Endings are treats. Endings are rewards. Even when your story has an unhappy ending remember that your audience has travelled the road with you and your characters. That means they have earned its resonance so don’t deny them if you can make it work.
Having said that, the shortest route to undercutting all your hard work is to play an ending too strong or too long. Don’t let your audience leave with the wrong kind of bad taste in their mouths. Less is always more here and deciding how long to let your ending ‘breathe’ is another one of those tricky judgment calls.
Here are a few pointers to help you think it through.
Play your ending as a reprise of your opening. Show us a changed world or show us your protagonist in a new relationship to that world. The end of ‘The Searchers’ is a perfect example. There’s Ethan framed in the doorway, a reference to the film’s opening image. He is an outsider, unable to be part of the family he has restored. An up ending for the story world. Not so much for Ethan.
Play your ending as a new beginning. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ does this and references the opening in Hiccup’s narration as well. At the end of the Swedish vampire movie ‘Låt den Rätte Komma In’ (‘Let The Right One In’) our protagonist is on the train to a strange new life. His vampire love is in a box on the floor next to him. He taps out a message in Morse code on the lid…
Leave us in limbo. At the end of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ the last two survivors face off. They don’t know if they are both human or… not. More importantly, neither do we. They are outside in the ruins of the polar research station as the temperature drops. MacReady says: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while? See what happens.” And that’s it.
End on a reveal. We all remember the ending of ‘The Usual Suspects’ which solves the puzzle of the movie in the final frames. Verbal Kint is revealed as ‘Keyser Söze’ and we are out. The audience leaves on a big deal. You can bet they are talking about it right after.
Deny us resonance as a kind of resonance. Sometimes a film should just end at the moment of its thematic resolution. Bang. Story’s over. Deal with it. Speaking of bangs, the ending of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ goes out on several. Butch and Sundance are cornered and they decide to go out shooting. They burst out of their hiding place firing. The image freezes and turns sepia like an old photograph with the sound of gunfire over. Without actually seeing their deaths the myth is somehow sustained.
This is only a sample of the many possibilities. Whatever choice you make just remember that it should resonate with your theme and be a fitting pay off for your audience’s attention. Don’t fall into the trap of being cute or playing false for no reason other than to overturn expectations. That’s another common sophomoric trap that catches young writers.
Act Two: The Second Down Angle
Whether your midpoint has redirected your protagonist’s wants or just forced them to finally take the plunge and give their all to get where they need to be, the rest of the second act should be an accelerating slide downhill through crisis. They have not yet been seriously tested. They may think they have, but a narrow escape from a trash compactor will look like a walk in the park when your Jedi mentor just died at the hands of Darth Vader.
We have already talked about the shift from avoidance to commitment as the watchwords for our protagonists at the fulcrum of act two. I won’t repeat myself here other than to remind you of the importance of this change. It signals that our protagonist is getting serious about becoming a… hero or heroine.
This is the angle where their commitment to the cause against all obstacles and all the odds makes your hero or heroine worthy of that appellation. Another way of thinking about it is this is the angle where their experiences finally force them to see themselves (their internal problem) for what they are. It will strip them bare emotionally and give them nowhere to hide from the truth. Only by doing so, Hollywood storytelling would have it, will they be able to see past themselves and understand the bigger picture. When they do this they will see their way to resolving their problem in the final act and angle.
Of course proving your heroism in a story might be about learning to have the courage to become an activist, or start a new career in middle age, or come out of the closet, or commit to your boyfriend, or reconcile with your mother, or stand up to your bullying dad, or finally walk out on a toxic marriage. It does not have to involve swords and guns and dodging dragons or laser blasts. Unless your mother is actually a killbot in disguise of course. Hey, it’s commoner than you might think.
In mainstream movies the second down angle is probably the most loosely structured of the four that make up your screenplay. Even in Hollywood movies the order in which things happen in the second down angle is not ‘set in stone’ and that’s a good thing for writers. On the other hand that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.
