Neil Landau is co-author of the bestselling 101 Thing I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), as well as an established Hollywood screenwriter for film and television. Among his screenwriting credits are the cult teen comedy "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead," the new 3D animated feature "Tad, the Lost Explorer" (Paramount 2012), as well as "Melrose Place," "The Magnificent Seven," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," and "The Secret World of Alex Mack."
Here's an excerpt from Chapter 16 of his new book, The Screenwriter's Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story ("How did we end up here?"), including five guidelines for how to end your movie well. The book's objective is to help you develop and bolster what remains of your screenplay, supplemented by examples from popular movies and interviews with Hollywood's finest. This excerpt has been supplied exclusively to Indiewire by Focal Press.
The Screenwriter's Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story
will be available for purchase on September 28th, and can be pre-ordered at booksellers like Amazon
Crafting the inevitable conclusion.
To entice a buyer, you need a great opening sequence. To close the deal, you need a killer ending. “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” (co-written by yours truly and my former writing partner, Tara Ison) began as a spec screenplay that — as luck would have it – we sold to 20th Century Fox. It was our “big break” into the biz, not only because it snagged us an agent and big bucks, but also because it got made (by HBO and Warner Bros. – but that’s another long story…). We had a blast writing it, but I’m under no illusions that it’s a brilliant screenplay. At best, it was a dark comedy with some edgy macabre scenes and a few memorable one-liners and set pieces. A popcorn flick for teenagers that’s somehow gained in popularity since its release and (many of my students tell me) has attained “cult status,” but I have no idea if that’s true. At this writing, Dreamworks is developing a remake. Not too shabby for a little movie we dreamt up in my apartment. We outlined it extensively before we started writing. And the one thing that never changed – from inception to finished movie – is the ending. We’d outlined using scene cards, and the last card was always:
One more thing, where is the babysitter?
Our plotting strategy was to kill off the old sitter by page ten (our “inciting incident”) and then have so much chaos swirling all around our protagonist, Sue Ellen “Swell” Crandell (Christina Applegate), that the audience would forget the dead babysitter. What was always funny to me was that Swell had also forgotten about her, so we had that deer-in-the-headlights moment – and then an abrupt CUT TO BLACK. To this day, I still believe that we sold the script because of that final payoff. The movie was a semi-clever, kind of fun ride. But that ending was our trump card because it was inevitable but surprising.
A satisfying ending feels inevitable without being predictable; there’s a big difference. A thoroughly predictable ending is a disappointment because it lacks surprise – and surprise is the lifeblood of your screenplay. Even if the audience can predict the ultimate outcome, be sure to throw in some interference so the audience can’t predict how you’ll get there. Be forewarned: This chapter contains many spoilers and endings are dissected and revealed. A great ending is sacred to an audience.
Consider the following as you map out your own surprising yet inevitable conclusion:
How and when you dole out information is your power over the audience.
Determine the final revelation of your story. I like to use a poker metaphor. Your power in a poker game is that only you know which cards you have in your hand. The same holds true for a storyteller. You get to choose which cards to reveal to the audience and which cards to hold back. The screenwriter that effectively controls the payoffs about plot and character owns the game. What is your final trump card?
There is no need to tie up every loose end of the plot into a neat little bow.
A suggestion of where the main character(s) is/are heading is almost always better than telling us everything. One of my favorite movie endings is from “Sideways” when Miles (Paul Giamatti) walks up the stairs to Maya’s (Virginia Madsen) apartment and knocks on the door. We don’t need to see her open it; what matters most is the courage it took for Miles show up.
A satisfying ending must be earned by your protagonist, and emerge from deep within his/her psyche.
Avoid deus ex machina (from the classical Greek: “God from the machine”) in which the gods were literally suspended above the stage and improbably solved everybody’s problems. Instead: Let your characters actively solve their own problems. And it’s usually more emotionally satisfying for the audience when the protagonist is compelled to make the more difficult choice.
After the climax, get out fast.
In some cases, the climax is the ending: “Thelma and Louise” (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) transcend oppression and drive off the cliff. The ill-fated, sexually-frustrated “Bonnie and Clyde” (Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty) are annihilated in their getaway car in an almost orgasmic barrage of bullets. The Bolivian army fires at the fleeing “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (Paul Newman and Robert Redford), and we continue to hear the gunfire over the doomed bandits in freeze frame. In “Iron Man,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) faces the glare of the media and brazenly lets that whole world know the truth: “I am Iron Man.”