How do you develop and write the perfect endings to your screenplays?
A movie’s ending is the most vital element to the cinematic experience of the audience. Forget about powerful hooks at the beginning or impressive twists and turns during the second act. The ending is king. It’s what audiences will be thinking about when they walk out of that theater.
The above question is misleading because the truth is that there is no perfect ending. Every script reader and member of the audience bring their own baggage into that read or that theater — their own likes, dislikes, turn-ons, turn-offs, etc. So forget about the false notion of pleasing everyone. It’s not going to happen.
But remember, even an ending that pisses people off has achieved the required emotional response. They’re talking about it and are clearly invested enough in the characters and stories to give a damn. Mission accomplished.
Here are seven ways to masterfully develop and write the ending to your screenplay that everyone will be talking about.
Note: Minor spoilers for 2018’s A Star Is Born
1. Know the Ending Before You Type a Single Word
Inexperienced screenwriters believe that their characters will take them to the right ending. They conjure an exciting opening and want to go on that journey with the characters, not knowing where things will end by the final page.
This is one of the greatest mistakes you can make as a screenwriter.
Sure, when you’re writing a novel, you can find that ending because no major constraints are holding you back. However, with screenplays, you’re writing under a specifically structured page count. This means that every page counts. You have no time to go wandering in the woods with no specific destination. If you don’t nail that ending by page 115 (give or take), you’re screwed.
Even more important is the fact that cinematic structure calls for a writer to build to an ending, complete with plants, payoffs, twists, turns, and foreshadowing that leads us from the beginning to the middle, and onto the end.
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If you go into the writing process with no destination in mind, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get lost. And that leaves you with a painful rewriting process that could go on for months.
Yes, some famous screenwriters like the Coen Brothers are noted as writers that don’t often have an ending in mind, but until you’ve won some Oscars, consider playing it safe and know that ending before you start writing.
2. Enjoy the Thrill of Connecting the Dots
When you know your ending, there is still plenty of room for a screenwriter’s thrill of discovery. You’re not going to lose that by understanding how your story ends.
The true thrill of writing a screenplay is not going on your character’s journey through their own eyes. It’s crafting a cinematic experience that script readers and audience members will enjoy or be moved by. And that thrill lies within the process of crafting a cathartic ride from beginning to end.
You control every twist, every turn, every friend, every foe, every challenge, every hurdle, and every conflict. To write great endings, you need to know how to build up to them. And to do that, you need to be excited about the task at hand — like some diabolical mastermind that enjoys playing with their subjects.
3. Create Internal Barriers Between Your Characters and the End
Catharsis is a vital part of the cinematic experience. Audiences need to connect with the characters emotionally to walk away feeling somewhat changed by the experience of watching your characters deal with the conflict thrown at them. And this plays a big part in the ending of your screenplay.
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It’s not enough to have John McClane defeat the bad guys and save the hostages in Die Hard. We need to see him reunite with his wife and watch as they clearly both understand that their differences aren’t as big as their love.
Both John and Holly McClane had internal barriers that they were dealing with during these physical threats (see below). Even in Die Hard 2, we wanted them to reunite once again because of what they (and we, the audience) went through during the first film.
The third, fourth, and fifth Die Hard installments failed to deliver on those internal barriers. We didn’t get to see John put the bottle down or reunite with Holly, his now estranged wife. He hung up the phone to go get the bad guy in the third film, instead of telling her his regrets and how much he misses her.
So a good ending isn’t just about the protagonist beating the antagonist. It isn’t just about winning the big game. There has to be an internal need that the character is longing for.
4. Embed Physical Barriers Between Your Characters and the End
No matter what the genre, physical barriers (conflict) are necessary for the reader and the audience to have something real that they can grab hold of as they watch their characters struggle.
In Forrest Gump, we know that he struggles internally, due to his lack of social skills and intelligence. However, we’re given tangible physical forms of conflict that he must overcome as well.
In the beginning, he’s disabled with these obstructive leg braces. But he finally breaks free.
In the middle, he faces the physical forces of the Viet Cong and his struggle to carry his best friend to safety while bullets and napalm zip and burn around him.
In the end, he faces the physical death of his dear Jenny, as well as the physical presence of his newfound son.
Internal struggles are great and necessary, but we also need to have something that’s right in front of our faces. We need to know the external needs of the characters, and we need to see the physical barriers between them and both their external and internal needs.
All of that plays to the ending.
In Rocky, Rocky’s external need is to go the distance with Apollo Creed. His internal need is Adrian’s love and to find that self-worth that he’s desired for so many years.
The physical barriers of the training and fighting Apollo Creed are something that audiences can quickly grab hold of to begin while the emotional barriers are something we connect with cathartically. Both are necessary aspects of delivering on a fantastic ending.
5. Twists, Turns, and Surprises, Oh My!
Great endings are a treasure — but it’s the anticipation of that ending that really sells the audience on the end you’ve chosen.
