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.
How do you approach writing the ending of your screenplays? Do you know your ending before writing your beginning? Let us know your approaches.
- Scriptnotes, Episode 44: Endings for Beginners – podcast download
- Scriptnotes, Episode 44 transcript
- Scriptnotes on iTunes
- Five Tests to See Whether a Character's Voice is Working (from John August & Craig Mazin)
- John August on writing from theme
- John August and Stu Maschwitz Release 'Fountain,' a Handy Screenwriting Tool/Markup Language