The last thing anyone remembers from most movies is the ending. That’s why the ending is always the most spectacular battle possible. The ending needs to be big, needs to be personal, and needs to threaten someone the hero loves.
Paradoxically, the ending isn’t always the biggest battle. In “Star Wars,” the ending is the biggest battle with X-Wing and TIE fighters dogfighting around the Death Star, yet in “Die Hard,” John McClane’s confrontation with Hans the terrorist leader is fairly simple. John McClane has a pistol and shoots Hans. Thats’ a whole lot less spectacular than an earlier scene where John McClane is battling Hans and several other terrorists who are armed with machine guns.
What makes the ending of “Die Hard” so spectacular is that it ups the emotional stakes. Not only will there be only one winner (John McClane or Hans) but John McClane is at a huge disadvantage with only a pistol with limited ammunition. Because the villain is holding John McClane’s wife hostage and threatening to kill her, the ending may not be physically spectacular but it is emotionally spectacular.
So the ending of “Star Wars” looks like this:
- The biggest space battle of the movie takes place at the end
- Luke is being stalked by Darth Vader
- If Luke fails, Princess Leia will die when the Death Star blows up the rebel base
The ending of “Die Hard” looks like this:
- The ending isn’t the biggest battle, but it’s the most emotionally intense battle because both John McClane and Hans know this is going to end with one of them dying
- Hans is directly threatening John McClane rather than having one of the other terrorists do it for him
- If John McClane fails, Hans will kill John’s wife
Now study bad endings of other movies. Back in 2011 there was an action thriller called “Hanna,” which was about a girl trained from birth to be an assassin. The premise is intriguing enough, but the end fizzles and leaves a sour taste about the whole movie. Basically Hanna (the hero) confronts a woman who has been in charge of hunting Hanna down from the start. The problem is that the battle scene at the end is relatively dull.
First, Hanna has fought her way through multiple assailants, yet confronts the villain at the end with an arrow while the villain uses a pistol. There’s little action or fighting, so the battle scene is relatively dull.
Second, the battle is personal because the villain is trying to get control over Hanna, but it’s not quite clear what the villain wants to do with Hanna and why we should be so against this happening. This lack of clarity makes the villain’s goal less emotionally intense.
Third, there’s nothing personal at stake for the hero. If the villain wins, Hanna will either die or be captured, but nobody Hanna loves will be hurt. This weakens the ending emotionally to the point where the final outcome just makes us shrug our shoulders and forget the rest of the movie. If the ending is weak, the whole movie suddenly becomes weak, even if it was great up until that point.
Another bad ending is “The 5th Wave.” First, the hero never confronts the villain. Instead, the hero runs away as the villain shoots at her (and misses). Then the villain flies away and the hero does nothing to defeat the villain. Imagine how exciting “Star Wars” would have been if a minor character had blown up the Death Star while Luke watched. Without a battle, the ending of “The 5th Wave” is boring.
Second, the hero never confronts the villain. In fact, the closest the hero comes to seeing the villain is when the villain flies overhead in a helicopter. That’s about as exciting as watching Rocky Balboa sit at home watching TV while watching Apollo Creed get a heart attack in the boxing ring and falls to the ground. The ending must have the hero confront the villain. “The 5th Wave” fails to do that
Third, “The 5th Wave” is personal because the villain is not only shooting at the hero, but also the hero’s loved one, which is her younger brother. Yet shooting at the hero and the younger brother a few times from a helicopter before flying away hardly constitutes an exciting battle scene.
The ending in “The 5th Wave” is a complete let down in multiple ways. The rest of the movie isn’t that good either but the ending completely sinks the whole story. In “Hanna,” the early part of the movie is good but then it starts losing focus until the ending is too simple and dull to make us care about the earlier part of the movie.
So in your own screenplay, make sure your ending is exciting and big, personal with the villain directly threatening the hero, and emotional with the villain threatening a hero’s loved one. Follow those three principles and your ending will at least be exciting. Now you just have to make sure the rest of the your screenplay is just as exciting to set up the ending.