The angle is actually quite a straightforward set of accelerating and intensifying beats. Enemies or bad situations pile on top of one another until there’s nowhere for your protagonist to hide, literally or emotionally. That simplicity enables a whole lot of raising of the stakes. Writing that intensification as satisfying drama rather than empty hyperbole is where the difficulty comes in.
As we have already established, midpoints are vital story moments after which nothing can be the same again. They are not the solution to your protagonist’s story problem. They are not the moments of revelation which finally allow that protagonist to see their way towards solving that problem. No, midpoints are the moments where your protagonist makes a commitment that – should she survive the crisis that is about to engulf her – will allow her to reach those goals.
This is a classic Hollywood story move. The first up angle is usually about one or both of the following: either it is all about slapping the pretense out of the protagonist to prepare them for a real commitment or it gives them what they began by wanting only to find that they no longer do. They get the easy thing only to find they want the hard thing that was hiding underneath it the whole time.
I’m in the middle of writing a big case study of How to Train Your Dragon for an upcoming project, so its example is fresh in my mind. In that movie we get both options together:
1. Our hero, Hiccup wins dragon training, which theoretically puts him right back on track with his want line – ahead of the game in fact. He gets what he always wanted. Only now it has become an empty victory. He won’t kill a dragon so not only is the reward bitter, it takes him even further away from his thematic goal of fitting in with his fellow Vikings.
2. Through his second angle successes Hiccup has learned that the Vikings are wrong to hate and fear dragons. That gives him a moral obligation to try and change things. But what can one kid do against an entire culture and centuries of tradition? It would take a much deeper commitment to his theme, indeed a more altruistic – for which read heroic – commitment. Now his own need for acceptance has been eclipsed by the greater need of a whole species.
I hope you guys see how wonderfully neat this is. It is an intractable problem for Hiccup and one that is really worthy of a hero. In screenwriting, ‘neat’ may imply ‘simple’ but should never mean ‘simplistic’.
At the midpoint in How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup has decided to leave the village rather than be forced to kill a dragon in public. As he is leaving he and his friendly dragon are discovered in the forest by Astrid – his B Story ‘love’ object. She runs to tell the village and Hiccup has to decide is he really running away from everything, including any chance of getting close to Astrid, or is he going to try and do the hard thing? Cut to Astrid running through the forest, she is grabbed by a dragon – it’s Hiccup and he wants to show her the truth. He didn’t run, he jumped. Nothing will be the same again, buy maybe he has it in him to be a hero yet.
Welcome to the midpoint. Everything is going to get much harder in the next angle and that will be the subject of the next post.
Act Two: The First Up Angle
As you can see from the diagram this angle shows a positive move up to the midpoint. Our protagonist is making progress here but they are working on their opening skill set and will not be fully tested until after their second commitment at the midpoint. This angle is about showing their potential while making things hard enough that they will reach a point of impasse.
Remember that the watchword of this angle is avoidance. Your protagonist decided to try and solve their story problem at the end of act one, but they have not yet fully accepted the personal weight of that decision. Typically, in a Hollywood movie they are skating by on their natural abilities and not giving their all yet. Alternatively they are working hard enough but avoiding facing up to the hardest part of the challenge they face.
This angle is about paying the audience back for coming to see the movie. It is where you do the storytelling work you promised in your trailers and ads. This is where we have fun with the concept that sold the movie in the first place. It’s where Reece Witherspoon goes from being merely blonde to Legally Blonde. It’s where Hiccup actually does learn to train his dragon. For those of you who know his book, this is what Blake Snyder called ‘the promise of the premise’.
You need to get your protagonist to a moment of realization at the end of the angle. That’s when they have done as much as they can to resolve their problem without getting their hands too dirty. They will then end all the avoidance with a second commitment and that will be the watchword of the second down angle (of which more in a future post). It’s either that or give up, so that makes your story and plot goals for this angle clear. You must get your protagonist to a point where the audience sees the essential nature of their choice.
