July 9, 2012

Good Screenplays Start with Great Endings (from John August & Craig Mazin)

As screenwriters, we need to tell good stories, and to tell good stories, we need to great endings. Duh. What fascinates me about this axiom, though, is how much time screenwriters, myself included, worry about the opening of a script to hook a reader and how little time we may spend crafting a great ending to satisfy the reader. Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin tackle this very subject on their latest episode of Scriptnotes and how writers should handle the endings of their screenplays.

Why Writers Neglect Their Endings (At Their Own Peril)

First, John dissects why writers have a tendency to rush through the writing process at the end of the script and why this is such a terrible mistake:

So many writers, I think, spend all of their time working on those first ten pages, their first 30 pages, then sort of powering through the script. And those last five, ten pages are written in a panicked frenzy because they owe the script to somebody, or they just have to finish. And so those last ten pages are just banged out and they’re not executed with nearly the precision and nearly the detail of how the movie started. Which is a shame because if you think about any movie that you see in the theater, hopefully you’re enjoying how it starts, hopefully you’re enjoying how the ride goes along, but your real impression of the movie was how it ended.

Like any good story, we want to know how a good movie is going to end. If we can keep audiences engaged along the way, we owe it to them to give them a great ending -- hopefully, an ending they didn't expect that still satisfies their craving.

Understanding What Makes a Good Ending: Want vs. Need

Characters need to change over the course of the story, and one of the biggest changes a character can have is to realize that what he or she wants is not exactly what he or she needs. John explains it in more detail:

The ending of your movie is very rarely going to be defeating the villain or finding the bomb. It’s going to be the character having achieved something that was difficult throughout the whole course of the movie. So, sometimes that’s expressed as what the character wanted. More often it’s expressed by what the character needed but didn’t realize he or she needed. And by the end of the movie they’re able to do something they were not able to do at the start of the movie, either literally, or because they’ve made emotional progress over the course of the movie that they can do something.

Craig goes on to point out that Pixar does this extremely well. Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he (or now she with Merida in Brave) wants only to realize it is not what the protagonist needs. Typically, this leads the protagonist to let go of what he wants (a house; the Piston Cup; Andy) to get what he needs (a true yet unlikely companion; real friends; a lifetime together with friends).

Write the Beginning Based on the Ending

When you are writing your screenplay, you need to know where you're going. Craig expands further:

[F]rankly if you’re writing and you don’t know how the movie ends, you’re writing the wrong beginning. Because to me, the whole point of the beginning is to be somehow poetically opposite the end. That’s the point. If you don’t know what you’re opposing here, I’m not really sure how you know what you’re supposed to be writing at all.

Basically, if you don't know your ending, you won't know how to start your screenplay. Some screenwriters, even really good screenwriters (the Coen Brothers come to mind), start screenplays without an ending in mind, but aspiring screenwriters would be wise to know their endings first. The ending could certainly change by the time you connect it to the beginning via the middle, but at least you know where you are going.

Writing Exercise: Write the First 30 Pages of the Script and the Last 10 Pages of the Script

John August has repeatedly said he writes his script sequences out of order. During this podcast, he revealed a writing exercise he learned in one of his first screenwriting classes -- write the first 30 pages of the script and the last 10 pages of the script before anything else:

[I]t makes you think very deliberately about what those last things are. And so I still try to write those last 10 pages pretty early on in the process while I still have enthusiasm about my movie, while I still love it, while I’m still excited about it. And so I’m not writing those last pages in a panic, with sort of coffee momentum. I’m writing them with craft, and with detail, and with precision.

The energy and enthusiasm that John mentions are so crucial to writing good pages, which is why I think this is a really valuable exercise. If you simply can't write those last pages before writing the middle (like Craig), then you should at least spend as much time rewriting the ending of your script as you do rewriting the beginning.

You can download the podcast to hear it in its entirety or subscribe to Scriptnotes on iTunes.  John August's website also provides full transcripts of each of the Scriptnotes podcasts.

How do you approach writing the ending of your screenplays? Do you know your ending before writing your beginning? Let us know your approaches.

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11 Comments

I think this is a great way to start writing any story, be it a book, script or something else. You'll get stories that are actually going somewhere, which as a reader/movie watcher, I highly appreciate because of the sense of closure (even with well done open endings) you get.

July 10, 2012

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This is great, thanks!

July 10, 2012

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Fantastic article Chris. Best NFS post in a long time! Thank you.

July 10, 2012

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Joe

Thanks, Joe. Much appreciated, but I'll defer the credit to Mr. August and Mr. Mazin for their weekly pearls of screenwriting wisdom on Scriptnotes. I just like to summarize some of their key points every once and a while. Glad you liked the post.

July 10, 2012

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Really enjoy your posts Chris.

I usually leave it till the "end" though I work to have a strong sense of the end and over all outline prior to starting writing. However, have actually been considering writing my ending early for awhile now, and might give it a shot, though I feel so many developments happen during my writing phase that inform end choices also, that I'm still really not sure about it...?

July 10, 2012

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Lliam Worthington

Thanks Lliam. I, too, tend to write my screenplays in chronological order, but that's after note cards and treatments, and I almost never start with cards until I know the ending. Actually, I tend to write my cards out of order, knowing where they should go in the structure, and the ending is almost always one of the first. For my next script, I'm going to try this first 30/last 10 technique so I'm really enthusiastic about those pages as I write. And guess what? You can always rewrite the last 10 pages. In fact, you should!

July 10, 2012

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Love all of your filmmaking tips, been showcasing you on our website. Good stuff guys!

Here's the link:

http://www.redforward.com/article/story/3563/Good_Screenplays_Start_with...

July 10, 2012

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Thanks, Carlos. We appreciate the showcasing.

July 10, 2012

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

I'm working on my first full-length script, and it all began with an idea for the ending. Now I'm trying to figure out how to start it! I am finding that it is about discovering the path of events that inevitably (yet surprisingly) leads to the wonderfully exciting conclusion.

July 11, 2012

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A really useful set of observations. Thanks. I wonder when an idea comes for a film is it on some kind of time line already? That is, it might be at a critical moment and you need to write the back story. Whatever the case it is great to think that the story at the end is so powerful. An earlier project ran out of funds and the ending was a complete compromise, yet now I wouldn't want the ending I had originally planned.

July 13, 2012

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Bob Doyle

"Write the Beginning Based on the Ending"

Done that in the past and it works for me. Not sure if it's for everyone, but I like to know the ending and start with that.

The early days of my screenwriting, I practiced by looking at a newspaper at random and picked up one sentence. Then, I wrote an entire scrip/story from that line. Wrote four features from a random fact or occurence or action someone suggested. Anyone can write a feature from a single action or dialog line.
Give it a shot, it's easier than you think.

July 16, 2012

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Tang