The Recipe for Writing Great Movie Endings

By Ken Miyamoto · December 2, 2019

What are the best ingredients for writing great movie endings in screenplays?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we feature The Closer Look video How to Write a Great Ending and share their directives to what makes for a great movie ending, accompanied by our own elaboration.

1. Short Amount of Time Between the Climax and the End

“The shorter the amount of time between the climax and the end, the better. An incredibly common killer for many stories is when the ending overstays its welcome.”

This is called ending fatigue — which is when an ending takes too much time to wrap things up.

“If the amount of time between the climax and the credits is over ten minutes, that film probably suffers from ending fatigue.”

The video uses Casino Royale as an example. At the hour and forty-minute mark, James Bond has defeated the villain in a game of poker, which is the main goal of the plot. Ten minutes later, the villain is killed. Structurally, this seems like the perfect time for the movie to end in the audience’s eyes.

However, a new plot point is injected as Bond is attacked and his love interest is revealed to have betrayed him. Now he has to go hunt her down.

“The viewer should have a correct sense as to when the movie should end. And when you build that expectation of an ending only to reveal that the film is far from over, it confuses the viewer and obviously hinders the viewing experience.”

In the end, the time between the resolution of the main plot and the ending is forty minutes.

The video goes on to use The Matrix as an example of how to end a movie well. There’s the climactic sequence where Neo defeats Agent Smith, followed by a short epilogue on the phone. Then the movie is over.

Download the screenplay for THE MATRIX here for free.

“As a general rule, the moment your climax is over, you’re on the clock where every second that ticks by the viewer will gradually lose more and more interest. And as the age-old saying goes, ‘Leave them wanting more.’ If you end your film quickly and on a powerful emotional note, with them fresh off the excitement of the climax, it will leave the viewer wanting more.”

2. Final Note of Uncertainty

“End with a final note of uncertainty. This is not an absolute must, however, it is a technique that many filmmakers have been using since film began. And they keep doing it for a very simple reason — because it works.”

The best movie endings end with a question that the viewers have to answer.

In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal walks into a crowd, leaving the audience wondering what he will do next.

In Inception, the protagonist has been reunited with his family. However, we’re left with the image of the spinning totem. Did he really live happily ever after or was it all just a dream?

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re left with the image of the Ark being stored in an endless warehouse, making us wonder what will ever come of it and what else is hidden within those anonymous wood crates.

“It is a very effective technique at making the ending a more memorable one. Because that question leaves the viewer thinking about the film much longer after the film is over than one that ties everything up in a neat little bow.”

3. Closely Resolved Plots

“The closer the plots are resolved to one another, the better. Catharsis really is the weapon of the climax. No good ending works without it and no bad ending is worse with it.”

Most films have multiple plot points that converge at the end — with a resolution for each. And those plot points can include character arcs as well.

“So if you want a powerful ending, try to weave one of your character’s arcs into the main plotline — where you could resolve both simultaneously, your ending will be all the better for it.”

Watch the whole video below, complete with excellent movie examples!

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