Making the second commitment at the midpoint is what begins to transform a simple protagonist into a real hero or heroine. We should understand the nature of that commitment and applaud their courage in making it. We will discuss the midpoint commitment in more detail in the next post.
[NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts offering a quick introduction to the 'W' model of screenplay structure I offer in my little book. (The posts are not extracts from the book however.) You can find the beat sheets and diagrams here. The 'W' is one of three linked models we talk about in the book. You will see that it owes debts to a number of other common models, both published and implicit in screenwriting circles. Full acknowledgment of this is made in the book, so I won't repeat myself here. (The purpose is to distill, adapt and contextualize familiar approaches in a particular way for teaching purposes.) To start us off here are a few notes about the way first acts tend to work in many mainstream - and a lot of not so mainstream - movies.]
ACT ONE / First Down Angle
The first act and angle of a typical screenplay is all about your protagonist recognizing two linked truths. The first is that there is a problem either in herself, or in her world or, ideally in both that needs addressing or bad things will happen (or continue to happen). The second is that they are the poor sap that is going to have to do something about it. It is a down angle because these revelations signal an immediate future filled with nothing but trouble and right now trouble feels like a major downer.
In a well-written screen story, the problem the protagonist faces will manifest in both the story and the plot. At the very least the revelation of a problem in one will inform and affect a linked problem in the other:
Plot problems are external to the protagonist but still affect her directly in some way. Forces in the world may threaten her or those she cares about, for example.
Story problems are internal but also manifest practically in the world. A character flaw or challenge is good story material when it affects not only the protagonist but also those around her.
In How to Train Your Dragon for example, poor old Hiccup (the movie’s not very Vikingy protagonist) realizes that he can’t kill dragons. This is a bit of a problem in a world in which dragon killing is the very definition of cultural achievement. This plot problem arises from an internal story problem. Hiccup finds he thinks differently from his fellows. For a start he has empathy for the enemy. That revelation threatens his relationship with his community and thus his future hopes for any kind of happiness and success. The first angle of How to Train Your Dragon is all about helping both Hiccup and the audience to recognize the enormity of that problem and preparing Hiccup to get off his skinny behind and do something about it.
Bruce is a dinosaur in a world where ‘ooh look… your wife’s a mammal!’ See his problem
In my ‘W’ model we break the angles down into ever-smaller elements to help us understand how they work. As a first stage, we split each angle into two half angles.
In the first act, each half angle deals with one of the two truths we began with.
The first, Primary Exposition, is all about recognizing your protagonist’s opening problem. The second, From Rejection to Acceptance, deepens our understanding of their problem through witnessing their initial struggle to decide what to do about it.
In order to observe how each of these tasks is achieved in more detail, we can make a further split in each half angle. (This same pattern of halving and halving again will be repeated for all four angles of the story by the way.) In this way, the first half angle is comprised of two beats. The first: in a world where ‘ooh look, stuff’ introduces us to the story world and sets the protagonist and their problem within it. The second beat: if only… sets up their desire for change.
We do the same thing with the second half angle, which divides into its own two beats. Shan’t… reflects initial resistance to dealing with the problem – change is hard! Oh, all right then brings us to the end of the act and angle as the protagonist recognizes they have to do something and takes a first step onto the path of change.
Usually in the second half of the first act and angle of a screen story the protagonist debates with herself and with others in her social world whether or not to take action to resolve the story problem that is plaguing her. The beats typically play out a move on her part from resistance to an initial, but usually only partial, acknowledgment that something has to be done and (sigh) Muggins here has to do it.
In my ‘W’ model of story structure I think of this half angle as a move From Rejection to Acceptance and I call its constituent beats: shan’t and oh all right then.
