What makes a film like “Titanic” or “La La Land” so popular? It’s the emotional impact each story leaves yo with at the end. When a friend of mine was working as an extra during the filming of “Titanic,” he said most of the extras thought the movie was going to bomb because everyone already knew the ship was going to sink, so why would anyone want to see something they already knew about?
The trick with “Titanic” was that the sinking of the ship wasn’t the purpose of the story. Instead, the real story was about how the hero (Rose) learns to take control of her life after feeling trapped, heading into a marriage with a despicable man just because he’s rich. Rose goes from despair to near suicide until she finds hope and happiness. In a real fairy tale, Rose and Jack would have both survived and lived happily ever after, but that wouldn’t have created the biggest emotional impact.
The emotional impact comes from Jack dying and making Rose realize how precious life is and how she needs to honor his life by living her own life to the utmost as well. Nobody cares about a sinking ship, but everybody cares about learning how to dream and live again.
“La La Land” is just as magical at the end. Instead of the heroes finding happiness together, they find it apart, yet this keeps the story from feeling too sappy. The studio originally wanted a happy ending where the two meet again and stay together, but the screenwriter/director insisted on the original ending where the two both achieve their dreams but separately. When they meet again and realize they both achieved their dreams, there’s a moment of sadness but elation as well because they both succeeded, just not with each other. It’s a happy but sour moment at the same time, yet far more powerful emotionally than just having them cheerfully run off together and live happily ever after.
So if you want to create a powerful story, start with the ending. Not only ask yourself how it’s going to end visually, but how is it going to end emotionally? What feeling do you want the audience to feel and how will you achieve that effect?
Sometimes you can have a happy ending like in “Grease.” Sometimes you need a bittersweet, happy ending like in “Titanic” or “La La Land.” And sometimes you just need a dark ending typically found in horror stories like “It Follows.”
The emotional ending is far more important than the physical action that makes up your ending. “Star Wars” isn’t just exciting to watch the Death Star blow up but exciting to see how Luke finally trusts himself and embraces the Force to blow up the Death Star.
Emotion is everything. Design the biggest emotional impact possible for the end of your story and then it will likely be memorable for everyone involved.