What do you remember most about your favorite movies and TV shows? For me, it's the way they leave us. That feeling when the lights come up in the theater and you hug the person next to you or high-five. Or when the pilot episode ends, and you know you'll be tuning in the next week, or streaming the next episode, to find out what happens next.
The thing is, your screenplay's ending is incredibly important. If you can't land the plane, it's much harder to sell you as a writer or even to get repped.
So today we're going to go over how to end your screenplay. We're going to talk about pilots, movies, and come up with some strategies to make sure you get your story across and put yourself in the best position possible for the next step in your career.
Let's get started.
How to End Your Screenplay
The best endings pack power, emotion, tie things up, and always leave the audience wanting more. So how do you get there? Sure, you need to have written a screenplay that gives us characters we care about, a world that's well defined, and a build-up that makes us yearn for the conclusion.
None of that is easy. But once you have it, you know you have to make it all worth it.
Let's look at a couple of ending scenarios in film and TV.
Ending Your Movie
Movies are their own kind of messes. They can be a bear to write. You are tackling different act structure and a whole lot of planting and paying off details. When it comes time to end your story, you might just want to type "fade out," but you have a few things to consider.
One of the big ones is if you want to leave your story open for a sequel. This transfers to certain genres better than others. Whether it's a comedy or action movie, it's certainly something to consider. Outside of that, you want to ground the ending on what it means for the characters.
How will your ending resonate with the people inside the story?
And how will that make the audience feel?
Be decisive, not wishy-washy. You want the emotions to be clear and concise.
The last thing you should keep in mind is the common mistake to have multiple endings. That means many scenes that sum up what happened for each character. Instead, I would try to find a way to group them so you don't exhaust the audience.
Let's dig into our examples.
'Michael Clayton'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Best Movie Ending Examples
I wanted to pick some examples that I felt ran the gamut of movies you might have seen, as well as others you might have missed. These should be endings that do their best to sum up the movie and leave the audience with a decisive reaction.
Obviously, spoilers ahead.
Let's start with the first movie ending that made me cry.
The Truman Show is a special film that really relies on the audience finding empathy with its lead character. The emotional journey links up nicely with the action of the story. Truman conquers his fear of the water and takes his boat to the end of his world, the adventure he dreamed of as a child. When he reaches the wall, he has to decide whether to go or to stay.
His leaving the bubble and heading out into the world is a great ending. We don't know what the future holds for him, but we know he's overcome the biggest hurdle in his life. We're left wanting more, but feeling like we've seen him tie up all loose ends. It's a really simple ending, but so hard to get right.
'The Truman Show'Credit: Paramount Pictures
A movie like The Shawshank Redemption does something not similar at all. This is a sweeping movie that takes us across generations inside a prison. It's a movie about confinement, justice, and freedom.
In the movie, Andy Dufresne escapes, and we cheer, but there's a lot of film left. The ending comes when Red finally gets over his own hump and passes the parole board. That's his emotional hurdle and his physical escape.
We follow Red's voiceover as it takes us to the tree, and then on the road to Mexico. The movie could end with him on the outside, on the road, but early test audiences wanted more, so they went back and filmed that final shot on the beach with Andy and Red uniting.
It's the perfect final image for the film and for the audience to see these men in the sunshine.
'The Shawshank Redemption'Credit: Columbia Pictures
A final movie I want to mention is Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister. This film about a guy who sleeps with his dead brother's girlfriend's sister and then regrets it is a touching comedy about friendship and family.
In the final moments, the trio of protagonists sits around on a bathroom floor, waiting for a pregnancy test to show results. Just when it does, they all begin to react—and the film cuts to black. When I first saw it in Boston's Coolidge Corner Theater, everyone gasped.
Many would call this a non-ending, but I disagree. We've seen the romance at the center resolve, we've seen the sisters become friends again, and we've seen this trio make their peace with the past and with whatever happens in the future. For me, leaving the movie here allows us to embody how we want it to end, and know that no matter what, it will all be okay.
'Your Sister's Sister'Credit: IFC Films
Ending Your TV pilot
Ending your TV pilot is so very different than ending your movie screenplay. TV pilots need to leave the audience wanting more, but they also need to have some unresolved issues so that a second episode feels necessary.
One tip, in general, would be to make sure there's a tangible goal achieved in your pilot, but an intangible goal left open. I would also focus a lot of the pilot on building a cast of characters who feel like they are necessary for the audience's life. Who do you want to hang out with, learn from, or have some sort of desire to live vicariously through?
In terms of the ending, focus on what needs to be resolved in the future—that means injecting some mystery. It's not all about the genre mystery, but something you want to see worked out in future episodes.
What's the big question this series asks and can continue to ask over multiple seasons?
Okay, time to look at specific examples.
The Best TV Pilot Ending Examples
As I sat here, I thought of all the best TV endings of all time. I wanted to pick obscure shows or things that had niche followings (Moral Oral, anyone?) but I didn't think that would be helpful.
First, let's check out the end of the Breaking Bad pilot. We all know this is one of the best TV drama pilots of all time. But aside from the character of Walter White, I think the most important achievement of the story is the end. Walter gets away with it, but goes home to his wife as a newly invigored man. He's been emasculated this whole time, and being dangerous makes him feel whole again.
We answer a small question—how will Walter pay for his treatment? But we ask a larger question that hangs over the series—how will he get away with this ruse?
'Breaking Bad'Credit: AMC
My favorite pilot I have ever seen comes from Mad Men.
It's a show focused on Donald Draper battling with himself. The entire pilot is centered on him womanizing, brainstorming, and solving the tangible goal of a pitch. But at the very end of the episode, he goes home and we get the big reveal that he has a family.
This directly contradicts the behavior we have seen from him this entire time, and allows us to lure the audience into wanting to know more about this specific person, and what could make him this way.
'Mad Men'Credit: AMC
While we focused on two very stark dramatic stories, I think a comedy is in order.
The most successful sitcom of our era is Modern Family. The pilot episode of the sitcom introduces us to a few very different families who are raising children in very different ways. The final frame shows that this whole family is related to one another and that each week, we will see how they blend together.
The episode answers the tangible questions within each family but leaves us open to asking how the heck these people can all function together from week to week.
Modern Family lasted for 11 years with this one question. That's how important your pilot's end will be.
Summing Up How to End Your Screenplay
So what did we learn here? A great ending gives your audience an emotion that's usually tied to the same one your characters feel. Ending something takes time and careful planning. You want to pay off the theme of the movie or TV episode as well as give us one solid moment or image we remember.
The power is in the writers' hands, so make a decision you think will stick the landing and get us begging for more.
Got questions or other endings you want to be mentioned?
Let us know in the comments.
What's next? Get our free screenwriting eBook!
So much of what we're talking about on No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is summarized in our new eBook. It also helps guide you through a 10-week writing plan that will get your script actually finished.
- The Ultimate Slasher Film Screenplay Beat Sheet ›
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering Your Spec Screenplay ›
- Act Three 303: How to End Your Screenplay ›