Now You See Me‘s Youtube video How to End Your Movie explores an interesting aspect of all movies — the last shot. The video utilizes the examples taken from movies like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, The Searchers, The Godfather, etc. It even compares the endings of the original Psycho and its nearly shot-for-shot remake that debuted in 1998 starring Vince Vaughn. While the two endings of those two Psycho films end on a similar shot, there are some slight differences that completely change the way audiences feel as the movie fades to black.
This discussion brings up an important point regarding how writers should handle both the first and last visual of their screenplays. Watch the quick video first, and then we’ll showcase how screenwriters can apply this concept to their screenplays, and why they should be paying close attention to such visuals.
Film is a visual medium. Screenplays are the blueprints for that medium. They are the beginning of a collaboration between hundreds of people, including agents, managers, development executives, producers, directors, talent, crew, editors, etc.
What is often lost in the endless talk of screenwriting are the images. Sure, character and story arcs, as well as plot and concept, are central to the craft of screenwriting. However, the actual visuals that screenwriters envision and later describe within the context of the screenplay are so vital to the process.
Script readers — which include assistants, studio readers, agents, managers, producers, executives, directors, and talent — need to be able to see that movie through their own mind’s eye as they read the screenplay. This is why the Less is More mantra of screenwriting is so important.
Each and every image that a screenwriter conjures and describes is no different than each and every shot that a director and cinematographer block and film. In the case of the read of the screenplay, the visual is created partially by the screenwriter — utilizing broad stroke description — and then completed by the imagination of the person reading it. A visual can be a certain image, a full scene, or even a sequence. Character and story is essential, but they have to be portrayed in cinematic fashion utilizing engaging visuals.
The Opening Visual
Let’s start with the opening image in a screenplay, which is obviously essential to what will eventually lead to the final visual — they are the bookends of the screenplay. The opening visual should set the tone and atmosphere of what is to come. Screenwriters should not shy away from crafting an excellent visual to go along with the introduction of the story, characters, and concept. And this is accomplished not by camera angles, overly articulate scene description, etc. It’s accomplished by a pairing of the Less is More mantra with a description of an engaging and compelling moment — the visual.
It has to stand out. It can’t be a static location description followed by dialogue. Screenwriters need to remember that because film is a visual medium, they need to conjure enticing cinematic images.
Here we have a few examples of excellent opening visuals.
This now classic image encapsulates much of the concept, tone, and atmosphere of the movie. It’s engaging and visually compelling as we basically see the time in reverse, which is the overall structure of the story. Spec screenplays need these types of scenes to stand out and make those solid first impressions within the first couple of pages.
Again, the opening image is presented in such a way that encapsulates the overall concept of the story to come. On top of that, it’s an engaging visual because it’s unique and shocking. A lesser version of the script would have a static location — perhaps the main character in a car — with voice over or dialogue exchange. Instead, we’re offered a visual that immediately intrigues us.
Dances with Wolves
This opening image, accompanied by some dialogue, showcases the horror of the Civil War. The brutality of it. And it also manages to show us the type of man the lead character is. He’s willing to go to whatever lengths he needs to — in this case to save his foot. This is another engaging visual that draws us in rather than what would have been a lackluster opening of perhaps him riding his horse on the range, headed out into the open frontier.
Note: Pause the clip after the first few seconds and read on as this video showcases the majority of the movie.
What an opening! We’re at what seems to be the climax of a story. When they cut away from that, the reader or audience is engaged. How can they possibly not want to see how things lead to that moment?
Much is written about hooking the audience and the reader in the opening pages of the screenplay. The opening visual is the first and most important element to accomplishing that. Screenwriters need to utilize their creative spark to conjure a compelling and engaging opening images. The science behind this is that when a reader reads such an opening page or two, something clicks within their mind. When our minds are engaged like that, our interest is peaked and our curiosity begins to take over, wanting more. Of course, the writer has to continue to deliver throughout the script, however, if there is not an opening visual that triggers this sequence of events, it’s only going to make things more difficult for the writer to grab their attention.
The Final Visual
If the opening visual is of great importance, the final visual seals the deal. As proven in the video, a great ending image is like a cherry on top of the already delicious sundae which tasted so well with that first bite.
The story can’t just end. Screenwriters need to trigger an emotion for the reader or audience that they can take when they close that script or walk out of that theater. That’s how screenplays and movies stand out.
Let’s review some classic final visuals.
It’s an unsettling image. While the film could have faded out on Norman’s face leaving audiences with equal eeriness and discomfort, the final image of the car being pulled out of the mud multiplies that feeling because the audience knows what’s in that car.
Perhaps one of the most iconic final visuals of a movie ever filmed. It ends with the title notion that Michael has finally become The Godfather. And Kay realizes this the moment those doors are closed. Any comfort she felt in Michael’s lie was gone.
This lasting image remains to be one of the most debated endings of all time. Is it real, or a dream?
Warning: There is a brief explicit image of nudity in this clip. Please do not watch it if you are under the age of 18 or are offended by such imagery explained in the above script excerpt.
An amazing image to end a movie on. The ramifications of what the script sets up and what we see in that last shot leaves an impression.
Many can state with a cynical attitude that the opening or final image of a screenplay doesn’t matter in the end, because due to the collaborate aspect of movies — as described above — those visuals will likely change.
Anyone who comes to that conclusion is missing the point. The reading experience of your screenplays can make or break your career. The read should be a visual experience. So many screenwriters miss this aspect of screenwriting. Your job is to convey a cinematic experience. That’s what truly separates movies from novels. While novels can certainly be visual, only screenplays can offer a cinematic experience to such extent.
If the opening visual is that excellent first impression that needs to be made, the final visual is that lasting impression that forces anyone and everyone that reads your script to remember it.
This goes beyond the endless talk of story, character, concept, and structure. It’s assumed that all of that needs to be top tier. Beyond those necessary elements, what makes a screenplay truly stand out are its visuals. And the first and last of those visuals truly do matter the most.
We’ll leave you with this first and final frames video to enjoy. Some you may recognize, some you may not. But nearly all of them made an amazing first impression and an equally lasting impression on many. Do that with your script. Pay extra attention to those vital images. They matter.
Movies used (in order of appearance):
The Tree of Life 00:00
The Master 00:09
Brokeback Mountain 00:15
No Country for Old Men 00:23
Blue Valentine 00:30
Black Swan 00:41
Gone Girl 00:47
Kill Bill Vol. 2 00:53
Punch-Drunk Love 00:59
Silver Linings Playbook 01:06
Taxi Driver 01:11
Shutter Island 01:20
Children of Men 01:27
We Need to Talk About Kevin 01:33
Funny Games (2007) 01:41
Fight Club 01:47
12 Years a Slave 01:54
There Will be Blood 01:59
The Godfather Part II 02:05
Never Let Me Go 02:17
The Road 02:21
Raging Bull 02:31
Before Sunrise 02:42
Cast Away 03:01
Morvern Callar 03:18
Take this Waltz 03:21
Lord of War 03:32
Cape Fear 03:38
12 Monkeys 03:45
The World According to Garp 03:50
Saving Private Ryan 03:57
Solaris (1972) 04:05
Dr. Strangelove 04:11
The Astronaut Farmer 04:16
The Piano 04:21
Cloud Atlas 04:43
Under the Skin 04:47
2001: A Space Odyssey 04:51
The Searchers 05:03
The Usual Suspects 05:23