Bill Murray Jeff from “outside L.A.” asks:

Hi. Enjoy the blog. I have a fairly simple question for you, I think. I am working on outlines for a couple of script ideas while I rewrite my first one, and in one case, I can’t quite figure out the ending. I like the idea a lot, and it seems to have good story potential. So how common is it to just plow ahead and hope a 3rd act presents itself somewhere along the line? Does that path offer any hope at all, or is my struggle possibly indicative of a flaw in the idea?

It is common to just plow ahead but usually not too effective. Some writers claim they are able to conceive of a story in terms of its ending and write backwards. I wish I could. Even M. Night wrote six drafts of The Sixth Sense before he figured out that Malcolm was dead. The story did not start out that way.

In my own writing, endings arise out of the core questions I am exploring in the script; in other words, endings arise out of theme. If I do not now how a story ends, it means I have not spent enough time developing the theme. Through rigorous work, theme leads the story to what eventually feels like a natural second act complication (notice I say “feels like” – it is usually actually hell developing it). That second act complication usually dictates an appropriate ending. This sort of approach seems to be adopted by many writers who are much better than me including Gary Ross, for one. (I think Craig Mazin is on that list, too. If not, it gives me an excuse to link to a very appropriate post of his….)

By way of example, in Groundhog Day, the central question is “How do you give a monotonous, redundant existence any meaning?” Kind of a central existential question with implications far beyond the storyline. As the protagonist struggles with this question, trying first one thing and then the next – he is led to a second act complication – he falls in love (perhaps the first genuine thing he has ever done) but the woman will never really fall in love with him because the day always starts over. Only by solving his existential dilemma (finding the meaning of life) does he finally win her love. In the eyes of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis (the screenwriters), life has meaning when we contribute to the world around us. Once the protagonist experiences this, his life once again has meaning (and the physical monotony also ends).

Notice that in Groundhog Day, every scene explores the theme. In fact, given the extremely repetitive nature of the physical setting, thematic development is the driving force that engages us and compels us to follow along.

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, the central question the screenwriter explores is “How do you communicate effectively with those you love?” Cole cannot tell his mother what is happening to him. His mother cannot effectively speak to him; her anger and confusion gets in the way. Malcolm cannot speak to his wife nor she to him. All of the characters suffer from the same problem; they cannot effectively communicate with each other. As the two protagonists, Malcolm and Cole, explore this central question in various ways, the second act complication arises – Cole must listen to the ghosts without judging them. (Just as Malcom had to listen to Cole without judging him.) Once he does, he discovers he can communicate with his mother and he discovers he can tell Malcolm how to speak to his wife.

As you can see from both of these examples, developing a story around a clearly focused central core (the theme) takes a tremendous amount of work. However, it gets you to the second act complication and from there to an appropriate ending.

Like so many things in screenwriting – this is no shortcut. In fact, it’s pretty damn hard to do it right. But that’s the way the big boys and girls do it….

11 thoughts on “ENDINGS”

  1. is that a bust of bill murray? how much do you want for it? dang

    okay. best to have the ending nailed from the get go. the ending colors everything (usually). ‘sixth sense’ is appropriately cited – obviously the ending influences how the story should play out.

    i never start a draft without an ending nailed down. it effects everything – not just overt stuff like plot, but the fluffy stuff like theme and subtext will be determined by what kind of ending you have

    usually i get a concept that encompasses the 1st act plot events. then i concoct a ‘correct’ ending. then i determine what kind of events i need in act 2 to make it work

  2. Fantastic post. Really, really true that you need to know the theme to devise the ending, or the ending to work out your theme.

    Interesting, though, that not all professional writers work this way, though my thought is that their instincts tell them whether their ending fits the theme and whether the story as a whole develops it properly.

    It’s great to have it laid out in a story theory like that, as you can sit back, look at your story and see why it works or doesn’t work.

    Keep up the great posts!

  3. I’ve worked both ways. I’m a big fan of surprise endings, so I the ending is often the first thing I think of. Then I try to figure out how I got there.

    But I have also had some great high-concept ideas that seemed like they were begging to be written, even though I didn’t really know where the story was going to go. I just figured that the strength of the concept would carry me through until the ending suggested itself.

    I was wrong.

    Inevitably, every script I’ve started that didn’t have a clear-cut ending already mapped out would run out of gas right around the halfway mark.

    A screenplay is a journey, both for the writer and for the characters. A journey without a destination is pointless. You’re just wandering aimlessly, hoping to find something worth moving towards.

    If you can’t find an ending, sometimes it means that the idea isn’t as good as you thought it was. I’ve had that happen a few times. But sometimes it means that you’re just not ready to find the ending yet. Maybe you haven’t lived the part of your life yet that is going to allow you to find the true meaning of your story.

    There’s an interview with Woody Allen in this month’s issue of Written By magazine where he talks about The Purple Rose Of Cairo. He ran out of gas about 50 pages in, went off to write some other stuff, then came back to it a few months later. He had a “eureka!” moment, and was finally able to finish it.

  4. That brings up a good point, Warren. For me, the time to figure out themes and endings is during the outline phase. Most writers run out of steam well before the end if they have not worked out the themes and endings before writing pages. See this full discussion from The Artful Writer.

  5. Thank you for your site, and for this excellent post…
    A good ending IS a good story, in my book (screenplay). I love this idea of “inevitable yet unexpected.” It makes for a lot of work, but the surprise and delight of discovering what I’ve *really* been writing about reminds me every time that this is a process of discovery, as much as creation. That initial burst of excited, unstoppable scribbling more often than not contains the “DNA” of the real story, and in this sense, I find my job as (re)writer is, in many ways, forensic.

  6. The reason I say that is the theme is that almost every scene seems to be organized around the question of how to communicate. Sometimes, the cleverness of the scene comes from this very questions, as when Malcom plays the game with Cole – one step forward for “yes”, one step back for “no”. Malcom is working hard to communicate with someone he cares about.

    To the degree that theme should take more of a point of view, I might have better artciulated it as “in order to communicate effectively, you need to speak openly and listen openly no matter how difficult that may be.”

  7. My opinion — to start writing and not know your ending is a great way to not finish the script. You have the chance to come up with an even better ending only if you have an ending in mind to start with as a jumping off point….not an amorphous mass of vagaries and doubt.


  8. I actually have a strong ending and a good beginning… what I lack is the middle!

    We all develop stories in our own ways. The end justifies the means… however we proceed down that road matters less than actually reaching the finish line.

    I read a lot of books, claiming to delineate the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of screenwriting… that there was a set process that must be adhered to. While following all of their sage advice, I found myself in one rut after another (it seemed unnatural to me). So one night, I made the faithful decision to not listen to everyone else — I let the story flow from me… through me. And in no time at all, it did just that.

    Follow your inner voice and intuition. Everyone has their own distinctive style and work ethic.

  9. Throughout the awesome pattern of things you secure an A+ with regard to effort and hard work. Where you lost us was in the facts. As people say, details make or break the argument.. And it could not be much more correct here. Having said that, allow me say to you what did do the job. The authoring can be really powerful and this is possibly the reason why I am taking the effort in order to opine. I do not make it a regular habit of doing that. 2nd, while I can easily see the jumps in reasoning you make, I am definitely not sure of exactly how you seem to connect the ideas that make the final result. For now I will, no doubt subscribe to your point but hope in the foreseeable future you connect the facts better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *