But what might be the most essential key to writing the best script someone will ever read?
The Reason We Care So Much About Story
We see great television and movies start off so well. Audiences love the characters and the challenges they face. The stakes are high and audiences have no idea how they will resolve their problems. Not knowing how a dramatic conflict will resolve itself creates tension—dramatic tension.
Dramatic tension manifests in the minds and bodies of the people watching our stories. People pay money to receive it, and when a story is told well, lots of people pay money to receive it. Box office numbers reflect levels of effective dramatic tension.
When we love a character, we identify with them. We want what they want. We share their emotions. When they face a huge dilemma, we want them to prevail. And we are riveted to see how they prevail. We are compelled to keep watching——it’s a compelling story.
The Value of Living
Writers understand we have to make our readers love our characters. Stories explain the meaning of the values of living. People connect to the people in our shows. And we want to see the characters we see in ourselves face problems and most importantly, we want to see resolution.
Watching characters solve problems is very important to us. We want to see others save the world. We share stories to instill belief and hope that life is worth living and the beauty of life, with all of its challenges, will prevail.
When the characters we love find resolutions to the conflicts they face, we experience emotional catharsis. It’s the relief to the dramatic tension we created in every part of the story leading up to the finale.
If we deliver this catharsis expertly, the gratification your audience will experience is immense.
The trouble is this rarely happens.
The Highest Difficulty in Writing
Writers want to know how a script will end because they don’t want to have to deal with it. They don’t want to face coming up with an ending because the stress of determining how to wrap up a story can make one miserable. It’s easy to come up with an idea. Every writer has infinitely more ideas than they do endings.
Coming up with a way to resolve conflicts for characters that audiences love is hard. Creating resolution audiences cannot predict is even harder, as this forces the writer to create plot without perhaps knowing themselves how the script ends. CASABLANCA, CHINATOWN and the recent movie PARASITE are excellent examples of writers developing dramatic tension without knowing the resolution as the script was being written and developed.
It’s been said the ending is worth half of your script. This is true. Witness the reactions of audiences to stories that do not end well. Study this disappointment.
Stories need to end logically. They need to be the product of the motivations and choices of our characters from page one. And most importantly, your script needs to end with a surprise. So while the audience knows your characters well and remains keenly aware of the problems they face throughout your story, the answer to their problems has to be a mystery.
The Key to the Masterpiece
A well-written ending is the difference between a forgotten story and one that changes our culture. We can do everything else right–and we must– but if we don’t come up with a payoff, everything truly important to why people watch stories will not be delivered and the story will fail. And if you’ve done everything else very well, the ending only becomes more valuable to an audience.
Writers must stay humble in the face of this task. You must take notes and more notes and not be scared or defensive when you receive them. You must write your stories without insisting you know the ending. You must write with unresolved problems, much like your life and the life of your characters.
Have the patience of a stone wall at the ocean and listen to what your characters will do. If you keep your fingers near the keyboard and stay completely honest with what your audience expects from you, in your own original way, you might save the world.
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