Chris Csont has a few things to say about the power of endings.
Not those endings that limp over the finish line, tying up a few loose bits of business and hoping for the best. Not those endings that fizzle out. Not even those explosive endings.
But those endings that take your breath away and allow you to see the entire story afresh.
Endings derive their value from the investment the audience has in the characters and the story. When the characters reach their climatic moment of action, the audience feels it with them.
These endings matter because of everything that came before them - and everything that came before them is clarified by the ending.
The ending is the philosophical payload of the story, the punchline to the joke. It only delivers if you’ve set it up right, and that starts at page one.
The shark in “Jaws” was set up through horrifying attacks on swimmers and a crowded beach. A whole town and its visiting tourists’ lives are in danger. That’s what’s at stake.
However, when it’s time for the big fight between man and beast, it takes place out in open water. Miles from shore, only the men on the Orca are in danger.
Everything is stripped down in the climax of the movie to Brody vs. shark. Brody wants to kill the shark and protect Amity. That’s been the driving force of the movie. Now, at the end, he gets his (literal) shot.
Think about it like a cinematographer. If your climax and resolution are in wide shot, full of calamity and carnage, you keep the audience at a distance from your characters.
The audience needs those close up moments to make that emotional connection and fully appreciate not just what has happened, but how the characters feel about it.
Weigh every character’s potential to change the direction of the story. The less impact they have, the less you need them for the finale.
Subplots and supporting characters can be cleared away as you reach the final minutes of the story to focus on who has the most control over the final outcome.
Beating the odds isn’t enough. Great endings act as a final examination on all the previous challenges your hero has faced. It’s time to see what they’ve learned as they’ve knowingly or unwittingly chipped away at the truth.
Having that final test of beliefs requires a strong starting point. Sometimes it’s a friendship. Sometimes it’s a moral code. (Sometimes it’s both.)
That’s part of the key to constructing a compelling final test. It needs to repeat the theme of tests the hero has already faced, but to a more acute degree than what they’ve previously endured.
All the tests up to this point have been different, but should have a running theme: Can the hero succeed by adhering to their old ways, or do they need to adapt?
The final test of this theme should confront them with a situation where they must show they can change or risk total failure. (Or not change and lose it all if you’re writing a tragedy.)
Look for the things that can trip up your protagonist. Look for the potential unintended consequences of their actions. What’s the collateral damage created by their pursuit of their goal? How can their attempts at answering the question posed by the premise of the story give birth to new obstacles that await them at the end?
Ideally, character choices play into this. At the beginning of “Jaws,” you see again and again how ill-suited Chief Brody is to fight this shark. He hates going out in the water, he’s not a native islander, and compared to Quint and Hooper’s battle scars, all he has to show is where he had his appendix taken out.
But we know that someone is going to have to take that last shot at the shark. Quint has the track record and commands the ship, but he’s eaten. Hooper has scientific knowledge, but disappears after an attempt to poison the shark. That leaves Brody, the unlikely warrior.
This both satisfies the question of the premise (Can anyone stop this killer shark?), and does so in a way that wasn’t completely suspected from the introduction of the possible shark assassins. Can Brody rise to the challenge? Can the efforts of his allies pave the way to his victory?
But don’t just consider the most positive outcome for the protagonist as the audience’s expectation. Look to the expected confrontation and consider all possible outcomes.
In “Rocky,” Apollo Creed wins the match, but Rocky still earns a sense of self-respect. This fight for him was never just about winning. His belief that he’s a worthy person was at stake. By staying with Rocky, watching him train, and hoping for his success, the audience wants that win for him not as an end unto itself, but as a way for him to realize his self-worth.
It’s in subverting that expectation that the ending achieves greatness. Rocky can lose the fight and still feel like a champion.
Happy endings are for characters and their goals, but satisfying endings are about the audience and their investment in the story.
If too much is the same, the journey will feel meaningless. If too much has changed, it may be hard to see the meaningful differences.
The changes in a character and their life after the climax of their story are easier to identify if some parts of their life remain the same. At the end, show us echoes of how their story began.
Ask yourself what aspects of your character’s journey relate back to where they started. What would they do differently if they had another chance? How can you give them that chance?
It’s not just about directly presenting them with the same exact scene as something from earlier on, but looking for an echo. Reaching back to the audience’s memory of who this character was before and showing what about them has changed.
At the beginning of “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone tells Kaye that he is not like the rest of his family. He’s honest and upstanding. They’re criminals. But they’re still his family.
Having watched him make compromise after compromise on his moral compass, justifying his actions as a means to protect his father and the rest of his family, Michael ends the film on the opposite side.
Now he is his family. He leads them. And he sends Kaye out of the room, lying to her about the brutal murder he ordered on his brother-in-law.
As the door shuts in Kaye’s face, there’s a clear distinction of what’s changed from the beginning to the end. Michael and Kaye were close at the beginning, staying at arm’s length from the Corleone family legacy. Now Michael embraces that legacy and pushes Kaye away.
Not only has something changed, but their world is moving in a new direction.
It’s the extension of considering what’s changed with the characters. Because if they’ve changed, so has their perspective on the world. Returning home from their journey, things shouldn’t feel the same.
Ask yourself what comes next. With what they’ve experienced, how will a character re-adjust to the ordinary life they lead before their adventure? Will they be able to?
Consider “Taxi Driver.” Travis Bickle, fresh out of the hospital after the bloody shootout with a pimp and his goons, gets a thank you letter from Iris’s parents and gets back in his cab.
The audience is left with the feeling that this unstable man may have let some of the pressure out of his system, but that it could build up again. This lonely man might once more turn to violence, and that there’s no guarantee who will end up in his crosshairs.
Look at the classic final scene of “The Graduate.” Benjamin pulls Elaine out of her wedding, and the two flee to a nearby bus. As they get on, the camera holds on them as the joy and exhilaration from the mad dash drain from their faces.
They begin to realize the consequences of what they’ve done. They start to become uncertain about what to do next. Their story is both finished and beginning.
That’s ultimately what you’re aiming for when writing an ending. A sense that everything in your story has led to this moment, yet there are new moments beyond this.
Your heroes have changed, and in the process, changed the world around them.