Most people think of endings as either “happy” or “sad.” The hero accomplishes his goal, gets the girl, and finds fulfillment, or, more rarely, something horrible happens, the hero ends up miserable or dead (and then everybody leaves the theater feeling super-bummed out).
Even those who recognize some endings as more nuanced generally regard that nuance as a sort of third type of its own – essentially, an “ambiguous” ending, as opposed to an ending that is simply “happy” or “sad.”
In MANHATTAN, one of Woody Allen’s greatest films, the final scene consists of the protagonist’s love interest saying goodbye to him as she prepares to leave the country for months. It’s unclear whether she and the protagonist have a future together; however, her final words, encouraging him to “have a little faith in people” are positive, and we realize that his worldview has brightened a bit simply because of the time they spent together. Ambiguous, right?
Not really; it’s actually a mix of “external negative” and “internal positive,” a combination that results in an especially bittersweet and poignant conclusion when executed properly. If that all sounded like gobbledygook to you, just bear with me for a moment – it’s actually not that complicated once we get down to the nuts and bolts.
Almost all movies consist of an external goal for the protagonist, along with an internal desire and/or internal arc. MANHATTAN is a rather highbrow example of an “external negative/internal positive” ending, but many sports movies, (including those aimed at kids or teens), utilize the same type of ending.
In BRING IT ON, the protagonist and her team lose the cheer-leading final to the Compton team; this is an “external negative” ending because the protagonist’s clear external goal was to win the competition and she lost. However, despite losing, the protagonist grows as a person, learns some important lessons, and feels the contentment of giving her best effort; she has changed for the better by the end of the movie, and is in a “good place” internally, despite losing the competition, making the ending “internal positive” and resulting in an “external negative/internal positive” combination.
That’s the exact same combination as MANHATTAN; in fact, I think we should plan a double-bill at the Aero.
Ultimately, there are four combinations possible for every screenplay, and you can probably guess them by now:
1. External positive/internal positive
2. External positive/internal negative
3. External negative/internal positive
4. External negative/internal negative
Generally, mixes of positive and negative work better than making the same decision for both “external” and “internal.” Life itself, at least for most of us, is more bittersweet than either simply bitter or sweet, and there’s poignancy and realism in a conclusion consisting of both something lost and something gained.
Here are two spontaneous, rather archetypal examples of possible mixes:
1. The athlete loses in the championship game, but grows as a person, learns that winning isn’t everything, and recommits to the love of his life whom he finally realizes should have been his first priority (instead of sports) all along.
2. The aspiring business mogul closes a massive deal and gets everything he ever wanted, but we see that his relentless and callous materialism has left him lonely and unhappy inside his luxurious mansion.
The first example is, of course, “external negative/internal positive,” while the second example is “external positive/internal negative.”
The athlete could win the championship and still put everything that truly matters first; or he could never change his priorities at all, try his hardest, and lose the championship anyway. The aspiring business mogul could end up broke and miserable; or he could close the big deal, get the girl, and have the time of his life.
You’re the writer – you get to choose. However, don’t those options sound trite and/or unrealistic, relentlessly depressing, or Pollyanna-ish to you? They do to me, as do most “positive/positive” or “negative/negative” endings.
Of course there aren’t rules here – sometimes “positive/positive” or “negative/negative” is the right choice. CITIZEN KANE, which many people regard as the greatest movie ever made is essentially “negative/negative” – he dies at the end, personally unfulfilled, yearning in vain for the pure joy he last had as a small child. And ROCKY, a Best-Picture winner that seems almost universally beloved, is technically “positive/positive” – he goes the distance, proves to himself and others that he has personal worth, and gets to have a fulfilling relationship with Adrian.
Yet, there are reasons the endings to these movies work that go beyond just “on rare occasions, ‘positive/positive’ or ‘negative/negative’ can work really well.” CITIZEN KANE isn’t merely depressingly bleak; Kane “succeeds” externally throughout most of the movie, and it could be argued that just because he dies at the end, there’s enough “external positive” in the mix to more-or-less balance the scales and even strengthen the movie’s core theme.
In ROCKY, a journeyman boxer’s only goal to begin with is to “go the distance” in a title fight; he doesn’t even really think he can win, and he just wants to prove he can last in the ring against the champ. At the end of the movie, he’s fought so well that he almost does win, barely losing in a close decision. Despite the literal accomplishment of his goal, the movie isn’t a Pollyanna story – after all, the hero still lost the fight, which adds an “external negative” element that makes ROCKY feel realistic and honest.
If you think about your favorite movies, both modern films and classics, and begin categorizing the endings, patterns will emerge. You’ll realize why certain movies had to conclude with the protagonist succeeding or failing in specific ways.
For example, you’ll see why the protagonist absolutely had to succeed in his external goal in UNFORGIVEN (completing a murder-for-hire contract to avenge a mutilated prostitute and, later, avenging one of his best friends). The movie’s themes about the harsh reality of killing, and all of the ways that it works so wonderfully as an “anti-Western,” un-glamorizing violence and flatly stating, as Eastwood’s protagonist says in the film, that “deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” completely hinge on the protagonist being haunted and scarred by what he’s done and what he’s witnessed, and knowing that his decision to kill again led to the torturous death of a close friend.
The “internal negative” is right there in the theme – it’s at the very heart of the story and essentially unchangeable without making UNFORGIVEN into an entirely different movie. That means the “external positive” is the natural choice for the protagonist’s goals. The fact that the protagonist comes out the “victor” – (“victor” is in quotes because the whole point of the movie is that there is no true “victor” when it comes to killing) – makes it far more poignant that he’s still haunted and filled with regrets.
When you write your screenplay, (after you write your logline, of course) delve into the very core of it. Discover what needs to happen for your theme to resonate tremendously, for viewers to exit the theater feeling moved and changed in some way, for the story to be entertaining from beginning to end, yet also logical and believable.
As already mentioned, every once in a while there’s a “positive/positive” or a “negative/negative” that works – there are very few things in screenwriting or life that are 100%. However, I not only encourage you to be aware of the ending type you are choosing and of your reasons for choosing a specific ending type, but also to search for that bittersweet “sweet spot” that feels just right… and by “just right,” I mean “just like life.”
By Gideon. C