprising
From the moment the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to reveal he was murdered by Claudius, the audience is anticipating Hamlet’s revenge. The very premise of the story promises that Hamlet will either succeed or fail in his attempt to murder his father’s assassin and claim an eye for an eye.
What the audience is not expecting in that early moment is that an array of plots and tricks gone wrong will lead to the death of the entire Danish royal family.
The construction of the plot, from beginning to end, keeps in mind that the audience is expecting a final confrontation to settle the question the beginning poses: Will Hamlet get revenge? However, there isn’t a straight line from beginning to end, and a number of sub plots and additional schemes play out along the way.
Go back to the beginning.
- What should the audience expect to happen at the end of the story?
- What elements are necessary to fulfill the promise of the premise?
- Is there anything that, if it didn’t happen, would lead to feelings of disappointment?
Look for the things that can trip up your protagonist. Look for the potential unintended consequences of their actions. What’s the collateral damage created by their pursuit of their goal? How can their attempts at answering the question posed by the premise of the story give birth to new obstacles that await them at the end?
Ideally, character choices play into this. At the beginning of Jaws, we are told again and again how ill-suited Chief Brody is to fight this shark: He hates going out in the water, he’s not a native islander, and compared to Quint and Hooper’s battle scars, all he has to show is where he had his appendix taken out.
But we know that someone is going to have to take that last shot at the shark. Quint has the track record and commands the ship, but he’s eaten. Hooper has scientific knowledge, but disappears after an attempt to poison the shark. That leaves Brody, the unlikely warrior.
This both satisfies the question of the premise (Can anyone stop this killer shark?), and does so in a way that wasn’t completely suspected from the introduction of the possible fish assassins. Can he rise to the challenge? Can the efforts of his allies pave the way to his victory?
But don’t just consider the most positive outcome for the protagonist as the audience’s expectation. Look to the expected confrontation and consider all possible outcomes.
In Rocky, Apollo Creed wins the match, but Rocky still earns a sense of self-respect. This fight for him was never just about winning: His belief that he’s a worthy person was at stake. By staying with Rocky, watching him train, and hoping for his success, the audience wants that win for him not as an end unto itself, but as a way for him to realize his self-worth.
It’s in subverting that expectation that the ending achieves greatness. Rocky can lose the fight and still feel like a champion.
This is key: Happy endings are for characters and their goals, but satisfying endings are about the audience and their investment in the story.
Happy endings are negotiable. Satisfying endings aren’t.
What’s different? What’s the same?
Contrast helps us see things more distinctly. Howard Hughes saw when watching the dailies of the aerial combat scenes in his movie Hell’s Angels that without slow, nearly stationary clouds, it was hard to tell just how fast the planes were moving. The action looked dull.
The changes in a character and their life after the climax of their story are easier to identify if some parts of their life remain the same. At the end, show us echoes of how their story began.
If too much is the same, the journey will feel meaningless.
If too much has changed, it may be hard to see the meaningful differences.
At the end of A History of Violence, Tom sits down to dinner with his family. It’s a traditional dinner scene, with everyone seated together around the table like they used to, but what’s different is the understanding the family has come to about who Tom really is.
They know he’s a killer. They know his name and identity as they knew it were fictions, and that he’s just come back from doing something horrific and violent in an attempt to protect them. Their faces and their silence are what’s different.
But when he’s allowed to sit down at the table and re-join his family, that attempt at returning their family life to normal shows what’s important to all of them; that they’re willing to try forgiveness, whether or not it will last. It focuses the moment on the film’s themes of rebirth and redemption.
In Groundhog Day, Phil Conners repeats the same day over and over. The premise builds on this potential to show the contrast between a Phil who rolls his eyes at covering the groundhog ceremony and the Phil who quotes Chekhov, holding the rapt attention of the entire crowd. We can see the difference between the Phil who uses tricks to try and seduce his producer, Rita, and who makes a genuine attempt to help the people of Punxsutawney with their problems. By seeing so many of the same characters and scenarios over and over, Phil’s transformation gets a bright spotlight shone on it.
This premise pays off when we think back to the Phil of the film’s opening, eager not only to leave the studio, but his network, and already planning his exit from Punxsutawney before he arrived. Phil at the end tells Rita that they should live in Punxsutawney. He’s gone from a person making open statements of dissatisfaction at being where he is to choosing to find joy in the place he is in that moment.
Ask yourself what aspects of your character’s journey relate back to where they started. What would they do differently if they had another chance? How can you give them that chance?
It’s not just about directly presenting them with the same exact scene as something from earlier on, but looking for an echo. Reaching back to the audience’s memory of who this character was before and showing what about them has changed.
At the beginning of The Godfather, Michael Corleone tells Kaye that he is not like the rest of his family. He’s honest and upstanding. They’re criminals. But they’re still his family.
Having watched him make compromise after compromise on his moral compass, justifying his actions as a means to protect his father and the rest of his family, Michael ends the film on the opposite side. Now he is his family. He leads them. And he sends Kaye out of the room, lying to her about the brutal murder he ordered on his brother-in-law.
As the door shuts in Kaye’s face, we get a clear distinction of what’s changed from the beginning to the end. Michael and Kaye were close at the beginning, staying at arm’s length from the Corleone family legacy. Now Michael embraces that legacy and pushes Kaye away.
Not only has something changed, but their world is moving in a new direction.
Every end is a beginning
It is rare for a story to end with no possible next scene. If the world ends in some violent cataclysm, there’s little left that could happen other than watching the debris drift away. But even in a situation where all the principal characters die, something comes next.
The exaggerated version of this is when the monster/slasher’s hand shoots back up out of the lake/dumpster/grave, signaling that a sequel and new confrontation is imminent.
It’s the extension of considering what’s changed with the characters: If they’ve changed, so has their perspective on the world. Returning home from their journey, things shouldn’t feel the same.
Ask yourself what comes next. With what they’ve experienced, how will a character re-adjust to the ordinary life they lead before their adventure? Will they be able to?
While most of the hobbits at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy find peace back in the Shire, Frodo has been through too much. Sam may have found love and started a new life, but Frodo must leave, sailing off into the west.
Consider Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle, fresh out of the hospital after the bloody shootout with a pimp and his goons, gets a thank you letter from Iris’s parents and gets back in his cab. He talks to Betsy, neither one of them able to make any new connection, and then drops her off. It’s back to the streets for Travis, just as before. The audience is left with the feeling that this unstable man may have let some of the pressure out of his system, but that it could build up again; that this lonely man might once more turn to violence, and that there’s no guarantee who will end up in his crosshairs.
Look at the classic final scene of The Graduate. Benjamin pulls Elaine out of her wedding, and the two flee to a nearby bus. As they get on, the camera holds on them as the joy and exhilaration from the mad dash drain from their faces. They begin to realize the consequences of what they’ve done. They start to become uncertain what to do next. Their story is both finished and beginning.
That’s ultimately what you’re aiming for when writing an ending: a sense that everything in your story has led to this moment, yet there are new moments beyond this.
Your heroes have changed, and in the process, changed the world around them.