A great story answers every question and fulfills every implied promise. A bad movie doesn’t. Here are some examples of what completeness means.
There’s a saying that if you show a gun, then it better go off before the end of the story. Otherwise there’s no purpose showing the gun. In “Thelma and Louise,” Thelma packs a pistol, holding it like the tail of a dead rat as she drops it in her purse. Later, that gun gets fired. That’s completeness. When movies don’t do this, they feel unsatisfying for some reason and flawed.
In the 1971 movie “Silent Running,” the story is about a scientist in charge of watching over the last remnants of Earth’s plants and wildlife in protective domes floating around in outer space. Suddenly, they get an order to destroy the forests and return back to Earth. Not wanting to do this, the hero kills the other three crew members, pretends he’s lost control of the ship, and runs off to hide behind Saturn. Sounds promising so far, but it’s incomplete.
The authorities believe the hero’s story that his ship has malfunctioned and they try to rescue him, yet they never discover the truth. Thus, the story feels incomplete.
A more modern example is Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” where the Jew Hunter is set up as the villain and one of the heroes is the French girl who escapes after watching her entire family get machine gunned around her. In the middle of the film, the French girl meets this Jew Hunter in a restaurant and it’s all she can do not to cry out in terror. Yet by the end of the film, this French girl never confronts the Jew Hunter for slaughtering her family. As a result, the film feels incomplete and not quite as satisfying.
Imagine if another pilot blew up the Death Star instead of Luke. Would the story feel as emotionally satisfying? Another example of incompleteness in “Inglorious Basterds” is Brad Pitt’s character. From the movie trailer, it appears as if Brad Pitt and his band of Inglorious Basterds will be the hero and focus of the film, but they’re not. At the end of the film, Brad Pitt gets the Jew Hunter, but they’ve never crossed paths before until the end so their conflict seems forced and sudden. It just feels incomplete.
Imagine if Princess Leia or Hans Solo blew up the Death Star instead of Luke, would the story feel as satisfying?
Keep your story complete. Everything set up early in your story must pay off in the end. That’s what makes “Pulp Fiction” superior to “Inglorious Basterds.” Both are excellent films, but “Pulp Fiction” is complete while “Inglorious Basterds” is a flawed film. Excellent, but flawed nonetheless.
Returning to the example of “Silent Running,” there’s no explanation for why the authorities wanted to destroy Earth’s last remaining wildlife. That’s a question that’s never answered. Even more ludicrous is that the hero is a scientist who has spent eight years caring for his forests, yet when the forests start dying, he’s puzzled until he realizes the plants are dying because the spaceship is behind Saturn and thus not getting the plants any sun. The big revelation at the end of the movie is that plants need sun to survive.
Watch the film yourself and you’ll see how silly that sounds, but it’s true, and it’s another example of incompleteness. The bad guy government wants to destroy the forests but the hero wants to save them, yet the hero never gets to confront and defeat the government authorities, leaving the story resolution incomplete. “Silent Running” is a dull, one-dimensional film that’s simply too incomplete to be memorable.
If you want to create a dull, boring movie, write a screenplay where you leave things incomplete. Better yet, write a screenplay that wraps up every question and every set up with an answer or a pay off. Then you’ll have the makings of a decent story.