While no one can cite who first observed it, it is still taken as a cardinal rule, a truism, an inviolable law of screenwriting: People will forgive a few missteps in the beginning of a script if the rest of it works. But no one will forgive a faulty ending.
And why should we? The last scene of a movie should stay in your mind, at least, we hope, a few seconds into the closing credits. The final moment, the final exchange, should be thought of as the last note of a song. If it sounds wrong, it doesn’t negate the rest of a fine song but it sure sullies it.
Some of the great scripts/movies actually build to a final scene that takes your breath away, at the conclusion. A recent poll determined that filmgoers’ favorite villain is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs, written by novelist Thomas Harris and Ted Tally. Who could not help but chuckle malevolently at the voice-over line from him “… having an old friend for dinner,” when he is following a final and unlikeable victim of his cannibalistic tendencies?
In fact, director Jonathan Demme so wanted the viewer to sit with this final moment from the writers that the credits run for a while over the image of Lecter casually following his unsuspecting “dinner companion” in a pleasant, tropical island scene.
Let’s take one of the most structurally innovative screenplays ever written: Christopher Nolan’s Memento, for this writer’s money, still a better movie than any of the large-scale studio films he has written and helmed. Well, Guy Pearce’s Leonard has to rely upon tattoos and notes because of a stunted, short-term memory that, I assure you, has nothing to do with excessively smoking marijuana. The final scene reveals not only who killed his wife but makes the entire work cohere. The conceit of the story both moving forward and progressively backward at the same time is paid off big time at the end, and it’s a shocker, as well as the perfect final explanation.
Look, you don’t have to write a thriller or horror film that has a socko wrapup that makes the audience buzz. There is nothing wrong with writing a sensitive drama, although agents and financiers might quibble with you. Write what you want and write what you love. But also, make the end count for something. Don’t just have a wry observation from a lead character. Don’t just have the lovers drive off into the sunset, as less imaginative screenwriters are still prone to do.
Work hard to summarize the lead character or strengthen the theme of the work, in those seconds before the final crawl of credits. A favorite is the last series of scenes in Broadcast News, written by its director, James L. Brooks. The failure of both of the journalists, played by Albert Brooks and William Hurt, to have a romantic relationship with the Type A, driven producer that Holly Hunter plays, seems to be concluding with Hunter rejecting Hurt just as they are about to go on a vacation to consummate their feelings for each other. Hurt has been rejected for an ethical violation and Hunter watches him go, alone.
She gets in a cab and in her typical, in-charge fashion, a behavior that has been a boon and a burden during the script, she tells the cabbie exactly how to get to her destination. Then, she recognizes her pushy behavior and tells him to go any way he wants. Then, again, she makes a suggestion for a short cut. It seems a charming ending, not falsely upbeat, but with the sense that her character has grown wiser despite life’s disappointments.
And then Brooks blows your mind because this is not the end. He puts all three characters together in the future and you get a sense of the life paths each has taken. The very last moment is Hunter and Hurt, catching up with each other, their cheery voices fading, content, even though they did not wind up in each other’s lives.
It’s rare to have more than one good ending to a script but when it happens, it shows a superior mind at work, one willing to keep the reader involved, not give in to a predictable wrap-up.
So, you ask, what is a bad ending?
How much time do you have?
An ending that is ho-hum, with no sense of a major change in the protagonist.
An ending that is abrupt and seems discordant.
An ending that is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the story.
An ending that seems tangential to the main story being told.
And an ending that seems vague, indecisive, as if the writer was not sure what seemed inevitable for the characters and situation.
A bland or vague ending is not the same thing as an ambiguous ending. I will admit that most people do not care for ambiguity, in their lives or in the films they see. But sometimes, the right ending lets you fill in some blanks.
I recently watched a VOD movie from what some call the golden age of American cinema, Five Easy Pieces, written by Carol Eastman. In this 1970 character study, Jack Nicholson plays a man who rejected his cultured life and classical piano training to wind up working oil rigs in Bakersfield. When his father has a stroke, he is forced to return to his family home.
Eastman captures a protagonist who is layered, both charming and brutish, both intelligent and crude, at war with himself, fitting into no society. The ending of Five Easy Pieces—spoiler alert, so deal with it—is a model of ambiguity. Nicholson leaves his Pacific Northwest family home, but cannot go back to his previous life. He ditches his girlfriend (Karen Black) in a gas station and hitches a ride toward Canada with a trucker. He has no money, no ID, no plans. He is destined to be a lone wolf, trying to fit in.
Normally, this kind of ending would be totally unsatisfying to the average viewer of films, the average executive or agent in the industry. But it is absolutely right for what Five Easy Pieces is about, a man never comfortable in his own skin. An allegorical ending about Jack running off, directionless, might be highly unique to us now, in the year 2013. But if someone dared to make another movie like Five Easy Pieces, that kind of ambiguity in the ending would be honest and ironically, more satisfying than his choice to live in Washington state or Bakersfield.
It’s not a cop-out, an abdication of responsibility on the part of the screenwriter, to suggest what might happen after the last scene. It’s done all the time in dramas, where there is a tentative truce between two characters who have been at war with each other: the separated married couple, the intolerant parent and the wounded adult child, the star-crossed lovers, the community and the outsider they rejected at first. If we have been given a clear sense of the likely continuity of the story, we don’t need the neatly buttoned-up version.
Of course, genre dictates the kind of ending you have, doesn’t it? How can you write a romantic comedy without the lovers winding up together? If one of them gets hit by a train, it’s not so much of a comedy any more, despite how romantic it was previously. But good writers also grapple with the predictability of endings, regardless of the dictates of genre. This writer, for one, is just a bit sick and tired of romantic comedies that too often think marriage is the only ending.
Life is complex and people are contradictory. Remember that some of the greatest scripts did not have test audiences to determine how to finish things up. In Michael Tolkin’s brilliant, bitterly funny sendup of Hollywood filmmaking, The Player, the film within this film is helmed by an arrogant, elitist director played by Richard E. Grant. But near the end, when we enter a hilarious meta-verse and see the feel-good ending of Grant’s film, complete with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts playing themselves, exec Cynthia Stevenson accuses Grant of selling out his vision.
“The test audiences loved it in Canoga Park,” he claims.
Come up with the right ending to your script and you will imbue the reader and eventual viewer with a feeling of satisfaction, of the inevitability of your literary decision.
And don’t be afraid of stretching boundaries. When this writer, as a boy, saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he peppered his parents with questions on the ride home, his fevered brain excited by the fascinating ambiguity of Keir Dullea seemingly turned into an embryo in a gaseous egg in deep space.
“He’s a Star Child,” my parents explained.
“Does that mean he’s dead? Or is he a God? Or will he grow into a Star Man?”
“We don’t know,” they growled back at me. “It’s for you to figure out. Stop bugging us.”
Thank Heaven for appropriate ambiguity.
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