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By Michael Schilf · February 1, 2010
How do you begin when there are so many different ways to do it, and each way can lead you down dozens of different roads? Answer: KNOW YOUR ENDING. Let the ending dictate the correct beginning.
If you know that your hero finds the treasure, beats the bad guy, and gets the girl in the end, it makes sense for him to have none of that in the beginning. He should be down on his luck, alone, and beaten.
Think of Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. In the film’s opening sequence, Indy is all alone somewhere deep in a Peruvian jungle, facing eminent death by the hands of a tribe of Hovitos warriors, his traitorous companions have been killed, and the idol, which he risked life to obtain, is taken by his arch rival, Belloq. This is the perfect beginning to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay because in the end Indy again faces eminent death – this time by the hands of the Nazi’s – but he’s not alone. He has Marion. And Belloq is destroyed. And Indy comes home with his prize: The Ark of the Covenant.
You may hear a lot of people say, however, that you don’t need to know your ending before you start writing. Some may argue: “My characters will guide me to the ending,” or, “I’ll discover my ending as I go.” This might be possible maybe in a novel or a stage play, but not in a screenplay.
So if the ending is the key, what makes a good one? Happy endings are for story book princesses, not necessarily for a movie. Film endings can be happy but also tragic, bitter sweet, hilarious, etc. What is important is that the ending is satisfactory and believable.
In the end of Randal Wallace’s 1996 award winning screenplay ‘Braveheart’, our hero William Wallace is tortured in London square: hanged, drawn and quartered, emasculated, and disemboweled, only to cry “Freedom!” with his last breath before being beheaded. Clearly, this is not the happiest of endings. But it is satisfactory. If all of his Scottish mates hiding in the crowd came rushing out of the woodwork at the last possible moment to rescue him, battling their way through throngs is English soldiers, the ending would become trite and unbelievable, and more importantly, the theme of freedom and the power of martyrdom would be fleeting.
Before you write one scene heading, one visual description, one line of dialogue, you must know at the very least seven things: the ending (the resolution), the beginning (the set up), and THE FIVE KEY PLOT POINTS (inciting incident, lock-in, first culmination, main culmination, and third act twist), and in that order. Let your ending help to determine your beginning, and from there the five key moments to plot your hero’s journey.
So now that you know your ending, what next? You must write a beginning that not only compliments your ending, but also captures the reader’s attention.
At the beginning of a script, you’ve got about ten minutes to accomplish three very fundamental things for the reader: (1) illustrate in detail who your protagonist is – he or she should be interesting, flawed, and if not likeable, at least empathetic, (2) establish the world of the story and the character’s status quo, and (3) set up the dramatic situation – that is, make it clear what the story going to be about.