The end is the most important part of a story since that’s the last part of the story that most people will remember. If you have a great story with a lousy ending, the lousy ending will taint the rest of the story. If you have a mediocre story with a great ending, that great ending will make the rest of the mediocre story look better.
There are two different ways your story can end:
- The hero fights the villain and wins
- The hero fights the villain and loses
Every ending the hero can either win or lose in a battle of some kind. In action, comedies, and horror stories, that final battle is often physical. In drama and mysteries, that final battle often emotional.
In any James Bond movie, James Bond has to fight the villain to the death. In any horror film, the hero often has to fight the villain to the death.
Yet in drama and mysteries, the final battle relies less on physical fighting. In “Knives Out,” the final battle occurs between the detective and the criminal when the detective finally unmasks the criminal. In a drama like “Green Book,” which is about a white man hired to drive a black pianist around the Deep South, the final battle occurs when the white man embraces the black man as a friend.
When the hero fights the villain and wins, that occurs only when the hero somehow changes for the better. This change allows the hero to win. In “Star Wars,” Luke finally trusts the Force and blows up the Death Star. In “Legally Blonde,” Elle finally trusts herself and traps a witness to prove her case. To defeat the villain, the hero must change.
What happens if the hero loses to the villain? That might seem like a tragedy, but often the hero actually gets what he or she really needed after all, and the act of losing was the only way to get what he or she wanted. Achieving this goal is what changes the hero for the better.
In “Rocky,” Rocky actually loses his boxing match with Apollo Creed. However, his main goal was to prove to himself that he’s not a bum so by standing on his feet against Apollo Creed (which no other boxer had ever done before), Rocky earned the respect of the world and that lets him prove to himself (and the world) that he’s not a bum after all.
So here are the three ways a story can end:
- The hero changes and uses that change to win
- The hero loses and fails to change (a tragedy)
- The hero loses but changes to become a better person
In “Star Wars” and “The Karate Kid,” the hero changes first and by embracing change, the hero can win.
In “Leaving Las Vegas,” the hero is an alcoholic who fails to change and loses in the end.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the hero actually loses to the villain. Yet by losing, the hero discovers that he’s got so many friends who will give him money that the hero finally changes by realizing friends are more valuable than money.
When plotting the ending for your screenplay, think about the traditional happy ending where the hero changes and that change allows the hero to win.
Then think of an alternate ending where your hero loses and fails to change, creating a tragedy.
Finally, think of how your hero could lose but wind up winning somehow by changing.
The traditional Hollywood ending is easy and predictable.
Creating a tragedy is harder. Having your hero lose but changing and becoming a better person can be the hardest solution of all, but can be the most emotionally satisfying because it’s the least predictable.
Come up with these three alternate endings for your story and see which one works best. Coming up with three alternative endings will give you a choice of the best ending, and that’s better than simply choosing one option that might not be right for your story after all.