Sometimes, however, a pesky protagonist tries to bypass, ignore or delay some or all of these beats. There are a number of possible reasons for this move, including being faced with a situation where there really is no alternative right now other than to be carried along by duty or events. Internal decision making and moral judgments will come later if at all. This is typical of heroic adventure movies like the James Bond series. In this kind of story debate may still occur, but it will most likely revolve around tactics, not ethics.
Another variant is when your protagonist is utterly committed to dealing with their problem – or at least their initial understanding of their problem – from the word go. In stories like this there can be a deferral of internal debate because the Primary Exposition has already done all the setting up of the conflict between sad boy and his world. Just such a sad boy is Hiccup in the wonderful animated adventure How to Train Your Dragon.
Hiccup sucks at being a Viking. What’s more, he knows he sucks and is desperate to do anything to fit in and prove himself worthy to his community. What makes things worse is that his father, Stoick the Vast is the very model of a modern Viking warrior. Oh and he’s also the village chief, so no pressure there.
At the end of the first half angle Hiccup has made a mess of things for the village and generally got in everyone’s way yet again during a nighttime dragon attack. Unknown to everyone else (mainly because they won’t listen to him or believe him) he has also managed to bring down a semi legendary Night Fury dragon with his catapult and he goes off in a huff to find the proof of his deeds so as to impress the village. No shan’t from Hiccup yet, but we still get our shan’t debate beat, only initially by proxy.
While Hiccup is trudging across the island in search of his quarry, we cut back to a meeting in the village hall. Stoick calls for the long ships to go out on a dragon hunt. They need to end the menace once and for all. His fellow Vikings are less than enthusiastic about the idea because past practice has shown these trips never work and everybody who goes on them tends to die. Stoick is losing the crowd so in desperation he offers his direst threat: “Those who stay will look after Hiccup.” Immediately, all the hands go up and the beat has its first moment of rejection. The community would rather face fiery dragon death than Hiccup’s accident-prone inadequacies.
The hall clears, leaving only Stoick and the one-legged village blacksmith Gobber the Belch. Stoick tells Gobber to stay and train the new recruits in dragon killing, but what to do about Hiccup? “Put him in training,” Gobber tells Stoick. Stoick refuses: “From the time he could crawl he’s been different… Even as a boy I knew what I was, what I had to become. Hiccup is not that boy.” Gobber replies: “You can’t stop him Stoick. You can only prepare him.”
Playing the first part of the shan’t beat by proxy responds smartly to Hiccup’s determination to become a proper Viking by showing us the true height of the hill he has to climb. The whole village, with the possible exception of Gobber, has completely written him off. His dream of self-transformation seems hopeless. Stoick is right; Hiccup is not “that boy”. Now he has to work that out for himself and see where the realization takes him.
This happens right before we get to witness the start of a different kind of transformation. Hiccup will reject an opportunity to become a conventional Viking hero in the second half of the beat. He has the chance to kill his dragon but instead sets it free. In doing so, he starts down a path towards a very different resolution to his internal crisis and, thus, of the external conflict between Viking and dragon. The irony is that he will do it just when Gobber has persuaded his father to relent and let him train as a dragon killer.
The proxy beat lets us see our hero through the eyes of others. It clarifies his position and, in the case of Hiccup, teaches us that he could never really be a normal Viking, no matter what he does. (We will see further evidence of this in the second angle when Hiccup does his best to become a warrior.) His only hope lies in changing the definition of normal and that sets up the internal debate and the central conflict yet to come.
The resolution of the shan’t beat involves a near simultaneous reversal from both Hiccup and Stoic that is satisfying because the beat has been split between the two characters and we understand how each comes to his new position. It is also funny because Hiccup ends up reluctantly resigned in oh all right then to accepting what only minutes before he wanted more than anything else in the world: training to kill dragons.
Why is this so important? Well because the village (here embodied in the person of Stoick) is the true antagonist of How to Train Your Dragon. To succeed, Hiccup has to overcome their traditions, expectations and prejudices. The dragons are just an externalization of that central conflict.