Predictable endings are the worst. We’ve seen them in plenty of romantic comedies and action movies.
In Commando, the bad guys take his daughter. He goes and gets her.
In Taken, the bad guys take his daughter. He goes and gets her.
These are all fun rides, but their endings are lacking in anticipation.
In most romantic comedies, we know that the girl is going to meet the guy, she’s going to get the guy, she’s then going to lose the guy, and then she’s going to get the guy back. Gender switch that scenario and you have the very same formula.
With your scripts, you need twists, turns, and surprises. This enhances your ending because you’re unsettling the audience’s expectations leading up to it.
Watching movies is often a sport to cinemaphiles. They want to figure out the end before the end is even near. It’s a game. They’ll even lean over to their significant others or friends sitting next to them and whisper, “The dude is actually dead. Has been this whole time.”
But when you take them to places they aren’t expecting, that end destination becomes foggy. That’s what gets them on the edge of their seats. One of the greatest and most undersung examples of this is the Paul Haggis thriller The Next Three Days, starring Russell Crowe.
If you watch the trailer, you think you know what to expect, which probably was the reason why few people showed up in theaters to watch it.
However, almost every single predictable setup in the film leads you somewhere you’d never thought they’d go. The script pulls you back and forth, back and forth, to the point where you feel this anxiety building as you need to know what is going to be revealed next.
This builds up anticipation for your ending.
6. Expect That Audiences Will Expect the Unexpected
You have to respect your audience. You have to understand that many of them watch a lot of movies — and they have seen it all.
So be sure to choose wisely when it comes that unexpected twist you throw in at the end. The easiest way to accomplish that is to think like the audience and branch out all of the possible endings that you could write.
Picking the one that resonates with you the most isn’t always the right choice. You have to look at what similar movies have done in the past, and offer something different.
7. Happy Ending or Sad Ending?
Screenwriters have read conflicting assumptions. They’ve read that audiences prefer happy endings. They’ve read that audiences prefer sad endings. Some have even read that audiences like ambiguous endings.
The truth is — it depends.
There’s no be all end all answer to what type of ending you should choose for your script. There are no specific rules and never have been. But there are guidelines and things to remember.
When you watch an action-adventure flick, you’re there for a roller coaster ride. And thrill rides like that leave you wanting to feel the exhilaration at the end. You don’t want to be left heartbroken.
Imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark had ended much like the opening adventure sequence did — with Indy losing the Ark to the Nazis. Audiences would have been pissed.
The same could be said for comedies. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, had the film ended with Andy losing the girl and never losing his virginity as he walked off into the night, it would have left audiences in the complete antithesis of the emotion intended for comedic films.
So some genres clearly call for a happy ending.
In dramas, audiences are more concerned with leaving the theater with that cathartic feeling. And there’s sometimes nothing more cathartic and moving than a sad ending.
Yes, it’s easy to say that in A Star Is Born, we wanted that relationship to continue.
We wanted to see Jackson overcome what Ally’s manager had said to him and we wanted to see Ally leave the pop-rock scene behind to be with her man. But the ending we were offered gave us a much more cathartic experience — one which was one of the main reasons that word-of-mouth spread so widely.
Sad endings have a purpose. They move us. They make us cry. And because they make us cry, they make us look at our own lives and our own losses in a different light. Or they make us appreciate what we have, more than we did before we saw that movie.
So take note of what genre you’re writing in and what audiences expect. You may be tempted to stand out by going against those happy or sad ending expectations, but tread lightly when it comes to that.
In the end, cinema is entertainment. We go to movies because we want to laugh when we need to laugh, cry when we need to cry, cheer when we need to cheer or scream when we want to feel the thrill of screaming.
If we go to what should be a roller coaster thrill ride, only to see everyone die at the end as the bad guy gets away, we’re not going to be happy.
If we go to a drama to be moved, only to see the characters get everything they want and walk off into the sunset, that catharsis will be null and void as we walk out of the theater.
Choose whatever you’d like, but choose wisely.
Here’s a surprise ending of our own. When you know the ending to your screenplay, you can master the art of writing amazing beginnings. There’s no greater thrill for a movie lover than going back to the beginning of the movie they just watched and seeing that the writer knew where they were going from the get-go.
Take a look at some of these first and final scene comparisons. For many of them, you’ll see that the beginning image is specifically connected to the ending image.
These are seven ways that you can craft an amazing ending for your screenplay — there are likely many more. The important thing to remember is how vital those endings are.
At the very least, you need to know what your ending is before you start writing because everything you write needs to lead to that end game.
You need to remember to embrace the thrill of connecting those dots, because that’s the true thrill of screenwriting.
You need to create both internal and external barriers between your characters and the ending, and you need to be sure to throw in some amazing twist, turns, and surprises along with those barriers to build the audience’s anticipation — which, in turn, enhances your ending even more. But always be sure to respect your audience and know that they’ll be expecting the unexpected.
And finally, know where a happy ending is needed and a sad ending is appreciated.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies