Writing the Classic Movie Ending (How to Finish your Screenplay!)

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I’ve only finished so many screenplays in my life. Writing a script all the way to the very last page is always an extremely significant, personal achievement for me. A large part of its significance is the reality that I actually wrote an ending, or, at the very least, typed “THE END.” Trying to finish a screenplay and effectively pay something off—–this is arguably the hardest part of great screenwriting and often a major breaker of screenplays. Devising a true, organic climax is so daunting and dangerous to screenwriters that they often convince themselves they have come up with a worthy ending merely to pry themselves from the vise of their own standards. They delude themselves into believing that what they have created is good and stands shoulder to shoulder with the rest of their screenplay. Faced with the challenge of a superior ending can be horrifying, and it is very tempting to jump suddenly into a slipshod ending simply to get out and say I’m done. I’m finished.

But you’re not finished, are you? Inside you know its garbage. If what you have written prior to arriving at the end of your screenplay is special, then you know, if you quiet yourself down, whether your ending is not enough.

How does a screenwriter deal with this? How can I use the difficulty of coming up with a classic ending, a true, triumphant climax, help me write my screenplay? If I accept that I am at the mercy of my standards to have something transcendent at my movie’s conclusion, and if I can surrender to the fact that there is no way I will see the true ending to my movie in the first draft of my screenplay, I can let go of the pressure and write without expectation. For me, sometimes its nearly impossible for me to feel comfortable starting without knowing how it will end. And this anxiety over how it will end will hurt your entire story.

But your screenplay is a living thing, and that living thing is going to grow, and your ending will change well beyond your first draft. This knowledge can give you great freedom, freedom to be more creative and let the pulse of what makes you an imaginative spirit be heard in your writing.

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One reason I have had problems finishing scripts in the past is I don’t want to be responsible for the work once it’s done. If I finish a screenplay, someone is eventually going to read it, and that person will undoubtedly have something to say, and it might be painful. Is this why I won’t finish? Is this why I can’t come up with ending, because I may open myself to criticism? Answer these questions for yourself, reminding yourself it’s natural for people to hate your work. Our world would be very different from what we know if everyone loved your screenplay. I received over a hundred reviews on a movie I wrote. Some called it a masterpiece. Some said it was worthless. Who’s right? Nobody. It’s art. There’s no right. So if this fear is keeping you from finishing, you’re not alone.

Sometimes I have not wanted to finish because finishing your screenplay is saying goodbye. Are you good at goodbyes? Most of us have problems with saying farewell to someone or something we care about. It’s natural. When I started screenwriting, I realized a major reason I had problems finishing my screenplay was attachment. I had grown so intimate with my characters, story, and process, I found it heartbreaking to let go. I had created something that meant the world to me. The work had given me a real sense of purpose and worth. I didn’t want the experience to end. This is not uncommon. I found out it does end, but something of it never does. It sucks to finish something you love, and know it’s over. But after acknowledging I really cared, I could cut it loose.

Let’s say you have no problem with farewells, or fear of criticism. Let’s say you have no crazy anxiety at all and you simply can’t figure out how to end your movie. What now?

Take your script back a few pages and see where it might’ve started breaking up. Go back before it sucked. Get back to where it was excellent. Pick it up there. Write straight into the blank page, straight out of whole cloth, and keep your mind open. Let go and even delete what you had in front of you. Trash it, and hammer something brand new. The good makes way for the best.

Doesn’t work? Take your lead characters, pull them out of your script and have them talk in a void. If that’s too abstract for you, put them on the porch of a house, or in a diner having coffee. Have them scream about what they care about. Tweak the combinations. Have your characters talk to God. Have them talk to you. This process will give you pause over your movie, and then you might find where this is supposed to live.

Another way to a great ending is write out the most hysterical ending you can think of. Submerge yourself in the ridiculous. Shoot for the absurd. Chances are you have limited yourself and believe there are only a few places you can land. Bullshit. Your wondrous, mind-blowing ending is found in the impossible places in your mind. To really floor people, you have to go off the grid. Start with all the stupid stuff you can think of. Your ideas will flow from this crazy place, and you will find something, a seed, that will sign you off.

casablanca-endingWhatever you do, these suggestions have nothing to do with sitting around thinking or talking with your screenwriter friends. They have everything to do with screenwriting. Coming up with an unforgettable finish has to come from the act of creation, the action of screenwriting. Get your hands moving, let go of your baby and shout into the nothing, and there, something will arrive. This lays the art of writing.

Now go and write to finish.

 

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